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Prospects for Peace: The Way Forward in Afghanistan
Prospects for Peace: The Way Forward in Afghanistan
How the U.S. Withdrawal Decision Will Affect the Afghan Conflict
How the U.S. Withdrawal Decision Will Affect the Afghan Conflict
The US Capitol building in Washington, DC. Mark Fischer/FLICKR

Prospects for Peace: The Way Forward in Afghanistan

In this testimony delivered to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, Crisis Group's Asia Program Director Laurel Miller analyses the 29 February U.S.-Taliban agreement, assessing its implications for both the U.S. military presence and the larger peace process in Afghanistan.

Good afternoon, Chairman Bera, Ranking Member Yoho, and distinguished members of the Subcommittee. Thank you for the invitation to testify at this important hearing on the prospects for peace in Afghanistan in light of the February 29 conclusion of an agreement between the United States and the Taliban.

I will provide an overview and analysis of the main elements of the agreement; discuss what the agreement means for U.S. policy toward Afghanistan, particularly the continuation or not of a military presence in the country; sketch several scenarios for the outcome of the peace process; and identify several problems to watch for that could thwart a political settlement.

Founded in 1995, International Crisis Group is a field-based organization that conducts research and advocacy on preventing and resolving deadly conflict. We operate in dozens of countries around the world and have worked on Afghanistan for almost two decades. Our field work gives us insight into the perspectives on all sides of conflicts and crises and on the dynamics that shape them on the ground.[fn]A fuller description of Crisis Group’s mission and methodology can be found – together with our publications on Afghanistan and other regions – at CrisisGroup.orgHide Footnote

Key Terms of the U.S.-Taliban Deal and Early Implementation Challenges

On 29 February 2020, in Doha, Qatar, the United States and the Taliban signed a four-page “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan”.[fn]Available at https://www.state.gov/agreement-for-bringing-peace-to-afghanistan/.Hide Footnote  The agreement reportedly has two non-disclosed annexes regarding implementation measures that have been made available to Members of Congress for review. References in my testimony to the agreement concern only the publicly-available main portion.

The agreement centers on a U.S. commitment to withdraw all military forces and other non-diplomatic personnel from Afghanistan within 14 months from the signature date of the agreement, in exchange for a Taliban commitment to prevent al-Qaeda or any other group or individual from using Afghan soil to threaten the security of the United States or its allies. Importantly, it also includes a Taliban commitment to enter into “intra-Afghan negotiations” – a process that the text indicated was set to commence on March 10. The agreement makes clear that the forces of U.S. allies and partners in Afghanistan would be drawn down in parallel with U.S. forces.

Two paragraphs of the agreement lay out the withdrawal timeline and conditions. The first of those states simply that, within 135 days, the U.S. will reduce its number of troops to 8,600 (and allies and Coalition forces will reduce proportionately), and that all forces will be withdrawn from five bases. This paragraph states no conditions for this first phase of withdrawal – meaning, on the agreement’s face at least, that this phase will proceed regardless of the Taliban’s conduct.

The second of the withdrawal paragraphs states that “complete withdrawal” of all remaining forces from remaining bases will occur within the subsequent nine and half months. This paragraph does include conditionality, the entirety of which is stated as a preface to the withdrawal language, ie, “[w]ith the commitment and action on the obligations” of the Taliban, the withdrawal will proceed. Those obligations are that the Taliban “will not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qa’ida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies” and will “not host” such individuals or groups. The Taliban also agree to “instruct” their members not to cooperate with such groups or individuals, and to “prevent” such groups or individuals from recruiting, training, and fundraising.

The agreement’s only other indication of conditionality is a statement that four elements – the Taliban’s anti-terrorism assurances, the withdrawal timeline for foreign forces, the Taliban commitment to “start” negotiations with other Afghans, and the Taliban’s commitment to include permanent ceasefire as “an item on the agenda” in those negotiations – are “interrelated”. The intended meaning of the inter-relationship is ambiguous, however, because the agreement also says that the “four elements each will be implemented in accordance with its own agreed timeline and agreed terms”, a provision that seems potentially contradictory to inter-relation.

