As of Monday, the United States has gone a year without a combat-related casualty in Afghanistan, even as the Taliban warns of renewed attacks should the U.S. renege on its May withdrawal deadline.
Since the beginning of the war with Afghanistan in 2001, over 2,300 U.S. soldiers have lost their lives to the conflict. In nearly two decades, the seemingly endless bloodshed has been reduced to a relative trickle.
Army Sgts. 1st Class Javier Gutierrez and Antonio Rodriguez were the last American soldiers to die in combat, both of whom died February 8, 2020. Within weeks, the Trump administration brokered a deal with the Taliban to see international forces led by the U.S. fully withdraw by May 1, 2021.
The agreement required the Taliban to cease attacks on foreign military personnel, and prevent al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a staging ground for its activities. While the deaths have stopped, a surge of violence threatens the tenuous peace, as United Nations officials claim al-Qaeda remains “heavily embedded” within the Taliban.
A report from a Congressional panel has called for a delay to the withdrawal, prioritizing “all parties fulfilling their commitments, including the Taliban making good on its promises to contain terrorist groups and reduce violence against the Afghan people, and making compromises to achieve a political settlement,” rather than “an inflexible timeline.”
In late November, the Taliban warned that any decision by President Joe Biden to undo the previous administration’s agreement would result in renewed conflict.
“The peace agreement was a big change and it stopped the war; it was not with Donald Trump, but with the United States government,” Mohammad Naeem Wardak told Khaama Press. “We believe that [the] Biden administration will respect this agreement; but if the Biden administration does not accept this agreement, our war against the United States will resume and will continue until they leave Afghanistan.”
Shortly after President Joe Biden’s inauguration in January, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the U.S. was “taking a hard look at the extent to which the Taliban are complying” with the deal, and that they were evaluating “our force posture and our diplomatic strategy” in Afghanistan.
U.S. troops in Afghanistan have already been reduced to roughly 2,500 as of January 2021, but Washington must now decide on its next move. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has said insurgents “will definitely return to war” if the U.S. “rejects this deal,” but did not comment on a potentially delayed withdrawal.
Former marine and research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, Adam Weinstein, has warned that the cessation of American casualties does not guarantee “diminished risks in the future,” and that a refusal to remove troops by the May 1 withdrawal date would pull “U.S. troops back into a violent counterinsurgency.”
In a May 2020 “internal gathering,” Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai — a Taliban leader involved in the Trump administration’s agreement — exulted in what he characterized as the country’s impending victory.
“God has helped us defeat three super powers in the last century. The third super power that we are currently confronted with is also on the verge of defeat, inshallah [God willing],” he said. “You will soon hear they also will withdraw [from Afghanistan] either of their own accord or they will be forced out.”
Last month, Stanekzai confirmed Weinstein’s fear. If the U.S. does not remove the remainder of its forces by the agreed upon deadline, he said, “we will kill them.”