The United States is leaving Afghanistan: What happens next?

Eliza Guinness is a first year IR student at King’s College London. She is passionate about international affairs, economics, and language. She is also a sailor and lover of books and journalism who grew up learning from different cultures and points of view through travel.

It is right to question the American presence in Afghanistan, and for many who do, they wonder why the U.S. is still fighting a war in a faraway country the vast majority of young adults in America cannot place on a map. The reasons the Biden administration has for maintaining a presence in the country are highlighted precisely by what will happen now that they have announced the departure of all U.S. troops by September 11, 2021. The Afghan government’s progress on many fronts, the diminished presence of Al-Qaeda, human rights, and the peace talks with the Taliban will all be thrown into a tailspin.

The departure of U.S. troops will have a detrimental effect on the economy and the security of the Afghan government. A policy priority for the government is to increase foreign trade agreements to support their economy which has been steadily growing ever since the American invasion in 2001. Foreign countries have conditioned trade agreements and aid packages on the progression of peace talks with the Taliban which started in September of 2020, but are no longer taking place. It is very unlikely the Taliban will voluntarily return to the peace talks as the U.S. lost all leverage with the announcement of an unconditional withdrawal of troops. While the Afghan government is far from perfect, the representation of women in the legislature is above the global average, and over 100,000 women in rural areas represent their communities – this is progress that Afghans have fought for, and without a U.S. and NATO presence to support this progress, government transparency, and the Afghan military, many gains will likely be reversed with time.

Violence can be expected to increase as more U.S. troops pull out, and as the Taliban attempts to take control over more of the country. Their aim is to establish an Islamic government and rule with a harsh interpretation of Sharia law. What this type of government would look like in practice is unclear; although it can be assumed that a continuation of their rule in the 1990s that banned girls from attending school and severely punished women for working is likely. The Taliban claim that their interpretation of jihad will continue until they establish a political government, although the group has not kept their promises made in September of 2020 to the Afghan government to reduce violence and work towards peace.

The Taliban has gained legitimacy from the peace negotiations with the U.S. Their close alliance with al Qaeda, a terrorist group that is far from defeated, is as strong as it was the day of the attacks on New York, DC, and Pennsylvania on September 11th, 2001. A strengthening of al Qaeda’s presence in the country should be expected as the Taliban gain back territory and confidence. How long it will take the Taliban to regain control over the county is unclear as they will likely struggle in Afghanistan’s larger cities such as Herat, Kandahar and Kabul, that have urban populations well connected to the rest of the world through social media.

Those who will suffer the most as the U.S. leaves the country are women and children. The May 8th school bombing that left over 80 people dead — most of them young girls, many of which were the Hazara minority — is a distressing sign of the human rights violations, especially against minorities, that will be growing in the country as the civil war intensifies. Although this specific attack was denied by the Taliban, they persecuted and attempted an ethnic cleansing of the Hazara minority when they held power in the 1990s.

Many educated Afghans will leave the country as their contributions to society are not recognized under the Taliban; women in positions of authority and journalists have been targeted specifically by the group since the peace talks began between the Taliban and the government in Kabul.

Over nine million children are attending school in Afghanistan, many of them young girls. That number has been shrinking as the Taliban work to close local education centers. UNICEF, who is working to support access to early education say that the key is a strong educational system that can provide infrastructure and training. “They can’t just hope the Taliban will allow women to exercise their human rights” says Qamarnisa Ayoub, a young Afghan girl now living in the U.S., of the Taliban’s expected takeover. Boys should have the opportunity to continue their education without pressure from the Taliban to join their insurgency — Human Rights Watch suspects the recruitment of children has increased since 2015.

The progress that has been made over the last decade and the system created by Afghans to support children’s right to education is in danger of disintegrating now that the peace talks, which many Afghan women had hope in, are no longer taking place. “Don’t bow down to this oppression. Continue school.” Says a young Afghan girl who was wounded in an attack on her school in Kabul on May 8th. Who will listen to her as more parents pull their children from school over fears that they will be targeted as victims of this civil war? The U.S. should not forget its responsibility to the children and minorities of Afghanistan, however, the announcement of an unconditional withdrawal suggests the Biden administration already has.

The U.S. departure will have unforeseen consequences and reverberations with other allied states. How confident should the government of Taiwan feel in an American promise to support their security? How will South Korea view the withdrawal and rhetoric to end America’s ‘longest war’, where the U.S. presence of 28,000 troops ensures peace with North Korea as the ceasefire nears its 7th decade? The cost to the U.S. government to maintain a limited presence in Afghanistan would be little, and the returns for supporting the security of a critical ally essential.

It has been over a year since a U.S. soldier died in Afghanistan. A few hundred American soldiers would be able to support the presence of 7,000 NATO troops in the country who have been training and supporting the Afghan military since they regained control over their security in 2014. The military, as well as the intelligence establishment in Washington has advised against the withdrawal, stating that counterinsurgency efforts will be weakened and that the Taliban will seize territory, effectively reversing any progress made by the Afghan government.

The immediate effects of the U.S. withdrawal will be felt in Afghanistan well before the September 11th deadline as most troops can be expected to leave within the next few months. The downstream consequences, however, will be felt for administrations to come. 

Image credit: https://www.hrw.org/report/2020/06/30/you-have-no-right-complain/education-social-restrictions-and-justice-taliban-held

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