In a concession to the Taliban, the agreement also includes an aggressive timeline for removal of UN sanctions (by 29 May 2020) and U.S. sanctions (by 27 August 2020) imposed on members of the Taliban, though these are stated as goals. Attracting greater controversy so far, the agreement includes, as another concession, a U.S. commitment to achieve the release of “up to” 5,000 Taliban prisoners and “up to” 1,000 prisoners “of the other side” prior to the start of intra-Afghan negotiations, and all remaining prisoners over the course of the subsequent three months. Taliban prisoners are held by the Afghan government, not the United States. Afghan government authorities have so far balked at this timeline for prisoner releases.

Two complications quickly beset implementation of the agreement; the lasting significance of these is not yet clear. First was the dissension over prisoner releases. Differences between the U.S.-Taliban agreement and a “Joint Declaration” the United States and Afghan government signed in Kabul the same day created ambiguity as to whether there were shared understandings on whether and when releases would occur.[fn]Available at https://www.state.gov/agreement-for-bringing-peace-to-afghanistan/.Hide Footnote  Regarding prisoners, the declaration states only that the Afghan government will “participate in a U.S.-facilitated discussion with Taliban representatives on confidence building measures, to include determining the feasibility of releasing significant numbers of prisoners on both sides”. As of the time this testimony was submitted, U.S. discussions with the Afghan government and Taliban aimed at reaching an accommodation on this issue appeared to be underway.

The second complication stemmed from a separate ambiguity, concerning expectations of the extent to which violence would persist after 29 February. The U.S., Afghan government and Taliban had mutually agreed upon and implemented a seven-day period of “reduction in violence” beginning on 22 February that was intended to improve the atmosphere for concluding the agreement. U.S. officials had pointedly expressed their expectation that the Taliban would keep violence subdued even after signing of the agreement, but the Taliban did not publicly confirm their concurrence in such expectations. The text of the agreement does not require the Taliban to abjure violence at this stage. Since 29 February, Taliban violence has somewhat increased over the reduced level of preceding days, drawing U.S. and Afghan government complaints and military actions in response. The Taliban does not technically appear to be in violation of the agreement, however.

Public debate about the U.S.-Taliban agreement has surfaced the question whether it is a peace deal or “just” a withdrawal deal.

What Kind of Deal Has the U.S. Made with the Taliban?

Public debate about the U.S.-Taliban agreement has surfaced the question whether it is a peace deal or “just” a withdrawal deal. This is the wrong question to ask because the former characterization oversells the agreement and the latter undervalues it.

The deal is not a peace agreement. Even full implementation of the terms that are within the four corners of the four-page agreement would not alone bring peace to Afghanistan. Only a political settlement among the Afghan parties to the conflict can do that. The U.S.-Taliban deal does, however, create an opportunity for that political settlement to be achieved by committing the Taliban to enter into intra-Afghan negotiations – but it is so far only an opportunity.

The deal is unquestionably a withdrawal agreement, in that it sets out terms for the complete withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. But the withdrawal commitment is inextricably linked to the potential for a negotiated peace. In light of the Taliban’s longstanding primary demand for the complete end of the foreign military presence in Afghanistan, there is no prospect of a political settlement of the war that does not include the promise of a U.S. military withdrawal. If there was ever to be such a settlement, sooner or later the U.S. would have to commit to pulling out. Making that commitment prior to the start of peace negotiations among Afghans, rather than in connection with the outcome, was a U.S. concession to the Taliban, but it was one the U.S. probably had to make to jump-start talks. Years of U.S. efforts to catalyze peace negotiations without making that sequencing concession had failed precisely for that reason.

