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Afghans To Face ‘Greatest Challenge’ After U.S. Withdrawal

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (center) is applauded by House Speaker John Boehner (right) and Vice President Joe Biden (left) as he addresses a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on March 25, 2015.

The dramatic announcement of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan poses existential challenges for a country where the government is still largely dependent on international funding as it struggles to fight an emboldened Taliban insurgency.

The withdrawal, formally announced by U.S. President Joe Biden on April 14, will undoubtedly end Washington’s longest war. But experts fear it will lead to renewed instability or a civil war as peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban have failed to take off since Washington’s agreement with the hard-line Islamist movement last year.

“The announcement of the unconditional withdrawal of U.S. troops with a five-month timetable constitutes the greatest challenge which Afghans have faced since the collapse of the Taliban regime nearly a generation ago,” says Michael Semple, a former European Union and United Nations adviser in Afghanistan.

He says that for many Afghans the withdrawal rekindles memories of how their country was nearly torn apart by the “botched transition” after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal. After the country’s socialist regime collapsed in 1992, a brutal civil war gripped Afghanistan.

“The Afghan people, government, and security forces can be expected to strive for a better outcome this time,” Semple added. “No one really knows how well they will rise to this challenge or, indeed, how well the international community will support.”

Backing For Peace

In his April 14 speech, Biden vowed Washington would maintain support for the Afghan government after his country’s military forces leave.

“Our diplomatic and humanitarian work will continue,” he said. “We’ll continue to support the government of Afghanistan. We will keep providing assistance to the Afghan National Defenses and Security Forces.” Washington and its allies are now paying some $5 billion annually to keep the Afghan military afloat. International donors are also funding most of the country’s budget.

The U.S. president also indicated that Washington will continue supporting the stalled peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban, which began last year but failed to even turn out a framework or agenda. “We will support peace talks between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban, facilitated by the United Nations,” Biden said.

But Marvin Weinbaum, a former Afghanistan Pakistan intelligence analyst for the State Department, is not optimistic. He said the withdrawal decision will set in motion events that might lead to the disintegration of the Afghan government, increased violence, a bloody civil war, and a refugee and humanitarian crisis.

“It spells the death knell of any peace process,” he noted. “Afghanistan has no choice but to settle for the best deal it can get with the Taliban, which probably means agreeing on an interim government that paves the way for a Taliban takeover.”

The Biden administration, however, has emphasized its continued engagement with Afghanistan. In an unannounced visit to the Afghan capital, Kabul, on April 15, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken attempted to reassure Afghans.

"I'm here to demonstrate our ongoing commitment to the Islamic Republic and the people of Afghanistan," Blinken told Abdullah Abdullah, the head of Afghanistan's High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR). “We have a new chapter, but it is a new chapter that we are writing together,” he added. "The partnership is changing, but the partnership itself is enduring."

Semple, now a professor at Queen's University in Belfast, says the Taliban’s continued reluctance to join the peace efforts aimed at cobbling together an internationally supported Afghan government is a clear signal that it plans to rely on violence.

“All reasonable observers should conclude that this leadership has decided to attempt a military takeover,” he noted. “As there is no plausible military solution, the failure of the recent attempts at a grand bargain would oblige the Afghan government and its allies to come up with new approaches to reconciliation, which cannot so easily be stymied by a few warmongers.”

The Taliban, however, is not eager to show any flexibility. Earlier this week, it announced a boycott of the international peace conference on Afghanistan that is set to take place in Turkey later this month. In a statement, the group criticized Washington for missing the May 1 deadline for withdrawal that the two sides agreed on in the February 2020 deal.

“We are committed to a peaceful resolution of the Afghan conflict only after the complete and verified end of the occupation,” the April 15 statement noted.

Creating A United Front

Amid the Taliban obstinance, an immediate challenge for the Afghan government will be to keep the country’s disparate political elites united behind the government and the current political system, which has already been weakened by the Taliban’s ascendence, widespread corruption, and factional squabbling.

Chris Alexander, Canada’s former ambassador in Afghanistan, however, hopes that Afghan elites might unite when faced with external pressures.

“Adversity has tended over history to bring Afghans together,” he told Gandhara. “I am convinced that there is a strong majority among leaders and among people on the street who wants to defend the achievements of the last 20 years,” he added. “They will not accept the overthrow of their government by force.”

He identified continued Western financial and political support as the major enablers of Afghan survival. “There continues to be strong financial support for Afghanistan, and I am sure that there will be other forms of support from the Biden administration and others who aim to protect the constitutional order as it now is and prevent the country from lurching into the civil war,” he noted.

In Washington Weinbaum, now director of Afghanistan and Pakistan studies at the Middle East Institute think tank, is more apprehensive. He told Gandhara that the U.S. military’s departure from Afghanistan might also lead to regional destabilization and radicalization.

“With decreased American influence in the region [after the withdrawal] it will put at risk our efforts to head off global terrorism, prevent nuclear proliferation, a major Indo-Pakistan conflict, and our ability to check Russia, Iran, and China strategically,” he said.

Alexander, who also served as a senior UN diplomat in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2009, argues that Washington will remain engaged in the region and will pursue Afghan peace talks, which will aim at brokering a cease-fire between the Taliban and an eager Afghan government desperate to cut its losses.

He argues that Pakistan will face mounting pressure to deliver a Taliban cease-fire. “Pakistan remains an outlier on that issue mostly because the promise of negotiations has prevented Washington and its allies from being consistent on this course so far,” he said. “But no one wants to see a reconquest of Afghanistan by Pakistan’s military acting through the Taliban,” he said, alluding to widespread belief among Afghans that the Taliban are primarily working for advancing Islamabad’s interests in Afghanistan.

Pakistani officials reject such criticism. Last month Islamabad joined Washington, Moscow, and Beijing to demand that the Taliban not pursue its traditional spring offensive. The four countries also declared that they do not support the restoration of the Islamic Emirate, as the Taliban formally calls itself to reiterate that its regime from 1995 to 2001 was legitimate.

In a recent speech, Pakistan’s powerful army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa declared that Islamabad has realized the need to put its “own house in order.” He also vowed to work toward regional cooperation based on “noninterference of any kind in the internal affairs of our neighboring and regional countries.”

Kabul, however, is bracing for more violence. “Afghanistan’s proud security and defense forces are fully capable of defending its people and country, which they have been doing all along, and for which the Afghan nation will forever remain grateful,” Ghani tweeted after a telephone call with Biden on April 14.

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, the editor of RFE/RL's Gandhara website, is a journalist specializing in coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan.