Impacts of the US drawdown in Afghanistan

Updated: Sep 21, 2021



Synopsis

This article contains background information and an analysis of the US policy in Afghanistan, particularly focusing on the current US military departure and its implications for a variety of aspects, including:

  • The socioeconomic and political progress gained in Afghanistan since 2001;

  • The security dynamics and democracy and human rights impacts as a result of the US military departure.

 

Introduction

Representatives from the United States and the Taliban inked a bilateral agreement after more than a year of talks. The parties reached an agreement on two "interconnected" guarantees: the removal of Taliban action to prevent additional U.S. and international forces from being deployed by May 2021, and unspecified Taliban action to prevent further U.S. and international forces from being deployed preventing terrorist groups (particularly Al Qaeda) from using Afghan soil to threaten the US and its allies. Several US officials claimed in the months following the deal that the Taliban were not upholding their end of the bargain, particularly when it came to Al Qaeda.


Despite US claims that the Taliban violence and other acts violated the deal, the US began withdrawing its forces before the February 2020 agreement was struck and continued to do so subsequently. On January 15, 2021, the then-Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller reported that the number of US forces had fallen to 2,500, the lowest level since 2001. This brought the total number of US forces below 2,500 for the first time since 2001. President Joe Biden declared on April 14, 2021, that the United States would begin a "final withdrawal" on May 1 and finish it by September 11, 2021. The Taliban accused the US of breaking the February 2020 agreement in a written statement, claiming that the US decision to stay through May 1 “in principle paves the ground for (Taliban forces) to take all necessary countermeasures.” According to a report published by the Congressional Research Service, with the US withdrawal, NATO and other partner countries (whose forces in Afghanistan exceed the US) are also completing a full pullout.

 

US Policy in Afghanistan

Afghanistan became a major US foreign policy priority in 2001, when the US launched a military operation against the Al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban regime that housed and supported it in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Over 22,000 US military casualties (including around 2,400 fatalities) have occurred in Afghanistan over the last 19 years, and Congress has committed approximately $144 billion for reconstruction and security forces there. Since that time, the Taliban has been replaced by an elected Afghan government; progress in most indices of human development has been modest; and future prospects for advances remain ambiguous. The United States and its international partners are withdrawing their military forces from Afghanistan as part of a drawdown announced by President Biden on April 14, 2021, signalling the end of the US military engagement in the country, which has lasted nearly two decades. In a February 2020 agreement with the Taliban, the Trump administration agreed to withdraw military forces by May 2021 in exchange for the Taliban agreeing to prevent other groups, such as the Al Qaeda, from using Afghan soil to recruit, train, or fundraise for activities that pose a threat to the US or its allies. According to United Nations sanctions monitors, the Taliban have not kept their promises, as violence between the Taliban and the Afghan government has risen and Taliban ties to Al Qaeda have persisted.

 

Afghan Forces and Security Dynamics as a result of US Military Deployment

In general, Trump administration officials said the troop decrease would not affect the two complementary US goals in Afghanistan - counterterrorism and training, advising, and assisting Afghan troops. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, however, several military sources suggested at the time that President Trump's lower force level would result in certain adjustments to US operations and limitations on US capabilities. Many outside observers, notably the Afghanistan Study Group, which was established by Congress, questioned whether the US could execute both training and counter-terrorism duties at the same time. U.S. officials have stated that once U.S. troops leave Afghanistan, they want to continue “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism measures under the Biden Administration. “We'll reorganise our counterterrorism capabilities and sizable assets in the region to prevent the reemergence of terrorists,” President Biden said in his April 14 address. There are still questions about how such an attempt would work in practice, as well as the logistical, political, and financial problems that could arise, such as forging new arrangements with Afghan partners and new basing possibilities outside of Afghanistan.


Afghan officials have attempted to downplay the negative consequences of the US troop withdrawal while highlighting the importance of sustained financial support from the US to Afghan forces. Various options for continuing to support the Afghan forces are being considered, according to US military officials, including remote training (which has mostly been in place since the commencement of the COVID-19 epidemic) or training Afghan personnel in third nations. According to research published in Carnegie India, on Dealing With the Taliban: India’s Strategy in Afghanistan After U.S. Withdrawal If Kabul or other large cities are threatened, US military authorities are reportedly considering asking authorization for airstrikes against the Taliban (presumably launched from US bases in the Persian Gulf).