The U.S. has a starker choice to make than some would prefer. Either it can keep military forces in Afghanistan indefinitely or it can enable the possibility of a political settlement by agreeing to withdraw its forces; it cannot do both. Some who are uncomfortable with both perpetuation of “endless war” and the risk entailed by complete withdrawal have suggested that the U.S. military should draw down but maintain a small number of forces in Afghanistan. These suggestions fail, however, to grapple with the Taliban’s refusal to countenance to a continued foreign military presence no matter the size.

Because the agreement calls for a complete military withdrawal within 14 months, it appears to signify that the U.S. has now made this choice. But this is another respect in which the agreement contains some ambiguity. U.S. officials have emphasized repeatedly that the withdrawal commitment is conditions-based. As already noted, the condition (there is only one) – Taliban “commitment and action” on its anti-terrorism “obligations” – is very briefly stated. The U.S. appears to have left itself wide latitude to judge the specific nature and sufficiency of Taliban “action”. The Taliban may dispute U.S. judgments in this regard but it will not be able to compel the U.S. to accept an interpretation at variance with an American one.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper added to the uncertainty by asserting an additional condition not in the text of the agreement in an opinion piece published on 29 February.[fn]“Defense Secretary Mark Esper: This is our chance to bring troops home from Afghanistan for good”, Washington Post, 29 February 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/02/29/defense-secretary-mark-esper-this-is-our-chance-bring-troops-home-afghanistan-good/.
 Hide Footnote
 He stated that the U.S. troop presence would be reduced “to a goal of zero in 2021” if “progress on the political front between the Taliban and the current Afghan government continues”, and that stalled progress probably would translate into suspension of the drawdown. This suggestion of conditionality outside the actual text muddies the deal.

A peace settlement among Afghans will have to determine how to share power and security responsibilities...

The Next Stage, and the Next Main Hurdles

If the initial complications regarding prisoner releases and expectations regarding violence are resolved and intra-Afghan talks commence, then even tougher issues await negotiators than those addressed in U.S.-Taliban talks. A peace settlement among Afghans will have to determine how to share power and security responsibilities, and how to modify state structures to satisfy both the current government’s interest in maintaining the current system and the Taliban’s desire for a system they would regard as more Islamic.[fn]Regarding substantive issues that will likely have to be addressed in intra-Afghan negotiations, see Laurel E. Miller and Jonathan S. Blake, “Envisioning a Comprehensive Peace Agreement for Afghanistan”, RAND Corporation, 2019, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2937.html.
 Hide Footnote

This next stage of talks appears to be, as yet, woefully under-prepared. Even with the negotiations possibly imminent there is still much left to be decided and done: the parties have yet to name a venue for the talks, at least publicly; agree on an agenda (save for the Taliban’s commitment to include ceasefire as a topic); or designate the members of negotiating teams. Putting together the negotiating team is a problem particularly on the Afghan government’s side, due to the recent high-stakes political tensions over presidential election results. In addition, U.S. intentions regarding its role in shaping or participating in the next-stage negotiations are unclear – nor is it apparent what sort of U.S. involvement the Afghan negotiating sides would welcome.

A process as difficult as peace talks aimed at ending decades of war in Afghanistan is unlikely to get off to a productive start without thorough and urgent preparation. International Crisis Group has proposed practical steps that can be taken to bolster the prospects for sustaining intra-Afghan talks beyond an opening round and eventually producing a political settlement to the conflict.[fn]Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°160, Twelve Ideas to Make Intra-Afghan Negotiations Work, 2 March 2020, https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-asia/afghanistan/b160-making-intra-afghan-negotiations-work-twelve-ideas.Hide Footnote  These include designating a neutral mediator, selecting a location for talks based on the host government’s ability to organize and facilitate them effectively, and clarifying the format and structure for talks.

Scenarios for Plausible Outcomes

If the Afghan parties, with support and pressure from the U.S. and other interested governments, overcome both the political and organizational challenges to starting an Afghan peace process, that process is not likely to produce results quickly. A timeline of a year or more would not be surprising given the complexity of the issues and other experiences with peace processes around the world. If the talks extend beyond the 14-month timeline for a U.S. military withdrawal, Washington will have to face the decision whether to proceed with the withdrawal regardless. If the talks fail to gain traction and the peace process collapses, the U.S. also will have to face that same decision.

Setting aside the question of the timeline, in a scenario in which the Afghan parties succeed in reaching a political settlement there will be no basis (in accordance with the 29 February U.S.-Taliban agreement) for the U.S. to keep any forces in Afghanistan, including for a counter-terrorism mission. Unless the Taliban dramatically changes its viewpoint on the question of a foreign military presence, zero will have to mean zero or else the Taliban will not concur in a settlement. In this scenario, the U.S. would be able to maintain its embassy (and appropriate security personnel for the embassy), and thus would be in a position to provide both diplomatic and necessary financial support for implementation of the settlement. There is a theoretical possibility that a future Afghan government that includes the Taliban might agree to some form of counter-terrorism security cooperation with the United States, but the plausibility of that is quite uncertain.

In an alternative scenario in which the peace process collapses and there is no political settlement, the war will persist. In those conditions, if the U.S. decides to maintain troops in Afghanistan, it is unlikely that their numbers could dip much below the level anticipated in the first phase of withdrawal. Some have suggested that the U.S. military might be able to scale down its mission to one focused only on counter-terrorism. That is an implausible outcome because Afghan government forces would continue to be reliant on the U.S. in their existential fight against the Taliban insurgency, and the Afghan government would not likely consent to a U.S. force presence that aims to serve only U.S. counter-terrorism interests while declining to back up the government in its fight. Moreover, any U.S. forces remaining in the country would have to maintain sufficient capabilities to continue protecting themselves from Taliban attacks.

In the peace process collapse scenario, if the U.S. maintains more or less the status quo level of forces, it probably could prevent the defeat of the Afghan government for the foreseeable future – at more or less status quo levels of financial support. The ongoing conflict would continue to severely constrain Afghan economic growth and limit improvements in governance capacity. On the other hand, if the U.S. in this scenario proceeded with military withdrawal, the conflict would likely worsen, perhaps even rapidly spiraling into intensified and multi-sided civil war. In that context, the U.S. embassy would be in jeopardy and probably would have to be evacuated; civilian assistance would be reduced to humanitarian-only; and security assistance would become difficult to deliver unless the U.S. were prepared to forego oversight. The implications for the Afghan population – which last year suffered over 10,000 civilian casualties alone – would be grave.

An especially difficult scenario for the U.S. to navigate would involve the Afghan parties sustaining peace negotiations for most or all of the 14-month drawdown period but collapsing around that point in time. If the U.S., in fact, adheres to the 14-month timeline, the drawdown will have to be well underway close to the final deadline. Notably, the 29 February agreement – again, in the public portions – says nothing about the pace and slope of drawdown during the period after the first 135 days, so it is uncertain what current U.S. military plans are in this regard.

The possibility of one or more parties to the talks negotiating in good faith just long enough for the U.S. to implement its withdrawal commitment cannot be excluded. This risk can be mitigated only imperfectly through measures such as assessing the parties’ negotiating behavior as talks proceed; encouraging a process that produces a series of interim agreements that build on each other rather than one that withholds any agreement until the end; and working diplomatically with other governments that have influence with the parties to sustain external pressure in favor of conflict resolution. It should be noted that even if the parties do negotiate in good faith and finalize a political settlement, that settlement – like many peace agreements – could still fall apart at any time during implementation. This is a risk that an indefinite U.S. military presence (leaving aside the implausibility of the Taliban agreeing to such) is not likely to mitigate successfully given that the last 18 years of U.S. experience in Afghanistan shows the limits of Washington’s ability to compel its preferred outcomes through force.

