The consensus of Afghanistan’s future after the withdrawal of U.S. troops by Sept. 11 is grim, according to some U.S. experts.
The estimated 2,500 U.S. troops that President Joe Biden has ordered home offered some slim assurance that the Afghan government could withstand the Taliban insurgency that has reemerged across the country of 37 million.
Without those forces in place, the same negative trends — the ascendance of the once-topped Taliban, the descent of the U.S.-supported Afghan government and erosion of rights and protection for women and children — will likely accelerate, some say.
“It undermines our commitment to the Afghan people, particularly Afghan women,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. “I urge the Biden administration to make every effort between now and September to safeguard the progress made and support our partners in the formation of an inclusive, transitional government.”
Retired Maj. Gen. Mark Quantock, the former intelligence chief for Central Command, which oversaw operations in Afghanistan, was even more pessimistic.
“I’m hopeful that I am wrong and that the Afghan government can stave off the Taliban,” Quantock said. “But I am not optimistic that will occur.”
Quantock sketched out how he sees the near future unfolding:
This spring and summer: Taliban surge
With a deadline of Sept. 11 — an awful date to choose, Quantock said, as it is celebrated by extremist groups — the Taliban will increase pressure to hasten the U.S. withdrawal. The Taliban could be expected to accuse the U.S. of violating the terms of the Doha Agreement reached under former President Donald Trump. That obligated American forces to depart by May 1.
“Once our presence has diminished to a certain low level — meaning our jets and special operations folks have packed up to leave — Taliban operations will increase further.”
Commitments the Taliban made to guarantee Afghan soil won’t be used again as a launchpad to threaten U.S. security, negotiating a power-sharing agreement with the Afghan government and abiding by a cease-fire likely won’t be fulfilled, he said.
“It is naive to believe otherwise,” Quantock said.
Fall and winter 2021-2022: Afghanistans ‘government will likely capitulate’
There may be a “fig leaf effort by the Taliban to discuss power sharing” with the Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani, he said. Quantock predicted that would be a ruse and would wane once U.S. and allied forces have departed.
“By early 2022, I would expect to see renewed hostilities between the Afghan government forces and the Taliban forces,” he said. “This could last six months to two years — but ultimately, with Kabul becoming more and more isolated, and without US/NATO support, the Ghani government will likely capitulate.”
Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group are two of a number of militant groups that await the U.S. departure so that they can move in, Quantock said.
“The progress Afghanistan has made in terms of women’s rights, modernization, infrastructure, governance, etc., will all be for naught,” Quantock said. “It is unfortunate that we didn’t learn the lesson from our precipitous withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. I fear we are going to experience it again in 2021.”
Ending a ‘forever war’
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, supports the Biden plan for withdrawal, acknowledging some of the risks that Quantock points out. But in a statement, Smith argued that the cost of keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan exceeds the benefit. There is a likelihood that the Taliban, after suspending attacks on U.S. forces, will begin them again after May 1.
Waiting for “perfect security conditions” there would “mean our men and women in uniform never return home,” Smith said. U.S. forces have contributed to the establishment of the Afghan government and security forces. But the cost is too high, and they cannot guarantee stability there, he said.
“Our goal in the region has always been to prevent transnational terrorists from launching an attack against the United States or our allies, but there are other means to monitor that threat and manage risk, and, at this point, the cost and risk of a continued troop presence — both U.S. troops and those of our allies — outweigh the benefits,” Smith said.
Retired Air Force Col. Scott Murray, an intelligence officer who spent more than two years in Afghanistan at the height of the U.S. involvement in 2010-2012, said he supports the decision to withdraw. He believes the Biden administration’s assessment that al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group are unlikely to regroup there.
He’s also more optimistic about the future of Afghanistan without Western involvement. The model of a strong central government in Kabul, favored by the West for good reasons, did not fit in Afghanistan, he said.
“Culture and graft just don’t enable it,” he said. “We’ve known that for almost 20-plus years, yet we, because we are Americans, persevered. I’m saddened by the many losses of Americans and our allies, plus way too many civilian casualties that could have been avoided.”
The Taliban, he said, won’t find it easy to reverse the gains Afghans have made in education and women’s rights. He’s hopeful Afghans can create a government that works for them.
“Ultimately, the average Afghan just wants security for their family, and the Taliban will provide that freedom at the tribal level,” he said.
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