In April 2021, President Joe Biden announced that the United States would begin its withdrawal from Afghanistan – as obligated by a February 2020 agreement negotiated with the Taliban – beginning on May 1 and continuing until September 11, the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks.
In an address regarding the reasons for the withdrawal, Biden described the belief that the United States had entered into “mission creep” in Afghanistan; having defeated the Taliban in the early days of the war, they had begun to pursue other, open-ended objectives such as supporting the Afghan government under Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani. While Biden indicated that the decision to withdraw would come with consequences, he underscored that the United States would continue to provide military and financial support to the Ghani administration and the Afghan military.
By most accounts, the U.S. and NATO withdrawal, which began in early May in accordance with the agreement, has been quick and efficient. The Pentagon has previously indicated that all American troops could be gone by July, two months ahead of schedule.
However, it is indisputable that the Taliban have viewed the U.S. withdrawal as an opportunity to attack. Beginning in the spring of 2021, in direct violation of the February 2020 agreement, the group has launched a massive offensive across the country, expelling Afghan government forces from many rural areas and launching raids on larger cities. Deborah Lyons, Head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, indicated that 50 of the nation’s 370 districts had been fully taken over by the Taliban, and other estimates show that more than half of the country is contested by the group. Local sources described “mass surrenders” of government troops.
Lyons ominously pointed out that the areas the militant group had seized surrounded major Afghan cities: "Those districts that have been taken surround provincial capitals, suggesting that the Taliban are positioning themselves to try and take these capitals once foreign forces are fully withdrawn." One city Lyons cited was Kunduz, which the Taliban briefly seized in a 2015 offensive that was widely regarded as a humiliating failure for the Afghan government.
Over the past week, the Taliban have made further progress: they have captured Shir Khan Bandar, the main border crossing between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The area’s capture is a sign of the Taliban’s growing reach; their base of support is among the Pashtun-majority areas in the country’s south, and their ability to capture and hold territory in the far north is a troubling sign for the Ghani administration.
In a statement on Monday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby underlined that the U.S. military still intended to withdraw by the September deadline. However, he indicated that the pace of withdrawal was subject to local conditions, and could change depending on Taliban activity: “If there need to be changes made to the pace, or to the scope and scale of the retrograde, on any given day or in any given week, we want to maintain the flexibility to do that.”
Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for The National Interest.