Script: Dr. SMITA, Strategic Analyst on Af-Pak Affairs
The announcement made by US President Joe Biden for a complete withdrawal of the American troops from Afghanistan, in a phased manner latest by September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the attack on the twin towers, reflects the recent US belief that there can be no military solution to Afghanistan’s problem.
Mr. Biden announced his decision saying that the US “went to war with clear goals” and has “achieved those objectives,” and now, “the withdrawal will be conducted in a safe and responsible manner that ensures the protection of our forces.” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, however, called the withdrawal “a complex operation and not without risk.” There are about 2,500-3,500 US troops in Afghanistan at present, along with NATO force of 7,000 troops. A coordinated withdrawal of all forces will take place under the present order by the US President.
Earlier, the Trump administration had agreed to full troops withdraw by May 1, as a part of the deal, on the condition that the Taliban would prevent Al Qaeda or any other group from operating in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s agreeing to hold a dialogue on power-sharing with the Afghan government. However, the Biden administration has not put any conditions for withdrawal.
Although this withdrawal would mean an end to America’s longest war, the implications for Afghanistan’s hard-won progress are immense and many fear the possibility of a rejuvenated civil war after U.S. troops leave. Massive US troop’s withdrawal since September 2020, has already created a security vacuum in Afghanistan, which has been hugely exploited by the Taliban.
The Taliban have refused to conduct any peace talks until all the American troops withdraw from the ground. The Doha talks that began in the Qatari capital in September 2020 have failed to bear fruit. Negotiators were unable to address even the most basic issues, such as an agenda for a political process, let alone the tougher ones, such as what type of government the country should have. It led to intensified attacks on Afghan security forces by the Taliban.
According to the Long War Journal, out of Afghanistan’s 325 districts, the Taliban are in control of 76 or 19%, and government forces 127 or 32%. The remaining districts are contested. According to the Council of Foreign Relations, the Taliban are stronger now than at any point since 2001, when US forces invaded Afghanistan.
This turn of events gives the Taliban significantly more leverage to negotiate favourable terms of a return to share of power in the Afghan government. The unconditional troop withdrawal also creates a risk that both the Taliban and the Afghan government will want to test their military strength in the absence of U.S. and NATO ground troops — leading to a more brutal civil war.
However, the Taliban will face fierce resistance from Afghan government forces that are still funded by the United States as well as militia forces who fear a return of Taliban atrocities against ethnic minorities if they try to take power by force. Regional neighbours do not want a return to full Taliban rule or the lawlessness and refugee flows that would emanate from a ramped-up civil war.
President Ashraf Ghani supports the US decision; however, he and others who have invested in a democratic Afghanistan apprehend a return of the Taliban of the 1990s and reversal of all gains made in the last 15 years. For Pakistan, it may get some hold on the Afghan government with the Taliban coming to the power; however, the US withdrawal may signal taking the burden of the chaos in Afghanistan and also refugees, if civil war takes place.
India, which was hoping to be part of the Blinken initiative and has been a supporter of intra-Afghan talks, would be concerned with the developments as anti-India militants such as Lashkar- e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohamed, might become active again from Afghan soil. China would also lose, as uncertainty and insecurity in Afghanistan could have an impact on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Also, a Taliban regime may have an impact on China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region.