The Afghan endgame: The US retreats, Taliban returns
In order to allay fears that the US is abandoning Afghanistan, President Joe Biden hosted an Oval Office meeting on June 25 with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah.
While Biden’s conversation may have been reassuring for the two beleaguered Afghan leaders, most people knew that it could well be the last time a US president would be hosting a pro-American Afghan president at the White House.
Afghanistan’s situation today is precarious. The Taliban, already in the country, assisted by those streaming in from Pakistan, have captured broad swathes of territory with little resistance from Afghan government troops. On the weekend after President Biden’s announcement, the Taliban swept through a series of districts in northern Afghanistan and more than 1,000 Afghan government troops fled across the border.
Under Taliban rule, many of the gains made during the past two decades, especially in the areas of literacy and women’s empowerment, might be wiped away. It is also questionable whether the Taliban will deliver on the counterterrorism guarantees it has made.
Why is this turnaround on Afghanistan taking place? The primary reasons include the US mindset on Afghanistan, the positions of the players in the region, and the nature of Afghanistan itself.
The US entered Afghanistan after 9/11 to destroy the Taliban and in pursuit of Osama bin Laden. Outside of that primary purpose, the mission has been extremely muddled and increasingly expensive in terms of money and lives. It has claimed 2,400 American troops and 3,800 private soldiers employed by the US military, with costs running into billions of dollars.
Whatever domestic support was there to begin with for the war, has shrunk over time with the majority of Americans today opposed to US involvement in Afghanistan. President Barack Obama reduced troop presence considerably between 2012 and 2016. President Donald Trump announced a full pullout by May 1, 2021, if the Taliban met the commitments it made in the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan on February 29, 2020. President Biden sealed the deal by beating the September 11, 2021, deadline that he had set for withdrawal.
Nations in the region and those invested or interested in Afghanistan have seen the writing on the wall regarding its future.
New Delhi, which has long been a significant player in Afghanistan, has been preparing for the US withdrawal and the potential fall of Kabul. Many have linked the Indian government’s recent talks with Kashmiri leaders to the US withdrawal and a potential return of the Taliban to Kabul.
India is not the only country in the region concerned about the Taliban’s rise. Iran, China, Russia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and the Gulf states, some of which bankrolled the Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, all have skin in the Afghan game. Like India, it is reported that Russia, Iran, China and others have held negotiations with the Taliban.
One country, as before, will play an outsized role in relations with Afghanistan going forward and that is its neighbour and longtime benefactor of the Taliban, Pakistan. Islamabad’s influence on the Taliban may have dwindled over the decades, but Pakistan is thought to still hold considerable sway over the militia.
Afghanistan has been in an almost endless state of conflict and civil war since 1978. The US presence in this latest war brought about a modicum of stability beginning in 2001 but at a heavy cost. Over the past two decades, more than 66,000 Afghan soldiers and 100,000 civilians have died, and over 2.7 million rendered homeless.
There is no simple answer to what lies ahead. It appears likely, however, that in the near-term, the Taliban will gain control of much of the country, except for Kabul which is well-fortified and protected by the US and a selected international presence. However, the US embassy in Kabul already has an “emergency action plan” in place and arrangements are being made for the evacuation of thousands of Afghan interpreters who assisted the US during this war.
The Taliban has been emboldened by the American withdrawal and the prospects for a negotiated peace for Afghanistan have grown exceedingly dim.
In spite of this, it should be remembered that hope dies last. Peace talks must be pursued. Peace must be given a chance. It is the last and best hope for Afghanistan and its beleaguered people.