Challenges after US troops withdrawal
PRESIDENT Biden has announced that the United States will withdraw all remaining military forces from Afghanistan before September 11, 2021 — likely marking a definitive end to America’s longest war just months before its two-decade anniversary.
The decision fundamentally changes the dynamics of the Afghan peace process, as the Taliban have defined their insurgency by opposition to perceived occupation by foreign troops.
With those troops leaving, will the Taliban negotiate with fellow Afghans or seek an outright military victory? And will the US troop withdrawal push Afghans to unify around preserving the current democratic constitution, or to seek deals that give the Taliban more power in a political settlement to the conflict? Troop withdrawal is ahead of schedule, but that’s “proving to be bad news for the overall political situation … and a setback for peace talks,” says Scott Worden of the United States Institute of Peace.
USIP hosted a discussion with leading experts on the immediate implications of these developments, as well as a look at what the future of the Afghan conflict and peace process might look like as U.S. troops begin a final withdrawal from the country.
On the diplomatic side, President Biden’s announcement comes on the heels of a major effort to increase momentum for the Afghan peace process.
Just one day prior to the decision, the United Nations, Turkey and Qatar had announced dates for the Istanbul Conference on the Afghanistan Peace Process, where high-ranking officials from the Afghan government and Taliban were meant to meet to discuss the situation.
After weeks of refusing to confirm, a Taliban spokesperson subsequently announced the insurgent group will not participate in any foreign conferences on Afghanistan’s future until all troops are gone, leaving the fate of the Istanbul talks — as well as that of the Afghan Republic —even more uncertain.
Continuous targeting of schools, government offices, military camps and hospitals is part of a disturbing trend of attacks in the area.
The bombing of a school killed at least 85 and injured around 150 — mostly young girls — and coincided with concerns of escalating violence as the United States withdraws combat troops from Afghanistan. No group claimed responsibility for the deadly attack.
President Biden’s announcement about troops withdrawal by September 11 has many Afghans, regional and international observers re-thinking and warning of a quick collapse of the Afghan State and a new phase in the country’s civil war and challenges ahead.
President Biden has made clear that the United States continues to support the Afghan government and democratic system, and, to that end, the Administration has indicated it would request $300 million from Congress in additional civilian aid.
But Biden explicitly de-linked U.S. troops from that equation — stating that they would not be “a bargaining chip between warring parties.”
Two decades have seen more than 2,300 US military lives lost, tens of thousands wounded, countless Afghan casualties running in hundreds of thousands and more than $2 trillion in taxpayer money spent on the useless war.
After all that, the last US troops to depart — some of them surely born after the 9/11 attacks — will leave parts of Afghanistan under the control of the same Taliban leaders who were there in 2001.
Where did the Taliban come from? The Soviets occupied Afghanistan during the 1980s and ultimately withdrew after resistance from fighters, collectively known as Mujahadeen. Among them was Osama bin Laden.
The US funnelled arms and help to these anti-Soviet forces. But in the post-Soviet power vacuum, the Taliban was formed under the leadership of Mullah Mohammed Omar, who wanted to create an Islamic society, expel foreign influences like TV and music from the country and impose a repressive version of Islamic law that is particularly harsh on women. By 2001, they controlled nearly all of the country.
Even after two decades of bloody war, colossal loss of money and un-necessary killings, people want to know as to why did the US invade Afghanistan in the first place? It was Al-Qaeda, the international terror network, not Afghanistan’s Taliban — a regional Islamic political and military force—that attacked the US on 9/11-(still a big question mark).
But the masterminds of the attack, including Osama bin Laden, had been operating out of under the cover of the Taliban, who refused to give up bin Laden in the wake of the attack.
According of many security and military analysts, the civilian government in Afghanistan will face multiple challenges in running the country without a understanding, settlement and agreement with Talibans.
The invasion, led by US forces with help from NATO allies, was framed specifically as a step in a war on terror. The number of US troops in Afghanistan has fluctuated quite a bit at times.
President Barack Obama came to office promising to refocus the US military there over Iraq, where Bush also invaded.
At times during the Obama administration there were about 100,000 US troops deployed to Afghanistan.
Obama tried to end US combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014, but left more troops in the country than he planned.
His successor — President Donald Trump — sent new US troops there before largely drawing them down and engaging in peace talks with the Taliban.
In fact, the US has been involved in peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government for years.
The simplest explanation of the US goal in Afghanistan is to keep it from again becoming a hotbed for terror groups like Al-Qaeda. When the US left Iraq, for instance, the power vacuum helped lead to the rise of ISIS there.
But what the US has been trying to accomplish in Afghanistan, and the strategy to do it, has changed with each President.
That aimlessness comes through in an internal government study — The Afghanistan Papers — from 2015 that was uncovered and published by The Washington Post in 2019.
It suggests government leaders have long misled Americans about what was achievable in Afghanistan.
In unvarnished interviews they never thought would become public, American military leaders told government viewers the US was unprepared for Afghanistan and that the American people did not know the “magnitude of dysfunction” in carrying out the war.
While the US will continue to try to broker a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban, September may now be the de facto deadline for those talks.
Biden is overruling military commanders who worry the Taliban will overrun the Afghan government once American firepower is gone.
A US intelligence community assessment released recently also shares those concerns.
According to assessment of military and security analysts, “The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield and the Afghan Government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support”.
— The writer is former DG (Emigration) and consultant ILO, IOM.