The Troop Withdrawal Won’t Be the End of the U.S. Military Presence in Afghanistan. History Suggests There's a Better Way Forward

Photo Credit: Steve Castillo

When President Biden boldly defied his military advisors and announced on April 14 that the American military presence in Afghanistan will end on Sept. 11, 2021, many Americans took the decision as welcome news of the conclusion of America’s seemingly endless war in the country.

But the devil, as always, was in the details: within days, we learned that though troops will leave, the Pentagon, American spy agencies and American allies will maintain a “less visible” presence in the country. The departure will not include the  thousand troops maintained in the country “off the books,” as Pentagon sources told the New York Times, including elite Army Rangers working for both the Pentagon and the CIA. More troops will remain positioned in neighboring countries, and attack planes will be within rapid reach, forewarned of “insurgent fighters” by armed surveillance drones. Civilian contractors may also play a role on the ground.

These measures are meant to assure Americans that Biden still has his eye on “the terrorist threat.” Leaving aside the fact that Americans confront domestic terrorism with much greater frequency than terrorism from abroad, these plans are part of a long history of reluctance to walk back a global imperial presence. That past both demonstrates and assures that a more discreet American presence will be a provocation rather than a source of security.

The British laid the foundation for covert empire in the region from the Mediterranean to Afghanistan. They conquered much of the Middle East from the Ottoman Empire during World War I, when anticolonial sentiment around the world was potent. But since it was no longer politically feasible to annex territories outright as colonies, Britain ruled these new conquests as “mandate territories”—territories judged not yet ready for self-government and in need of tutelage from the victor powers, with the sanction of the new League of Nations. Their administration from the British Colonial Office, however, made the term a rather transparent fig leaf.