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In January 2021 the new Biden administration confirmed that it would review US-Afghanistan policy and the parameters of the deal previously agreed with the Taliban in February 2020. While an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process remained the goal, the lack of progress in negotiations and concerns over continued violence in the country raised specific questions over the timetable for the withdrawal of US forces.

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 will honour its commitments under the February 2020 deal. However, the process of withdrawal would be delayed until 1 May 2021. On 8 July President Biden confirmed the US military presence in Afghanistan would 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 will continue beyond withdrawal.

US officials have, thus far, refused to be drawn on the specifics of future assistance, which has led to considerable speculation as to what over the horizon logistical support may entail, where it will be based, and where the line will be drawn between supporting the ANSF and conducting counterterrorism operations.

What does this mean for coalition forces? 

US and coalition forces in Afghanistan have always taken the approach of “in together, out together” and therefore 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 Afghan National Security Forces is currently under discussion.

Implications for the peace process

The US and its allies are of the belief 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.

The US and its allies have instead committed to building a new relationship with Afghanistan, which is premised on support for the Afghan Government, the peace process and the Afghan National Security Forces.

However, the withdrawal of international military forces, in the absence of a negotiated peace settlement and ceasefire, has been met with concern.

The peace talks have made no progress since agreement was reached in December 2020 on the basis for negotiations to proceed. Several international attempts to bring the Taliban and Afghan Government together have ended in failure. 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 move towards withdrawal, the Iranian Foreign Ministry announced that an Afghan government delegation had met with Taliban representatives in Tehran, in an effort to move beyond the current diplomatic impasse. Both sides reportedly committed to further discussion although no timeframe for doing so was set out. 

The withdrawal of international military forces is also being conducted against a backdrop of escalating violence 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. In recent weeks the Taliban has begun a major offensive against Afghan government forces as the summer fighting season begins. Dozens of districts have fallen to the Taliban, particularly in the north, with reports of little resistance by the Afghan National Security Forces. Hundreds of Afghan soldiers have fled across Afghanistan’s borders into neighbouring Tajikistan. Recent heavy fighting between Afghan and Taliban forces in Helmand, Kandahar and the northern provinces has also forced thousands of Afghan civilians to flee their homes. 

The Taliban is currently assessed to be in direct control of a third of districts and district centres across Afghanistan. 

The resumption of talks in Tehran has been welcomed, but doubts remain over the chances of the Afghan government and the Taliban to agree a political settlement, and permanent ceasefire, in the near term. Yet, many analysts concur that the current Afghan Government is fragile and unlikely to survive in the longer term without a negotiated peace settlement. A resurgent Taliban is already making significant territorial gains, leading many to conclude that it is merely biding its time with respect to intra-Afghan peace talks and will move to take control of the country, by force, once international military forces have left completely. There are also lingering questions over whether the Taliban will cut ties with al-Qaeda and other international terrorist networks.

Other commentators argue, however, that a Taliban rise to power is not inevitable. There have been reports that various local militia groups and former warlords in Afghanistan, many organised along ethnic lines, are regrouping and remobilising. 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.

This combination of factors has led many to fear a return to civil war, akin to the 1990s after the Soviet Union left.


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