Afghanistan looks at an uncertain future

Ruchi Ghanashyam Tuesday 06th July 2021 10:09 EDT

The last of the US soldiers have left the Bagram airbase. Bagram, about one hour north of Kabul,  was at the centre of the US war in Afghanistan for almost 20 years. It was the hub of the vast military airlift operation to ferry supplies for US and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Surveillance aircraft would also fly out from Bagram to keep a watch on the movements of the Taliban.  The airbase was built by Soviet engineers in the 1950s. It has been the centre of two foreign military campaigns: by the Soviet Union in 1979, and the US “war on terror”. Over the last two decades, it was staffed by the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing of the US Force, though units from the army, navy and the marine corps served in rotation. Around 3000 Afghan soldiers have moved into Bagram, as Afghanistan faces the challenge of a resurgent Taliban

U.S. forces had invaded Afghanistan in 2001 after the 11 September terror attacks.  The war that followed became the longest military engagement of the USA.

The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan is pursuant to a peace agreement signed in Doha, Qatar, between the US and the Taliban on 29 February 2020, titled the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan. Its provisions included the withdrawal of all regular American and NATO troops from Afghanistan, a Taliban pledge to prevent al-Qaeda from operating in areas under Taliban control, and talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. 

The Trump administration had agreed to an initial force reduction from 13,000 to 8,600 by July 2020, followed by a full withdrawal by 1 May 2021 provided the Taliban kept its commitments. In  April 2021, the Biden administration said that it expected to complete the withdrawal by 11 September 2021, announcing later that it would keep 650 American troops in Afghanistan to defend the U.S. embassy and Kabul airport alongside Turkish troops. Earlier, in 2011, President Obama had announced that the US would withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.  While significant numbers of U.S. troops were withdrawn by 2014, 9,800 American soldiers remained deployed inside Afghanistan.

The Taliban had first arrived in Afghanistan in 1994 and until their downfall,  were in control of almost 90 per cent of the country. Their insurgency started after their fall from power following the 2001 War in Afghanistan. Their efforts have been against the Afghan governments, as well as the US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), targeting not just the Afghan National Security Forces and their NATO allies, but civilian targets as well. 

The two decades-old conflicts has cost thousands of American and Afghan lives,  involving tens of thousands of American men and women. Some of the early troops even saw their offspring participate in the War. Over 2,300 US military personnel have died in Afghanistan with more than 20,000 wounded and between 35,000 to 40,000 civilian deaths since 2001. 

Speaking about the risks of the US withdrawal, President Biden recalled that the US had been in Afghanistan for 20 years, and he believed that the Afghan government under President Ashraf Ghani “have capacity” to sustain a government and prevent Kabul from being overrun by Taliban. There is concern among the veterans about the safety of thousands of Afghan interpreters and other allies from the region who are likely to face revenge attacks from the Taliban. A group of senior veterans have called on President Biden to evacuate them. 

There is serious concern about the havoc that the Taliban are likely to create in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of US-NATO forces.  With the handing over of Bagram’s runway and hangars to Afghan troops, the Taliban are likely to try and test its defences.  For the Afghan armed forces, on the other hand, it will be a priority to defend this strategic base, the fall of which would be a major propaganda score against them. It is most likely to see fighting once again. 

The Taliban have rapidly moved to make strategic gains in the north of Afghanistan. With a Taliban friendly Pakistan in the south-east, the Taliban controlling the areas bordering the Central Asian countries and Taliban’s increasing pressure in southern Afghanistan, the Afghan forces will face a tough situation. Taliban ranks have over the years been strengthened by ethnic Afghan Tajiks and Uzbeks, and even some Shias. Thus, they can make the claim of no longer being the only Sunni Pashtun group. It remains to be seen if the brave fightback by better trained Afghan forces, aided by weapons and equipment left behind by the Americans, will succeed in enhancing the internal fault lines within the Taliban. 

Taliban control of Afghanistan has security implications for India. Anti-India terrorist groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba had found strength and space in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan before 2001. One recalls that Indian Airlines flight IC-814 had been hijacked from Kathmandu to Kandahar in December 2000.

India has been a major development partner of Afghanistan with over $10bn worth of commitments/ projects. Scholarships, both long and short term capacity building programmes, have been offered to thousands of Afghans. A peaceful Afghanistan that is free of terrorism and foreign interference and is run by and for Afghans is in the interest of not just Afghanistan, but peace-loving nations in the region and the globe.

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