A Nation Abandoned: Afghanistan Sees NATO Troops Withdraw As Taliban Encroaches

European officials arrived at last week’s NATO summit anxious to hear from President Biden, who announced in April that the United States would withdraw all troops from Afghanistan unconditionally by September 11th. Prior to the summit, several officials expressed their frustration with Biden’s failure to properly consult NATO allies before the announcement. Others voiced concerns over how security could be maintained in the country without foreign support to hold back Taliban insurgents. However, left with little choice but to get on board, NATO allies agreed at the summit to join the withdrawal effort.

The withdrawal marks a hurried end to what AP News has dubbed NATO’s most ambitious operation ever. The so-called “forever war” has cost the United States alone $2.26 trillion as well as the lives of 2,442 troops. This pales in comparison to the 47,000 Afghan civilians and 69,000 members of the national armed forces who lost their lives as well. Yet NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg sees improvement two decades later. “Afghanistan has come a long way,” he told The Associated Press. “At some stage, it has to be the Afghans that take full responsibility for peace and stability in their own country.” 

Few Afghans maintain a favourable view of their country’s progress. Afghanistan’s elected government remains rickety and its military still depends heavily on U.S. contractors, who are set to leave with the American troops. The country still has a 54% poverty rate and soaring amounts of crime and corruption. Despite advances in lowering maternal and child mortality rates, boosting school enrollment, and increasing female employment, World Bank assessments show that these improvements are unsustainable without continued foreign aid. Further, as COVID-19 cases surge without enough medical supplies to treat them, the need for continued foreign aid has never been so dire.

But perhaps most worrying are the growing attacks by Taliban militants brought about by the U.S. drawdown, which has forced Afghan security forces to retreat from a number of rural districts. Militants claim to have seized control of nearly 30 districts since the U.S. initiated its full troop withdrawal in May, according to The News International. The Taliban now surrounds several major cities⁠ – a strategy eerily reminiscent of the one they adopted in the 1990s before taking over control. With fewer than 100 days remaining before the September 11th deadline, there are still more questions than answers as to how NATO allies will prevent further backsliding.  

So far, the U.S. has made only broad commitments to maintaining peace in Afghanistan, says The Washington Post. During the recent summit, NATO allies agreed to provide “transitional funding” to ensure that Kabul’s international airport can still operate, given its significance to the landlocked country. The security of the airport will also dictate whether other nations can maintain a diplomatic presence in the country, says the New York Times. Without protection from troops, diplomatic and humanitarian workers will be less likely to continue much-needed peace efforts in Afghanistan unless NATO finds suitable workarounds in time. 

A host of other issues also remain unresolved. NATO has said it will provide “training and financial support to the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces” but has not yet offered concrete plans to train Afghan security forces on bases outside the country. U.S. Defense Department officials have also failed to reach agreements with allies about repositioning their own troops in nearby countries, raising concerns over their ability to conduct counter-terrorism operations from afar. Finally, Washington has still done little to ensure the safety of some 18,000 Afghan civilians who worked for the U.S. government and are now in danger of retribution from the Taliban.

NATO⁠, with the United States at its helm⁠, must provide robust security assistance to the Afghan government, perhaps by funding private contractors that can remain safely on the ground after troops withdraw. Additionally, it must expedite special immigrant visas for the Afghan civilians who assisted Western forces and are now targets. Finally, it should nurture the inchoate negotiation process between the Taliban and Afghan government that began ten months ago, offering economic incentives to promote greater cooperation before the September 11th deadline. Failing all of that, the U.S. must opt for a conditions-based withdrawal deadline over a calendar-based one. Otherwise, the previous two decades of violence in Afghanistan will not be the last.

Caleb Loughrin