What Will Happen When The U.S. Leaves Afghanistan?

On April 13, 2021, President Joe Biden announced that the United States would end its military presence in Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. The American troop withdrawal date recently moved up to August 31, and the U.S. has begun to clear out its personnel. The U.S. has been at war in Afghanistan for nearly twenty years against the Islamic fundamentalist group, the Taliban. However, in the years since the initial invasion, the Taliban has tenaciously fought back and proven challenging to rout, given the harsh terrain of the region. Given the protracted length of the war, President Biden wishes to remove American troops to end one of America’s “forever wars.” However, many fear that it could destabilize Afghanistan when the U.S. leaves, leading to further violence.

The conflict in Afghanistan dates back to December 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded the country and sparked a war that lasted until 1989. During the conflict, the United States supported the Mujahideen fighters – the Islamic guerrilla fighters who fought against the Soviets – many of whom would establish the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and other terrorist groups. Once the war with the Soviets ended, the country was consumed by its civil war until 1996, with the Taliban ultimately assuming power and control of the region. Upon taking power, the Taliban instituted a strict form of Sharia law, establishing policies that violated human rights.

Afghanistan was devastated by nearly twenty years of fighting. After the attacks on September 11, 2001, the Taliban aided and protected Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, which gave the U.S. cause to invade Afghanistan to capture or kill him and other leaders of Al-Qaeda. In October of 2001, the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) began strikes on Afghanistan. By the end of 2001, they had removed the Taliban from power, forcing it to retreat to Pakistan. By 2002, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan replaced the Taliban as a more tolerant government, undoing many of the Taliban’s extreme policies. Since then, the U.S. has maintained a military presence in Afghanistan to continue fighting against the Taliban. Since the U.S. invasion, hundreds of thousands of civilians have died, and millions more have been displaced because of the Taliban insurrection.

In the months since President Biden’s announcement, the Taliban has begun a new offensive in Afghanistan and is likely to regain control of the country upon the departure of the U.S. While the Afghan army is still fighting the Taliban, they have not made significant progress and are already losing ground. In many cases, the Afghan military is surrendering to Taliban forces with little resistance. Without support from the U.S., the Afghan government may not hold back the Taliban, which could cause further violence post-U.S. withdrawal. Moreover, if the Afghan government falls, the Taliban could reinstitute its harsh laws and social structures all across Afghanistan.

The Taliban has a long history of brutalizing its subjects in the name of Sharia law, despite many policies violating Quran teachings. According to Human Rights Watch, the Taliban banned even simple activities such as “playing music and watching television.” All women are forced to wear burqas, and men are required to maintain beards. Those who do not comply with these requirements are punished, often with beatings. Additionally, journalists critical of Taliban policies are subject to violence and intimidation, and local media is often censored or restricted. Not only has the Taliban instituted harsh policies, but many in Afghanistan fear it will target those who aided the Afghan government or the U.S. military. One recent concern is the Taliban’s targeting of translators for U.S. military forces. The White House has stated that these translators will receive U.S. Visas, but it has been slow to deliver on this commitment, all while Taliban forces close in. One translator was killed recently on his way to pick up his Visa. Essentially, any group that has worked in opposition to Taliban policies is in danger of being targeted.

One of the strongest examples of cruelty from the Taliban comes from its treatment of women. The Taliban has barred women and girls from attending formal school beyond the sixth-grade level or becoming employed outside the home. While the Taliban has signalled that it is open to allowing some continuing education for women, it still “oppose[s] a blanket endorsement of girls’ education,” according to Human Rights Watch. Additionally, when women have come forward to report cases of domestic violence to the Taliban courts, the Taliban will “pressure the parties to resolve such disputes at home.” Often, this results in no legal resolution nor punishment for the abuser and forces the victim to continue living in these harsh circumstances. Many of these policies are already in place in territories held by the Taliban. Assuming they regain further control, they could become the new status quo for Afghanistan as a whole.

While the Taliban is not known for changing its policies, it must evolve to maintain peace. For example, the Taliban should endorse allowing women and girls to attend higher education, allow for media consumption from outside the country, stop the intimidation of journalists and other critics of the regime, and allow for freedom of religion in all the territory they control. Additionally, the Taliban needs to end its offensive against the current Afghan government, as this conflict could spark another civil war if it continues after the departure of the U.S. Without the support of the United States, the Afghan government may collapse under the Taliban offensive, so peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban are imperative to prevent the violence from escalating.

As for the United States, it also has a role to play in preventing these devastating and decades-long wars. It starts with recognizing the significant risks and potentially painful consequences of intervening in foreign affairs to establish its own favourable political and economic structures abroad. The U.S. has a history of putting itself into these situations, where it invades a country to change the regime, leading to increased violence and civil war. An example of this was the Vietnam War during the 1960s and 70s, where nearly 60,000 American soldiers died in a battle to prevent a particular political structure in Southeast Asia. In the opening decades in the twenty-first century, the U.S. seems to be following a similar policy, as it has sent its military to Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan as part of its global war on terror. While it is encouraging that President Biden has stated the U.S. will promote a culture of peace and diplomacy in international affairs, its past use of military force has proven costly in these regional conflicts. If the U.S. does not change its policies surrounding its political agenda in non-democratic nations, more countries could find themselves in situations like Afghanistan’s. The United States needs to recognize that significant military presence and occupation in faraway nation-states has consequences and alone isn’t the path to peace.

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