Afghanistan’s fate in the balance as US begins troop pullout
The US military’s final troop pullout from Afghanistan which starts Saturday will bring relief to those who want the war to end, but fear to many Afghans who live on the frontlines.
The pullout, announced last month by President Joe Biden, will be matched by a withdrawal of remaining NATO forces and scheduled to end before the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
The latest development in the nearly two-decade conflict has raised concerns over what lies ahead for the violence-wracked country.
Will the US pullout end the war?
That is unlikely.
In the absence of a definitive ceasefire between the Taliban and Afghan government, most analysts, politicians and ordinary citizens believe the country will plunge into civil war.
“The war will intensify, turn uglier, and drag on until the Taliban capture power in whatever ruined state is left of Kabul and other provincial capitals and districts,” said Nishank Motwani, an independent specialist on Afghanistan.
America’s top soldier, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, said this week that a range of outcomes were expected once the troops leave, including a “potential collapse of the government” and “a potential collapse of the military”.
“What is clear is that the parties (the Taliban and Afghan government) now have very little to move forward towards a serious compromise in the negotiations, and peace efforts are effectively stalled,” said Andrew Watkins, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.
Can Afghan forces offer security without the US?
That remains to be seen.
Afghan officials claim the 350,000 soldiers and police officers that make up national security forces carry out 98 percent of all operations against the insurgents.
But the US air force is a key factor in the ongoing fight, offering regular and vital support to ground operations — particularly when regular troops risk being overwhelmed.
Currently under the command of President Ashraf Ghani, their will to fight could be tested without US support, say analysts.
“They can survive as long as they are paid,” said Afghan political analyst Fawad Kochi.
The Taliban control huge swathes of the countryside — and strategic arteries linking major urban centres — but have not taken any major cities or towns, or at least not for long.
But they still have urbanites in the grip of fear, with almost daily car bombings or targetted assassinations against prominent citizens.
“The Taliban have grown incredibly effective in demonstrating the gaps in the Afghan government’s capacity,” said Watkins.
Is there a road to democracy?
If so, it has many forks.
President Ghani has prepared a three-stage plan which includes reaching a political settlement and ceasefire with the Taliban ahead of a presidential election to form a “government of peace”.
The US favours an interim government involving the Taliban, and for the country to chart its future with consensus between all parties.
While loose on specifics, the Taliban insist Afghanistan should return to being an emirate, run along strict Islamic lines by a council of religious elders.
Afghanistan has seen four presidential elections since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001 and millions of Afghans have embraced a plural, democratic system.
Now the stage is set for the insurgents to return, analysts fears the democratic gains of the past two decades could be lost.
“The consequences of Biden’s decision to exit from Afghanistan guarantees a Taliban return, but not before sparking state collapse, a multi-dimensional civil war, and burning down of democracy,” said analyst Motwani.
What are the economic prospects?
Afghanistan is one of the world’s most impoverished countries, deeply indebted and utterly reliant on foreign aid.
While the nation boasts lucrative mineral reserves that neighbours including China and India are keen to exploit, the security situation has never been stable enough for revenues to boost state coffers.
In November, global donors pledged to offer aid to Afghanistan up to 2024, but concerns are that with the imminent exit of foreign forces the donors might not follow up on their commitments.
And what about Afghanistan’s women?
There is genuine fear that all their gains may be lost.
The Taliban banned girls from work and stoned to death women accused of crimes such as adultery until being deposed in 2001, but Afghan women have become prominent politicians, activists, journalists and judges in the interim.
The Taliban insist they will respect women’s rights in accordance with Islamic law, but activists note the multiple interpretations of that across the Muslim world.
“When they say they will protect women’s rights, it is according to their interpretation of sharia,” said Mariam Safi, a senior Afghan researcher.
“But that interpretation of women’s rights will not be different than our previous experience of the Taliban regime.”
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