Conflict Alerts # 404, 7 July 2021
In the news
On 2 July, the US military left the Bagram Airfield, the biggest and last base in Afghanistan. The airfield was handed over to Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), effectively ending major US military operations after nearly two decades.
On 2 July, President Joe Biden said that the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan is "on track," adding, "it's a rational drawdown with our allies." He added: "We have worked out an over-the-horizon capacity. But the Afghans are going to have to be able to do it themselves." On the Afghan government's ability post the withdrawal he said: "I think they have the capacity to be able to sustain the government. But I am concerned that they deal with the internal issues that they have to be able to generate the kind of support they need nationwide to maintain the government."
On 4 July, the New York Times reported that General Austin S. Miller, the top US commander in Afghanistan, will remain in the country for "at least a couple more weeks," in an effort to "soften the blow" of the withdrawal from Afghanistan and to reassure Afghans as the Taliban step up their offensive.
On 6 July, National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib assured the Afghan people that the ANDSF will retake all districts that have fallen to the Taliban, saying that government forces had not expected the Taliban offensive but would "absolutely, definitely" counterattack. According to Al Jazeera, the Taliban now controls roughly a third of all 421 districts and district centres as its march through northern Afghanistan gains momentum, causing the Afghan forces to flee across the border into Tajikistan.
Issues at large
First, end of America's 'longest war.' With the withdrawal of troops, what is called the 'longest war' for the US comes to an end after nearly two decades that spanned four presidencies of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, respectively. Over the last 20 years, nearly 175,000 people in Afghanistan, including 51,000 terrorists/opposition fighters and over 2,300 US soldiers, had been killed. In addition, the war had cost the US nearly USD two trillion.
Second, the decision to withdraw. The withdrawal plan was consolidated with the signing of the US-Taliban agreement in 2020 under the Trump administration and carried forward by the Biden administration. According to the agreement, the conditions for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan was laid out in return for a reduction of violence by the Taliban along with severing all ties with terrorist groups and joining the intra-Afghan talks. The deal has not made any lasting impact and has merely been used by the Taliban to ensure the US's exit from Afghanistan.
Third, the growing instability. Concerns over the withdrawal leading to more instability have been raised by the Afghans, Americans and other regional players. The pace of withdrawal and America's long-term strategy in Afghanistan has been questioned amid the deteriorating security situation. Additionally, several other important resources such as aid and foreign contractors that would also be stopped will cause the instability to intensify. Meanwhile, the Taliban has been on an offensive and has made substantial territorial gains since the pull-out process began on 1 May.
Fourth, the unfinished issues. The withdrawal of troops is taking place despite the reports of several terrorist groups still operating in the country, the main reason for their stay. The US's plan on 'over the horizon' counterterrorism measures to monitor and curb terrorism has not been implemented given the hurdles they have already faced. Additionally, the US's institutional building and development plans will also remain unfinished.
First, Afghanistan is likely to witness intense violence. In the coming months, the scale and intensity of violence are likely to increase due to the changes taking place in Afghanistan. Thus, this withdrawal will in turn result in displacement of people, disintegrations and push Afghanistan on the path to terror. However, a sole victory of either the Afghanistan government or the Taliban is highly unlikely, as the capabilities and situation in Afghanistan have changed. Rather, the ongoing deadlock is likely to continue.
Second, the futility of baseless interventions. The US's war in Afghanistan is another example of the futility of foreign interventions. While not undermining the effectiveness of interventions, Afghanistan would have problems of its own, however, the nature of the intervention, in this case, has fanned the flames of this conflict.