In Today's Issue: Biden Defends Afghanistan Pullout, Says “Buck Stops With Me”

The following story appeared in the [post_published] issue of The Daily Juice. The text is from the 9th-10th grade version. To access the other grade levels, interactive vocabulary (words in bold), quiz questions, and more, sign up for The Juice.

President Biden, declaring “the buck stops with me,” stood solidly behind his decision to fully withdraw US troops from 🍊 Afghanistan as the Taliban overran Kabul and fueled violence at the city’s international airport. Speaking at the White House Monday, Biden blamed Afghan leaders for failing to establish a cohesive government in the 20 years of US military presence.

Biden said he has long argued for a “narrow” US strategy in the Middle Eastern country. He said the US mission was not “nation-building.” Biden noted that the Afghan army failed to mount a significant defense against a sweeping assault from the Islamist extremist group. “American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves,” he said.

The US spent $2.26 trillion in Afghanistan, much of it in an attempt to shore up a US-allied democratic government. Nearly 2,500 US troops lost their lives in that endeavor. But, Biden said, “No amount of military force would deliver a stable, secure Afghanistan.” On Sunday, as Taliban fighters closed in, civilians stormed the airport and desperately attempted to board flights out of the city. Some clung to moving planes, and seven of them reportedly died.

Many Afghans fear that extremists will carry out revenge killings against reformers and those who helped the US. Biden said the US would evacuate thousands of American nationals and Afghans in the coming days, but experts said many Afghans will be left behind and exposed to Taliban violence.

What is Afghanistan?

It is a mountainous, landlocked country in the Middle East that has been war-torn for decades. Officially called the Islamic
Republic of Afghanistan, its capital is Kabul and it is the world’s 37th most populous country with roughly 38 million people, about the same as California. It has six bordering countries: Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Pakistan, and China.

Map by Gerald J. Coleman from Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Public Domain courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
What is Afghanistan known for?
In recent decades, the country has been known for its enduring civil war involving the Taliban, a hardline Islamic group that captured Kabul in 1996 before being removed by coalition forces led by the US in 2001.
Beyond this everlasting war, Afghanistan is also known for its
Asian pomegranates and as the world’s leading producer of the illicit drug opium from opium poppy harvests. The Taliban is estimated to earn between $100 million and $700 million per year from opium sales. In fact, more land is used for opium harvests in Afghanistan than is used for coca cultivation in all of Latin America.
Why did the US invade Afghanistan in 2001?
The US led a coalition of forces that launched an intense bombing campaign in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001. Called “Operation Enduring Freedom” by the US military, the invasion came in  response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York City and Washington, DC. Responsibility for the attacks rested with al-Qaida, a terrorist organization led by Osama bin Laden that was based in Afghanistan. At the time, the country was ruled by the Taliban, which protected al-Qaida’s operations. The Afghanistan bombings, followed by a ground-force invasion, were considered the opening salvo in America’s vaunted “War on Terror.”
What was life like under Taliban rule for Afghans?
The Taliban imposed its extreme version of Islam on the entire country and perpetrated countless human rights abuses against Afghanistan’s people, especially women, girls, and ethnic Hazaras. Public executions for those who did not comply with the Taliban’s authority were routine. During the Taliban’s rule, large numbers of Afghans lived in utter poverty, and as many as 4 million are believed to have suffered from starvation.
What has occurred in the years since the US-led invasion?
By early December 2001, the US invasion had forced the Taliban to flee Kabul, and all its strongholds had been overtaken by ground forces. Most Taliban forces retreated into the mountains of nearby Pakistan, but they did not flee forever. A new US-backed government assumed control of Afghanistan in 2004, but the Taliban still had great support in areas around the Pakistani border, and the group has been supported by those hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the opium and heroin trade, as well as mining and taxes.
As the Taliban carried out more and more suicide attacks, international forces working with Afghan troops struggled to counter the threat the re-energized group posed. In 2014, at the end of what was the bloodiest year in Afghanistan since 2001, North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces, worried about an endless Afghanistan mission, officially ended their involvement, leaving it to the Afghan army and a few thousand US troops to fight the Taliban. That gave the Taliban even greater momentum, as they seized territory and detonated bombs against government and civilian targets. By 2018, journalists reported the Taliban was openly active across 70% of Afghanistan.
Why has the Afghanistan War lasted so long?
At times, it appeared that the Taliban could be defeated. In late 2009, President Obama announced a troop "surge" raising the number of American soldiers in Afghanistan to more than 100,000. That surge helped to drive the Taliban out of parts of southern Afghanistan, but US forces could not remain at that level forever. Until the recent withdrawal ordered by President Biden, the US had just over 3,000 soldiers to help keep the Taliban from again taking over Kabul.
As American troops slowly began coming home, the Taliban regrouped. And when NATO’s international forces withdrew from fighting, Afghan forces left to lead the charge were easily overwhelmed.
Meanwhile, the US has flooded the country with billions in aid, trying to revamp the government and enable a democracy to form and flourish. A number of charities were established and a free press was encouraged. This effort did help to modernize the country. Women have far more rights and freedoms, electricity now runs to nearly every home and business, and education systems for children are stronger. But Afghanistan’s weak central government never developed into a peaceful, cohesive democracy, largely because central political leadership is beset with many tribal divisions. This raised questions about the overall effectiveness of the US strategy over the past two decades.
What did Biden do?
Biden, like Presidents Trump and Obama before him, vowed to end America’s involvement in Afghanistan’s civil war. He ordered the withdrawal of all US troops, and that withdrawal now is nearly complete.
What happened to al-Qaida in Afghanistan?
US and NATO forces successfully suppressed much of al-Qaida’s operations in Afghanistan. About 400-600 al-Qaida fighters remain, according to United Nations Security Council estimates. But experts say their strength and danger to the US are greatly diminished.
How much money has the US devoted to the Afghanistan effort?
Since the initial invasion, the US has spent $1 trillion training and equipping Afghan forces, according to Biden. However, the Brown University Costs of War project reports that the US has spent $2.26 trillion overall. That figure includes $815.7 billion in direct war-fighting costs and $143 billion for nation-building, which involves infrastructure projects and training Afghan military forces. The US has needed to borrow heavily to fund the war effort. Already, the government has forked over $530 billion in interest payments on that borrowing.
How many Americans and others have died since the American involvement?
Since 2001, 2,448 Americans have been killed and some 20,722 have been wounded. According to the UN, more than 100,000 civilians have been killed or injured since 2009.
Does everyone support the withdrawal?
No. Critics are concerned that the withdrawal is doing more harm than good, allowing the Taliban to again control Afghanistan. Some critics argue that the US should have maintained several thousand troops in Afghanistan to prevent this from happening. They worry that, with the Taliban again in control, militants and terrorists again could use the country as a staging ground for new attacks against the US.

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