A full US military withdrawal could have second-and third-order implications on the frail Afghan state, beyond the immediate effects on Afghan forces and capacities. Recalling the complex, multi-sided civil war of the 1990s, some Afghans have indicated that if the Afghan government is unable to maintain security in the context of the US exit, local communities (and, often, their linked militias) may adopt more independent courses of action. Continuing infighting among Afghan elites, according to some Afghan authorities, might be just as dangerous to the Afghan democratic system as the Taliban. The Taliban's operations against Afghan government forces, which are estimated to number 60,000 full-time combatants, have continued, with several attacks around the country since the US drawdown began on May 1. In May 2021, the Taliban launched a strong offensive in southern Afghanistan's Helmand Province, prompting the US to launch airstrikes in support of Afghan government forces. By many counts, the organization controls or contends for more territory in 2021 than at any time since 2001. In recent months, the number of targeted attacks has increased. The Taliban denied involvement in the death of female Supreme Court judges in Kabul in January 2021 and other attacks, but on January 31, 2021, the US and other governments issued a joint statement accusing the Taliban of being responsible for "the preponderance of this targeted violence." The Taliban also denied responsibility for an attack on schoolgirls in a Kabul school on May 8, 2021.


Many analysts doubt that the Taliban would agree to give up violence, which is undoubtedly their most powerful weapon, before reaching an intra-Afghan political agreement, however, targeted ceasefires could pave the way for a more comprehensive ceasefire.

 

The Effects of US Military Deployment in Afghanistan: Democracy and Human Rights

According to a report named Afghanistan and the new dynamics of intervention: counter-terrorism and nation building, Since the Taliban's authority ended in 2001, Afghanistan has made significant progress in recognizing and defending Afghans' rights. However, the extent of that development is disputed, and government-aligned entities are accused of engaging in a variety of human rights violations. Experts disagree on how much if, at all, the Taliban has evolved since 2001. Although the Taliban have not detailed their plans for Afghan administration, many observers believe that social and political advances will be lost if the Taliban retake control in any form following a US military exit. The Afghan constitution of 2004 defines a democratic political system that guarantees essential freedoms such as religion, expression, assembly, and association. Elections are frequently marred by suspicions of fraud, and governance institutions are frequently weak and ineffectual. As multiple factions compete for the all-important president in a zero-sum game, the constitution may establish an unduly powerful executive branch, discouraging compromise. Corruption, in particular, has long been recognized as a serious threat to Afghan state institutions, delegitimizing the Afghan government in the eyes of many Afghans, and discouraging private sector investment and development. Several annual State Department assessments on human rights practices have revealed severe human rights violations in government-controlled areas. In places outside of the government's control, respect for human rights, especially equal rights for women, appears more limited. In Carnegie India's paper termed Dealing With the Taliban: India’s Strategy in Afghanistan After U.S. Withdrawal, it has been mentioned that: According to the State Department, the Taliban utilize their parallel legal system to carry out public executions, forced confessions, and other atrocities; the group has stringent regulations on expression and often assaults journalists, and it restricts girls' access to education. As a "hybrid" of its 1996-2001 emirate and a more Western-style state, some experts believe the Taliban will strive for clerical monitoring of executive and parliamentary decision-making. The Taliban have not specified their recommendations on governance issues, focusing instead on ensuring the exit of international forces. “We seek an Afghanistan that is independent, sovereign, united, developed, and free—an Afghanistan with an Islamic system in which all peasants are free,” Taliban deputy political leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar declared at the opening of the intra-Afghan negotiations in September 2020. Afghan officials have stated their commitment to preserving Afghanistan's democratic institutions and constitution, which recognises Islam as the state religion but does not bind law and national decisions to Islamic doctrine. President Ashraf Ghani has stated that his government will not sign any agreement that restricts Afghans' rights and that any agreement to withdraw US forces without Kabul's participation could result in "catastrophe," referring to the civil unrest that followed the fall of the Soviet-backed government in the 1990s, which led to the rise of the Taliban.


According to the United States Institute of Peace's Afghanistan Study group final report, Some Afghans and international observers have suggested the formation of an interim administration, stating that the Taliban's reluctance to recognise the Afghan government may necessitate such action. Such offers, including those from the US, have been rejected by President Ghani and other Afghan leaders. It's unclear to what extent, if at all, US assistance will be able to influence the trajectory of respect for human rights in Afghanistan if the broader political and governance context becomes less hospitable, or whether such assistance will provide a strong enough incentive for the Taliban to change their attitudes toward human rights or democracy.


 

Conclusion

Some question the Taliban's sincerity, fearing that without US military pressure, the group will have little motivation to abide by the terms of any agreement agreed with Kabul. Some Afghan officials believe the Taliban are attempting to "run out the clock" on the withdrawal of American troops by staying in discussions long enough to secure a complete withdrawal, after which they will use their battlefield advantage to seize control of the nation by force. Despite the decades of conflict, at least some Afghans are said to favour "peace at any cost."


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