This editorial first appeared in The Dallas Morning News. Guest editorials don’t necessarily reflect the Denton Record-Chronicle’s opinions.

It’s been less than a month since President Joe Biden announced he was withdrawing all U.S. troops from Afghanistan and ending what he and his predecessor have called a “forever war.”

At the time, we voiced our strong opposition to Biden’s decision, writing that a full withdrawal of U.S. troops will “sadly, but almost certainly, come back to haunt his administration and the people of Afghanistan.”

What we feared most was how the Taliban would target not only those brave Afghans who assisted U.S. and NATO troops, diplomats and contractors in the long struggle to bring peace, prosperity and liberal democracy to Afghanistan. But, also, how the Taliban and other Islamic extremists would target the gains in education and human rights made by Afghan girls and women.

Upon hearing the news of total U.S. withdrawal, former President George W. Bush said in an April 20 interview, “My first reaction was, wow, these girls are going to have real trouble with the Taliban. A lot of gains have been made, and so I’m deeply concerned about the plight of women and girls in that country. … All I know is the Taliban, when they had the run of the place, they were brutal.”

We got a glimpse of that brutality May 8 when a bomb blast outside a Kabul girls’ school killed at least 85 people and injured more than 150, many of them schoolgirls between the ages of 11 and 15. Many who attended the school were members of the Hazara Shiite minority who welcomed the U.S. presence in their country and the educational opportunities their children have received.

While the Taliban hasn’t claimed responsibility, the horrific scene is one that could repeat itself over and over once U.S. and NATO troops are gone.

Eighteen-year-old Nekbakht Alizada was one of the students killed in the blast. As her grief-stricken brother, Mukhtar, told The Washington Post, she was proud of her education and the opportunities it provided. “She would tell us we don’t have to be poor like our parents; we don’t have to be illiterate,” he said.

“She had big dreams,” her mother, Rahila Hydari, told the Post after witnessing the blast that killed her daughter. “It was like a doomsday that I saw with my own eyes. Schoolgirls were fleeing back into school, crying and screaming.”

Friday came news of another deadly bombing, this time at a mosque on the outskirts of Kabul. The Taliban say they were not responsible for the blast that killed at least 12 during Friday prayers, and U.S. officials say other Islamic militants, such as Islamic State or al-Qaeda, may be behind the bombing.

But one thing is clear, as military historian and former Bush adviser Eliot Cohen wrote recently in The Atlantic, long after U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, “The war will grind on, with the edge going to the brutal fundamentalist warriors of the Taliban, who will torture and slaughter even as they repeal the advances made in women’s education and secularism in any form.”

That war, Cohen continued, will not be fought by Afghans alone. “China, Iran, Pakistan, India and the Central Asian republics have their own stakes in this war, and not all of them want to see an outright Taliban victory. So they will fund clients and proxies, as will, in all likelihood, the United States. And the people of Afghanistan will continue to suffer.”

Sadly, as the war continues without U.S. service members in Kabul and elsewhere to protect the most vulnerable, it’s girls and young women like Nekbakht Alizada, who have seen the greatest gains, who will suffer the most.

In other words, pulling all troops out of Afghanistan won’t end the “forever war” in that faraway land. It may, however, turn the clock back to what Bush rightly called the “brutal” treatment of girls and women in a land terrorized by extremists.

That would be a tragic — and painfully ironic — ending to what was a noble cause launched after the atrocities of 9/11 called “Operation Enduring Freedom.”

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