US and NATO withdrawal: Afghanistan’s uncertain future
The US and NATO’s decision to withdraw all their troops from Afghanistan by September this year has stoked anxiety and fear of a civil war, similar to what Afghanistan experienced after the pullout of former Soviet forces in 1989. But Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has dismissed the concerns, saying that the country’s defence forces “are fully capable of defending its people”. In similar vein, Abdullah Abdullah, the head of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR) and Ghani’s rival, said that it would be a “miscalculation and mistake” on part of the Taliban to attempt to seize power through war after the withdrawal. Nevertheless, the announcements about the drawdown can affect the course of the ongoing Afghan peace process and the government forces’ anti-insurgency operations.
Uncertainty about peace talks
US President Joe Biden’s 14 April announcement that all American troops “will be out of Afghanistan” by 11 September – more than four months past the 1 May deadline agreed in the US-Taliban deal signed in Doha in February last year – has made the peace process more complicated. On the one hand, it has put the peace process initiated by the Trump administration in jeopardy as it does not meet the 1 May deadline, while on the other, it can also affect the ceasefire between the Taliban and US-led coalition forces.
“The peace process in general and the Istanbul conference in particular has suffered a serious blow. Even if the whole process is not endangered, it will certainly face a delay and hurdles, at least,” said Abdul Karim Khurram, chief of staff of former president Hamid Karzai.
The Taliban and Afghan government were expected to attend a UN-hosted meeting on the peace process in Istanbul from 24 April to 4 May. But the Taliban’s response to the delay in foreign forces drawdown has dashed the hopes pinned to the conference. “Until all foreign forces completely withdraw from our homeland, the Islamic Emirate [Taliban leadership] will not participate in any conference that shall make decisions about Afghanistan,” the Taliban’s political spokesman Mohammad Naeem said in a tweet.
Fear of civil war, escalation of violence
As Afghan forces have been relying on foreign forces’ air support to a large extent in their major anti-insurgency operations, the latter’s unconditional pullout can prove to be a shot in the arm for the Taliban. The previous US administration used to say that the withdrawal of their forces would be conditions-based, but this time President Joe Biden has announced that the “US cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to wait for ideal conditions for the withdrawal”.
Though several observers think that setting a deadline for the drawdown will prepare the ground for peace, some others fear an outbreak of a possible civil war because – according to them – the Taliban are not ready for a power-sharing deal and they want to seize power through violence. “The Taliban want to take over the entire power. They do not want to share it with anyone,” said Qazi Amin Waqad, a former deputy head of the Afghan peace council.
Some former warlords and jihadi leaders who had participated in the anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban fight, have even warned of taking up arms if the government forces are unable to resist the Taliban. “If the peace process does not bear fruits and the government fails to ensure security, and God forbid! if major cities fall, we are ready to defend the country the way we started to defend it 40 years ago,” said Esmail Khan. The announcement has also coincided with the onset of spring in Afghanistan – when the Taliban formally announce their annual fighting strategy.
Due to the ongoing peace process, the Taliban did not announce their spring offensive last year, neither has the group announced it this year so far. But the Taliban have declared Biden’s announcement “a clear violation” of the Doha deal, causing fears that the fighting will further escalate and the Taliban might resume their attacks on coalition troops after the 1 May deadline. “If foreign forces fail to exit our country on the specified date, problems will certainly be compounded and those who failed to comply with the agreement will be held liable,” said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid in a tweet. “Afghanistan will turn into geography of global terrorism. We want the international troops withdrawal to be condition-based,” said the Afghan parliament’s Speaker Mir Rahman Rahmani.
The Taliban have frequently cited ending the US “occupation” of Afghanistan as the sole reason for their war. However, after the group signed its peace deal with Washington in 2020, it released statements calling its fight against Afghan forces “permissible” and the Afghan government a “puppet”. If the group holds firm on its belligerent stance until the establishment of what it considers a “pure” Islamic system, and if the US leaves Afghanistan without ensuring that a binding peace agreement is in place, the conflict in the country will continue – and most likely, worsen.