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This paper is correct as of 13 August 2021 and will not be updated. Recent events in Afghanistan, including the fall of the Afghan Government and the transfer of power to the Taliban, are covered in the following paper: 

In January 2021, the new President of the United States, Joe Biden, confirmed that his administration would review US-Afghanistan policy and the parameters of the deal agreed with the Taliban in February 2020.

While an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process remained the goal, a lack of progress in negotiations and increasing violence in the country has raised concerns over the timetable for the withdrawal of US forces and the potential for civil war.

A new timetable for withdrawal

On 14 April 2021, President Biden confirmed that it was “time for American troops to come home” and that the US would honour its commitments under the February 2020 deal. However, the process of withdrawal would be delayed. The US military presence in Afghanistan will end on 31 August 2021. 

However, the US will retain a counterterrorism presence in the region. US diplomatic, humanitarian and development assistance to the Afghan Government, and “over the horizon” support to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) from US assets based elsewhere in the region will also continue beyond withdrawal.

Approximately 650 military personnel had been expected to stay in Kabul to protect the US embassy and international airport.  However, the footprint of US military personnel in the country after 31 August is now unclear after the US State Department ordered the immediate withdrawal of the majority of its embassy staff on 12 August.

What does this mean for coalition forces? 

US and coalition forces in Afghanistan have always taken the approach of “in together, out together” and the US announcement was accompanied by a NATO commitment to withdraw its forces in the country, including those of the UK.

On 8 July 2021, the British Prime Minister confirmed that nearly all UK forces had left the country. The nature of any future NATO support to the ANSF is currently under discussion.

The US and its allies believe that the original objectives of the campaign in Afghanistan have been achieved and that a military presence is no longer appropriate. President Biden has been unequivocal in his view that maintaining the “conditions based” approach to withdrawal, that has been the mantra for the last two decades, would mean coalition forces staying in Afghanistan indefinitely.

Implications for the peace process

Instead of a military presence, the US and its allies have committed to building a new relationship with Afghanistan, which is based on support for the Afghan Government, the peace process and the ANSF.

However, the peace talks have made no progress and international attempts to bring the Taliban and Afghan Government together have failed. Talks due to be held in Istanbul at the end of April 2021, were postponed after the Taliban said it would not participate in any conference making decisions on the future of Afghanistan until all foreign forces had completely withdrawn.

On 8 July 2021, and as coalition forces moved towards withdrawal, the Iranian Foreign Ministry announced that an Afghan government delegation had met with Taliban representatives in Tehran, attempting to move discussions beyond the current diplomatic impasse. Both sides reportedly committed to further discussion, although no timeframe for doing so was set out. 

Between 10-12 August 2021, US Special Representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, met with counterparts from Russia, China, India, Pakistan, the EU and UN and other regional neighbours, to discuss support for intra-Afghan talks, ahead of further meetings with Taliban and Afghan government representatives. The aim of the talks was to “to press for a reduction of violence and a ceasefire and a commitment on the part of all those in attendance”.

A power sharing deal was reportedly offered to the Taliban, although details have not been made public. That deal has been rejected by the Taliban who said that they would only accept a peace deal in exchange for the creation of a new Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan.

Taliban offensive

The withdrawal of international military forces is also being conducted while violence escalates in the country. There has been a spate of targeted killings of prominent figures in civil society, the media, judiciary and civil administration, most notably among women. The Taliban has also begun a major offensive against the ANSF.

Dozens of districts have fallen to the Taliban across the country,  particularly in northern Afghanistan, with several districts reportedly abandoned by the Afghan National Security Forces without resistance. In early July, hundreds of Afghan military personnel fled across Afghanistan’s borders into Tajikistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan.

At the time of writing, in less than a month Taliban forces have taken a number of strategic supply roads and several border crossings with Iran, Tajikistan, Pakistan and Turkmenistan. Several major provincial towns and cities, including the strategic cities of Kunduz and Pul-e-Khumri in the north, Herat in the west, and Kandahar and Lashkar Gah in the south have been captured by the Taliban in a matter of days. Other provincial capitals are under siege.

The US military has been supporting the ANSF with air strikes against Taliban targets. However, the speed at which the Taliban has taken ground has placed the capabilities and morale of the ANSF under increasing scrutiny. Thousands of government troops are reported to have surrendered after the fall of Pul-e-Khumri, and an increasing number of Afghan air force pilots have quit after the murder of several pilots by the Taliban in the last few weeks.

Estimates in mid-August 2021 suggest that the Taliban is now in control of approximately 65 per cent of the country. Given the rapid loss of territory and questions over the capabilities of the ANSF, US intelligence estimates have reportedly been revised and are now suggesting that Kabul could fall to the Taliban within a month to 90 days.

Thousands of Afghan civilians have fled their homes, and hundreds have been killed.

Evacuation of US and British Nationals

The evolving security situation in Afghanistan has prompted both the US State Department and the UK Government to announce that additional military personnel will be deployed to Afghanistan to assist in the evacuation of diplomatic staff and other country nationals. They will also support acceleration of the schemes to relocate former locally employed Afghan civilians. 600 British military personnel will be deployed.

Prospects for peace?

The resumption of talks has been welcomed, but doubts remain over the chances of the Afghan Government and the Taliban agreeing a political settlement, and permanent ceasefire, in the near term.

A resurgent Taliban is making significant gains and showing little interest in ending its military offensive in favour of any peace deal. In contrast, the Afghan Government has made steps to court Afghanistan’s warlords and local militia leaders in an effort to bring together an anti-Taliban coalition of its own. 

If the Taliban is successful in taking over the country, there are fears for what the future holds. As the Taliban have advanced there have been widespread reports of strict Sharia law being imposed in areas under its control, in particular with respect to women and children. Religious scholars, tribal elders, female journalists and human rights activists have reportedly been killed in targeted attacks, while house to house searches have been conducted for Afghans who have worked for the Afghan Government or coalition forces. There are increasing reports of war crimes violations. Questions also remain over whether the Taliban will cut ties with al-Qaeda and other international terrorist networks.

Several commentators argue, however, that the chances of Afghanistan sliding into civil war are far more likely. Local militia groups and former warlords in Afghanistan are rising to prominence and Islamic State, which the Taliban regards as a strategic rival, has a continuing presence in the east of the country. Neighbouring countries may also intensify their struggle for influence in Afghanistan after US forces withdraw by backing proxies, and therefore exacerbating longstanding ethnic divisions.

In response to criticism over the unfolding security situation, the US has pointed to the significant military capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces and the “over the horizon” support that coalition forces still intend to provide from elsewhere in the region. President Biden has said that he does not regret the decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan and that it is time for Afghanistan’s leaders to come together and “fight for themselves, fight for their nation”.

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