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US withdrawal: Afghanistan’s fate remains unclear

As US troops prepare to leave the country by September 11th, many Afghans fear what the Taliban’s next moves will be

by: Stephanie Iancu President Biden has announced his intention of putting an end to American involvement in what is currently the United States’ longest ongoing war by September 11th — twenty years after the Al Qaeda attack on the twin towers. However, he also added that

the US will "not conduct a hasty rush to the exit."

He then went on to say that “War in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multigenerational undertaking” and that almost all of the remaining 2’500 troops will be leaving Afghanistan in the coming months.

Nevertheless, their numbers had already been largely reduced and no American soldier has been killed in combat in over a year. The UK will follow, withdrawing its remaining 750 troops still present on Afghan soil, along with forces sent by other NATO allies.

Photo courtesy of Amber Clay via Pixabay.

Afghanistan has faced multiple different forms of political turmoil throughout history. Starting with the British-imposed rule in the 19th century, followed by the pro-Soviet leadership in the early 1970s and the Soviet invasion that caused the 1979-1989 civil war, which was then replaced by the authoritarian Islamic Emirate established by the Taliban from 1996 to 2001.

Many felt that the millenium would bring renewed hope for a durable peace, with American troops invading the country in October 2001 — their initial intent being ousting Al Qaeda after the September 11th attack. But this optimism was short-lived as the country plunged once again into unrest as the Taliban — which it turns out was never truly defeated by U.S. troops — regrouped and attempted to regain control of certain territories.

The February 2020 agreement between the Taliban and the Trump administration was supposed to provide a precise timeline for the progressive withdrawal of U.S. troops — initially set to end on May 1st, 2021— in exchange for counterterrorism measures and efforts on the behalf of Taliban spokesmen to start discussions with the Kabul government.

But it seems that this initial deal has fallen short in several ways and that the deadline will be delayed to September 11th.

Taliban representatives have expressed their frustration with the delay and experts fear that it may cause them to take retaliation measures against remaining U.S. and Afghan troops still on site.

Many believe that American military presence is the only thing keeping the current government and its armed forces afloat. Even an assessment by U.S. intelligence last week acknowledged that

“The Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.”

The Taliban see the current government led by President Ashraf Ghani — which they never officially recognized — as a puppet controlled by the U.S. and refuse to commit to any type of power-sharing arrangement with them. This only strengthens the mistrust of the Kabul government, whose main fear is that the Taliban will make moves to seize power by force after U.S. withdrawal.

The Taliban already believe that military victory is assured as many government-led armed forces have abandoned or been forced to give up several checkpoints and bases in recent months. American funding of the Afghan military — which amounts to approximately 4$ billion a year — is also in question as it is unclear whether Congress will still be willing to fund a war they are no longer taking part in.

The U.S. could also face threats on their own soil according to the Afghan Study Group, which was mandated by Congress to further assess the situation. Findings suggest that

withdrawing troops could potentially reignite the terrorist threat to the US homeland within “18 months to three years.”

Conversely, it also seems that the Taliban itself is considerably weaker than it was when taking Kabul in 1996 and many of its leaders and representatives recognize that they will also need international recognition and aid if they are to govern the country once again. Furthermore, many regional militias and warlords — who have not pledged allegiance to either of the two factions thus far — currently control certain rural areas and have chosen to combat both government and Taliban forces in order to defend what they see as their territory.

Fort in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Sohaib Ghyasi via Unsplash.

Many Afghans also fear the return of oppressive laws and the dismantling of democratic institutions and rights established in the early 2000s. Amongst them, women are those facing the most potential existential disruptions, with many anticipating a withdrawal of their access to schools (of which girls currently make up 40% of students), higher education institutions and jobs, and a return of the oppressive conditions imposed on them during the 1996-2001 regime. Renewed and violent Taliban practices towards women can already be observed in certain areas of the country currently under their control, where many women have been victims of lashings imposed by so-called "morality officials".

Only four women are currently taking part in the cease-fire negotiations between the Kabul government and the Taliban and there has been no specific agreement on a potential provision in order to protect women so far. As expressed by Member of Parliament Raihana Azad:

“All the time, women are the victims of men’s wars. But they will be the victims of their peace, too.”

So far, the Taliban have deliberately avoided directly attacking larger cities as the negotiations with US and Kabul officials are still ongoing. But with the fast approaching September 11th deadline, they may be preparing to engage in a new phase of their invasion plan in the coming months.

Morale among Afghan security forces is faltering and the current peace talks taking place in Qatar seem to be reaching a stalemate.

Those set to commence in Turkey and the end of the month may not even take place, with certain Taliban representatives refusing to confirm their presence.

The ongoing conflict has already caused the loss of 2,300 US troops, 60,000 members of the Afghan security and nearly twice as many civilians and it is still unclear how many more losses and destruction the Afghan population will be facing in the future.

Regrettably, it seems that for the time being no simple peaceful outcome is possible and fighting and political unrest may still wreak havoc in a country where countless lives have already been lost.

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