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The Guardian view on the Afghanistan withdrawal: an unwinnable war | Editorial

Joe Biden has called time on America’s longest war. The decision exposes the limits of US power and leaves an uncertain future

Britain’s former prime minister Harold Macmillan is said to have told colleagues that the first law of politics should be “never invade Afghanistan”. It was a lesson that imperial Britain had learned the hard way, following three separate casualty-strewn incursions in the 19th and 20th centuries. After 11 September 2001, when al-Qaida radicals, based in Afghanistan and protected by the Taliban government, successfully attacked New York and Washington, the lesson was quickly forgotten.

Instead, the United States, backed by Britain and Nato, launched a retaliatory campaign to destroy al-Qaida and overthrow the Taliban. After spectacular initial success, marked by the unexpected collapse of Kabul and massive bombing of the al-Qaida presence in the eastern mountains, the military campaign became overcommitted and, in the end, even faced defeat. Western ambitions were long on idealised visions of the postwar order, but short on a grasp of regional realities and military capabilities. The Taliban regrouped and rearmed. Long attritional years of civil conflict followed. This week, almost 20 years in, Joe Biden has decided America has at last had enough of an unwon and unwinnable war. He is bringing the troops home. America’s allies, including Britain, will now follow the US through the exit door.

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