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America’s ‘forever war’ is a long way from over

US foreign policy updates

The grisly suicide bombing of civilians trying to flee Afghanistan at Kabul airport has made a dismal situation far worse. At least 13 US military personnel and 79 Afghans are dead, and more than 150 others injured. This is the highest one-day death toll among Americans in the country since 2011. The 20-year military entanglement in Afghanistan began, in effect, with a terrorist attack in which Americans were killed. It ends with one too. The body count this time is lower, but the effects will still be far-reaching.

The attack compounds the humiliation for the US, and the allies left with no choice but to go along with its overhasty withdrawal. For President Joe Biden it intensifies the questions over the poor planning of such a massive evacuation and the decision to go ahead with the pullout. It makes it even less likely that the US will be able to evacuate all US nationals still in Afghanistan, let alone thousands more domestic staff who assisted its forces. UK officials have conceded its mission will have to leave behind hundreds of eligible Afghans, and some British nationals.

The success of Thursday’s attack, claimed by a group, Isis-K, whose name is unfamiliar to most people outside the country, intensifies the concern that Afghanistan will again become a haven for jihadi groups. On the heels of the Taliban’s humbling of the American military leviathan, it emboldens jihadi groups elsewhere. It also exposes the folly of Biden’s hope that a line can be drawn under the Afghanistan war.

The “forever war” was never likely to end in a forever peace. It now seems likely to continue, in a different form, with a renewed jihadi threat. It may feel much farther away: no more will thousands of American families have sons and daughters on Afghan soil. It will certainly be less visible domestically, unless there are attacks on US citizens. But it will be no less real.

In Afghanistan, the US must wage the next phase of conflict with no assets and no trusted partners on the ground. Washington will rely on the Taliban as local enforcer, a foe it has fought for two decades. With the US military presence removed, and the Taliban an undisciplined force, it would be wishful thinking to rely on the commitment made by the militants last year to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a base for al-Qaeda or other jihadis.

The ability of the Taliban leadership, which negotiated the agreement with the Trump administration, to contain its own troops has yet to be tested. Relations between jihadi groups in the country are opaque and transient. The Taliban are determined to fight Isis-K. But another Taliban affiliate — the Haqqani network which Taliban leaders put in charge of Kabul’s security — has suspected links to Isis-K.

The White House insists it can run a counter-terrorism campaign using “over-the-horizon” military and intelligence assets based elsewhere. Surveillance and attack technologies such as drones have advanced since the pre-9/11 era. But the US can no longer rely on help from ex-Soviet central Asian republics, which are far more autocratic and aligned with Russia than in 2001. Pakistan, too, is a trickier partner. And the intelligence failure to predict the Taliban’s reconquest of Afghanistan raises doubts over the ability of the US military to wage a campaign from afar.

The reinstallation of theocratic rule, the restoration of Afghanistan as a potential jihadi hub, a chaotic evacuation and a terrorist attack were not how the US mission there was supposed to end. In less than two weeks, all have come to pass. The consequences will play out over many years.

Video: Highlights of an FT subscriber webinar on Afghanistan

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