The more-positive and the more-negative scenarios sketched out here are plausible and therefore should equally inform contingency planning.

Problems to Watch Out For

As and when the currently unsettled state of the peace process begins to clarify, there are several problems that may come to the foreground.

First, the fuzziness of the withdrawal conditions in the 29 February agreement may indicate that the U.S. has not resolved its internal policy struggle over whether it really intends to withdraw militarily from Afghanistan. President Trump has been clear about his preference to pull out and public support for the war has dimmed. But the commitment of elements of the national security bureaucracy appears uneven.

Second, even if Kabul manages to quickly pull together an inclusive negotiating team for the intra-Afghan talks, ongoing political disunity among factions and ethnic groups may bedevil the team’s ability to reach consensus on its negotiating positions. Furthermore, it is not yet clear whether the maximalists or those more amenable to compromise with the Taliban will be dominant on Kabul’s side of the negotiating table.

Third, as for the Taliban, they have not yet had to make any very difficult choices. Consequently, the nascent peace process has not yet seriously tested their ability to do so. Because their cohesion has been one of their comparative advantages and because they diligently, and sometimes ruthlessly, protect it, it is not yet clear whether they will be willing and able to make controversial compromises that might strain cohesion.

These are not the only problems the peace process is likely to encounter – I have not, for instance, touched on the capabilities of Pakistan and Iran to make a successful process more or less likely – but these problems alone could be enough to scuttle it. Because the U.S. can only be a supporting player in the next, intra-Afghan stage, it cannot guarantee a successful outcome. As it becomes clearer what the actual outcome will be, and if that outcome is failure of the peace process, the U.S. will need to weigh the known costs and risks of maintaining its military presence against the less certain risks of pulling out.

A U.S. soldier of 2-12 Infantry 4BCT-4ID Task Force Mountain Warrior takes a break during a night mission near Honaker Miracle camp at the Pesh valley of Kunar Province August 12, 2009. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Q&A / Asia

How the U.S. Withdrawal Decision Will Affect the Afghan Conflict

Washington’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by 11 September spells an end to the U.S. military deployment but not peace. Crisis Group expert Andrew Watkins anticipates that negotiations will likely stall and Afghans will fear an intensified civil war as the U.S. role evolves.

What’s new in the Biden announcement that the U.S. will withdraw all troops by 11 September? Why was the announcement made now?

President Joe Biden’s televised remarks on 14 April were the first clear statement of his decision to end U.S. military involvement in the war in Afghanistan. They also marked the first time that he has conveyed that the U.S. will – almost – stick to the withdrawal timeline the Trump administration agreed upon with the Taliban. Biden made clear that the U.S. would miss the 1 May deadline set out in the U.S.-Taliban agreement reached in February 2020, but that it would “begin” withdrawing on that date, and then complete its withdrawal by 11 September. For months, speculation had been growing that a delay was likely. The questions were whether or not such a delay would be negotiated with and accepted by the Taliban and, if so, in exchange for what concessions to the Taliban. It now appears that the U.S. decision was unilateral, though Biden in his remarks claimed it was consistent with the U.S.-Taliban deal.

Biden administration officials have characterised the deal with the Taliban as overly favourable to the insurgent group, one that put them in a bind: should the U.S. abide by the agreement’s withdrawal deadline when questions remain as to the Taliban’s commitments on counter-terrorism and their participation in peace talks? By declaring a firm exit date in a matter of months, but also delaying beyond the U.S.-Taliban agreement’s deadline, Biden said he is fulfilling the spirit of commitments made by the previous administration. The White House seems to hope that making this announcement before 1 May would satisfy the Taliban’s core demand that foreign troops exit the country, while enabling a smoother departure than the U.S. military could execute within a few weeks.

The decision reflects Biden’s recalculation of U.S. interests in Afghanistan and a determination that they are not sufficient to justify a continued troop presence on the ground.

