20 years after the U.S. military’s invasion of Afghanistan, the Biden administration has officially confirmed that all remaining U.S. military personnel will withdraw from the region by September 11, 2021. This announcement follows a set of unprecedented discussions in February 2020 between the sitting Trump administration and Taliban representatives, which resulted in the signing of the U.S.-Taliban Peace Agreement. The agreement laid out a feasible path forward for a phased U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, whilst supporting intra-Afghan negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban forces.
One year on from the signing of the agreement, the complexity of U.S. withdrawal, along with intra-Afghan relations, has become a prominent topic within international security spheres and news media. Many are troubled by the aggressive advancements being made by Taliban forces in areas that have been strongholds for the Afghan government for several years.
Predictably, the role of U.S. interventionism and its validity have become focal points of debate around the situation in Afghanistan. Whilst these conversations certainly need to be had, high-level foreign policy debates tend to overlook the situation of the millions of people who remain in Afghanistan. Departing from the U.S.-centric realm of international security debates will require a consideration of what life will look like for Afghani civilians in the absence of U.S. forces. On a micro-level, how is the rapid advancement of Taliban forces affecting people’s daily lives? And more importantly, how can the international community assist in a way that does not exacerbate the problem as it so often has in the past?
The answers to these questions will not come from state-level diplomats or international security experts, but instead from those whose lives were forever altered by the U.S. decision to invade, and now withdraw, from Afghanistan.
Afghanistan and American Foreign Policy post 9/11
Directly following 9/11, in which members of the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda planned and carried out several attacks across the U.S., President George W. Bush authorized the mobilization of U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Bush argued that such action was necessary for the “War on Terror,” as it was believed that the ruling Taliban regime was a direct supporter of Al-Qaeda. This decision was questioned and protested against, especially given a lack of evidence to show that the Taliban had funded or supported direct Al-Qaeda terror plots such as the ones carried out on 9/11. Nonetheless, the U.S. forged ahead with its intervention in Afghanistan and subsequently changed the course of history for millions of people.
The Taliban’s official regime collapsed by December 2001 under pressure from U.S. and NATO forces, but the U.S. military remained in active combat within the country for the next two decades. The U.S. also engaged in an official NATO-backed initiative that aimed to train, equip, and support the Afghan government and security forces in their counter-offensive efforts against the Taliban.
Despite such initiatives, internal corruption within the Afghan government, along with the inhumane and extrajudicial measures used by U.S. forces on suspected terrorists, undermined many of the efforts made to ensure peace and security in the region. Local Afghan security forces are now finding themselves underprepared and under-equipped to defend the several contested areas which are becoming increasingly vulnerable to Taliban offensives given the swift departure of U.S. forces.
The Complexity of Local Perspectives
The legitimacy of the U.S. and NATO presence in Afghanistan has been questioned for years by governments, human rights organizations, and civilians worldwide. However, such military presence and support for local security forces have also been a given factor for the better part of two decades. Many people within Afghanistan, especially the country’s young urban population, have only ever known life under the U.S.- and NATO-supported Afghan government. The reality of a swift and complete withdrawal of international forces, and the resulting inevitability of a power vacuum, has brought about a reality that concerns many of those who call Afghanistan home.
In an interview conducted by the Arab News Network, one 22-year-old university student from Kabul expresses the current dilemma that she and many of her peers face. She worries that should the Taliban be successful in their efforts to advance into the urban strongholds of the Afghan government, life, and freedom as she knows it will cease to exist. Recent acts of violence committed by the Taliban have caused many to claim that such a reality is already coming to fruition.
On Friday, August 6, 2021, Dawa Khan Menapal, head of the Afghan government’s media and information center, was assassinated in an attack that the Taliban has since claimed responsibility for. Whilst such attacks have been denounced by local and international actors as acts of terrorism, members of the Taliban have painted a more complex story. “We are totally prepared for peace, and we are fully prepared for jihad,” says one Taliban commander from the Balkh district. Contradictory as such a claim may seem, there are certainly Afghani citizens who stand neutral to the prospect of Taliban expansion, should the group choose to forge a peaceful path towards freedom from international intervention. This said, the prospect of continued violence continues to be rejected by a majority of Afghans: “If they make peace, that is fine, otherwise, may God curse them” (local resident, Kabul).
The complexity of this situation also raises questions of the true impact that American intervention has had on the country. If the trade-off has become forgoing U.S. presence and security in exchange for national sovereignty and humanitarian regression, we must challenge how this dynamic came to exist in the first place.
Responsibility of Foreign Actors
To intervene (again), or not to intervene? This has become the resounding question echoed throughout international security conversations on Afghanistan. Many would argue that it was U.S. intervention in the first place that exacerbated the situation and that further interference by foreign actors would be an ill-informed decision. Others have highlighted the potentially devastating ramifications of expanding Taliban rule in the country and have urged for international action.
Similar debates around interventionism in the region were happening decades before the mobilization of U.S. troops, but the urgency with which this needs to be addressed will be made abundantly clear in the wake of their withdrawal. Since 2020, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has taken affirmative action to adopt Resolution 2513, confirming the council’s support for the U.S.-Taliban Peace Agreement. However, the momentum of international support cannot stop there.
Meaningful international collaboration with local human rights organizations is key to informing foreign security interests of the best avenues to support those remaining in the country. Government officials and experts within the international security spheres must make a conscious effort to engage these parties in the global dialogue going forward. We must also as a global community take a hard and honest look at the utmost irony of deploying troops to war in the name of pursuing peace. Only then can we all do justice to the millions of people who deserve a fair shot at freedom and prosperity in the country they call home.