The histories are already being written, but for now, two moments encapsulate the closing moments of America’s longest war. One was the eerie, lonely night-vision image of the last US soldier boarding the military’s final flight from Afghanistan. The other came a day earlier, when a retaliatory strike targeting Islamic State reportedly claimed the lives of 10 civilians, including at least six children. Together, they convey the sense of hopelessness and waste, after almost 20 years and $2tn, the carelessness which too often characterised both the US presence and its withdrawal, and the costs to Afghans.
Though Donald Trump set the clock for departure ticking, Joe Biden’s timing owed more to symbolism than pragmatism. The president promised that the US military would leave before 11 September – the 20th anniversary of the al-Qaida terrorist attacks that led the US to topple the Taliban.
Far from drawing a line under the war, the choice of date and the rushed, chaotic withdrawal have underscored its toll, most critically on Afghan lives, but also on America’s standing. A country already tarnished by the ascent of President Trump and then the assault by his supporters on the Capitol on 6 January 2021 and by the disastrous response to Covid, looks further diminished, reduced to bickering with one of its closest allies over who bears more responsibility for the scores of Afghans and 13 US personnel who died in the bombing at Kabul airport.
Above all, though the Biden administration talks up the achievements of its evacuation programme in airlifting more than 120,000 people, many – American citizens, Afghan allies and other vulnerable Afghans such as civil society activists – are left there. They and the rest of Afghanistan awoke on Tuesday to the new reality, with a triumphant Taliban promising a different approach while their fighters commit atrocities and rivals jockey for power.
For all the failures of the American intervention, many in Afghanistan had begun to forge a better way of life, and to hope for freedom and peace there. Many who had dedicated themselves to rebuilding their country have now fled abroad. Others cannot.
Over the last two decades, tens of thousands of Afghan civilians have lost their lives. They have suffered not only at the hands of the Taliban, but also of Afghan government forces and the US military. The US has said that it is not in a position to dispute reports that the drone strike on Sunday night claimed civilian lives; what is certain is that, since 2001, both US solo and joint operations have claimed too many innocent lives without even proper acknowledgment, let alone reparation.
America’s responsibilities do not end with its departure. Its first duty is to do all it can, within its very limited means, to support those still in Afghanistan. Whatever can be done to hold the Taliban to their pledges must be done. Its second duty is to take responsibility for its own actions, beginning with the latest drone strike. Accountability, honesty and restitution are required. This is all the more important as it contemplates an “over the horizon” counter-terrorism effort, aiming to tackle renewed threats in Afghanistan from afar – increasing the risks. Though the US has ended its two-decade conflict, it must not turn its back on Afghans who continue to live with the consequences.