Although this announcement’s timing is linked to the 1 May deadline, Biden and senior administration officials have stressed rationales for the military departure unrelated to the U.S.-Taliban agreement. These include sufficient satisfaction of the main U.S. reason for its 2001 military intervention – countering al-Qaeda – and a desire to focus instead on other foreign policy priorities. First and foremost, the decision reflects Biden’s recalculation of U.S. interests in Afghanistan and a determination that they are not sufficient to justify a continued troop presence on the ground.

What has been the Taliban’s response?

Taliban spokesmen have issued several tweets so far. One said the group will not attend any conference to determine Afghanistan’s future until foreign troops have departed, an apparent rejection of the Turkey-hosted peace conference planned for 24 April and organised by Ankara, the UN and Qatar at U.S. instigation. Another reiterated what the group has said publicly for months – that any delay beyond the date specified in the U.S.-Taliban agreement would violate the deal and risk a violent response.

Taliban representatives have forecast that any unilateral U.S. decision on withdrawal would be a sign of duplicity and disrespect.

U.S. officials may believe that concrete confirmation of a military withdrawal will be sufficiently good news for the Taliban to forestall a harsh response targeting U.S. personnel, but that remains to be seen. The Taliban could characterise the announcement as a declaration that the U.S. is leaving on its own terms, in a rejection of the agreement the two parties reached in 2020. The group has grown increasingly mistrustful of the U.S., in particular after the presidential transition, as it has perceived hesitation in U.S. officials’ remarks and diplomatic engagement on the terms of their agreement. Taliban representatives have forecast since January that any unilateral U.S. decision on withdrawal would be a sign of duplicity and disrespect.

At the same time, it is in the Taliban’s interests not to disrupt the U.S. departure, if the movement sees quickly that the withdrawal is really happening. For this reason, it is possible that Taliban rhetoric vis-à-vis the U.S. will be more bellicose than the group’s actions.

What does this news mean for the planned conference in Turkey?

The Taliban immediately seized on the news of the U.S. delayed withdrawal to reject out of hand the forthcoming peace conference in Turkey, planned to begin on 24 April. The U.S. had rather suddenly proposed this conference in March, in a letter from Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Afghan leaders, with the intent to convene neighbouring and regional states as well as the Afghan sides in order to jump-start lagging talks among the Afghan parties. The U.S. plan included a risky proposal to establish a “transitional” or interim power-sharing government consisting of various Afghan stakeholders including the Taliban.

Until 13 April, the Taliban had not publicly indicated whether they would attend, and at several points Taliban figures disparaged the notion of a temporary power-sharing arrangement. Taliban sources have described the conference to Crisis Group as a ploy to extract major compromises not included in the February 2020 agreement, for what they see as too little in return. But diplomats involved in the planning say the group continued to discuss the possibility of attending until news of the withdrawal broke.

It is difficult to envision the Turkey conference taking place without the Taliban’s participation and certainly the event would not notch up any significant achievements if it did occur without them. It seems unlikely the Taliban will back down from their rejection of participation, though a reversal is not impossible considering that Ankara and Doha especially (as co-conveners who would be embarrassed by the event’s failure) will probably pressure the group to show up. There could be an attempt to press on without the Taliban’s presence, if only to convene some of the foreign governments supporting the peace process.

What does the news mean for peace efforts more broadly?

Nothing good, but it is not clear that ignoring the 1 May deadline and avoiding setting a withdrawal date would have advanced peace talks either, given the anger that course of action would likely have provoked among the Taliban.

The primary motivation for the Taliban’s participation in Afghan peace talks that had been intermittently ongoing in Doha since September 2020 was the U.S. commitment in the February 2020 agreement to withdraw its troops – and all foreign troops – by 1 May. But this incentive had proven so far insufficient to elicit any real sign of willingness to compromise from the insurgent group. It is unclear what further incentives could now be offered that would prompt greater willingness. There will likely be tremendous pressure within the Taliban movement to press its military advantage in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal and attempt to achieve an outright military victory.

