BRUSSELS: At its start, America’s war in Afghanistan was about retribution for 9/11. Then it was about shoring up a weak government and its weak army so that Osama bin Laden‘s al-Qaida could never again threaten the United States.
Now it’s about over. With bin Laden long since dead and the United States not suffering another major attack, President Joe Biden is promising to end America’s longest war and move on to what he believes are bigger, more consequential challenges posed by a resurgent Russia and a rising China.
Even so, by withdrawing the remaining few thousand US troops in Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Biden is taking a calculated risk that extremists in Afghanistan can be countered by US and partner forces elsewhere in the region – and that he won’t become the president who underestimated the resilience and reach of extremists who still aim to attack the United States.
CIA Director William Burns told Congress on Wednesday the US unavoidably will lose some intelligence leverage against the extremist threat, although he suggested the losses would be manageable.
“The US government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That’s simply a fact,” Burns said. “It is also a fact, however, that after withdrawal, whenever that time comes, the CIA and all of our partners in the US government will retain a suite of capabilities, some of it remaining in place, some of them that we will generate, that can help us to anticipate and contest any rebuilding effort.”
There were 2,500 to 3,000 US troops in Afghanistan when Biden took office, the smallest number since early in the war. The number peaked at 100,000 during President Barack Obama’s first term. As US war casualties have declined, so has the American public’s attention. The war was barely mentioned during last year’s presidential contest, and pulling the plug may prove politically popular.
Yet worries remain. Stephen Biddle, a Columbia University professor who has advised US commanders in Afghanistan, says it’s possible al-Qaida could re-establish its base structure in Afghanistan once the Americans and their coalition


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