With the high potential for military conflict to re-intensify in the months to come, a resumption of peace talks between the two sides could grow increasingly unlikely.

As for the other side of the table, a number of political opposition figures will see a continuation of peace efforts as in their interest, especially after the U.S. raised the prospect of an interim government in which they might gain a greater share of power. But the Taliban’s response to the U.S. withdrawal, and their rejection of the Turkey conference, will likely shelve any such proposal. By the same token, President Ashraf Ghani and his senior officials are not likely to face the same pressure to cooperate with peace initiatives as they had during recent months, when the U.S. was pursuing last-ditch efforts to get a deal made before the withdrawal deadline. With the high potential for military conflict to re-intensify in the months to come, a resumption of peace talks between the two sides could grow increasingly unlikely.

The Taliban may still be interested in negotiating with the U.S. about smoothing the way for withdrawal, especially in order to obtain the additional release (by Kabul) of imprisoned fighters or UN sanctions relief. But it is not likely that the Afghan government would go along with such concessions in the wake of the withdrawal announcement – and its consent would be required.

President Biden has said that the U.S. will continue to support peace talks, and that it will press regional states to “do more” to support Afghanistan. But it is unclear what Washington’s diplomatic efforts will look like or what goals it will seek to achieve in the months ahead as the U.S. is withdrawing forces.

Does U.S. withdrawal spell doom for the Afghan government?

Some Afghans fear that it could. Several have told Crisis Group they worry Biden’s announcement is the beginning of the end of an already weak and factious Afghan government, and of the constitutional order that the Western intervention helped erect.

It is unclear whether the U.S. will provide remote or “over-the-horizon” military support to Afghan forces.

Nonetheless, it is impossible to make predictions about the Afghan government’s future without knowing more about plans for foreign assistance, particularly U.S. security assistance, upon which the state is dependent. If the U.S. commits to providing funding at similar levels for the coming years, many Afghan officials have suggested that the government can continue to function and defend itself indefinitely. As yet it is unclear whether the U.S. will provide remote or “over-the-horizon” military support to Afghan forces, ranging from strategic advice to intelligence sharing to training (presumably outside Afghanistan). These types of support could go a long way toward helping the Afghan government maintain some battlefield equilibrium.

Also unclear is how the withdrawal – and the battlefield developments that follow it – will shape the political landscape in Afghanistan. President Ghani’s government is on shaky ground, and a number of powerful stakeholders have openly advocated for an interim government composed of various power-brokers to take its place. Although the Biden administration has pledged to continue its support for the Afghan government, potential Taliban military advances post-withdrawal could embolden these players to try to sideline Ghani.

The British and Germans have already announced they would leave when U.S. forces do. Does that mean the end of all foreign troops in Afghanistan?

In spite of allies’ frustrations with how the U.S. has approached peace efforts and the question of withdrawal, NATO has consistently held to the position of “in together, out together”. In fact, without the security umbrella provided by the U.S. military (including but not limited to aerial support, logistics pipelines and other infrastructure), NATO cannot feasibly maintain a large-scale military expedition in a hostile environment. Troop-contributing nations will have to pull out their forces.

What does that mean for Afghans?

The country has already seen the beginnings of an exodus of its political elite and civil society activists, journalists and intellectuals over the last year due to a targeted killing campaign that swept the country, largely unclaimed but widely attributed to the Taliban. This campaign, along with the potential for the country to slide back under Taliban rule, has struck fear in the hearts of many Afghans.

In 2020, reportedly in accordance with secret annexes to the U.S.-Taliban deal, the insurgents significantly scaled back their traditional annual campaign to attack the capitals of a number of besieged provinces. If the Taliban’s initial response to the U.S. announcement remains consistent, then the movement may resume such attacks as September approaches. An intensified fighting season may well lead to Taliban advances, which could provoke mass displacement and a redrawing of political allegiances inside the country.