Commentary: What comes after a US withdrawal from Afghanistan?

Commentary: What comes after a US withdrawal from Afghanistan?

At this point of time, there is little hope for a US victory, says Abdulkader Sinno, associate professor of political science and middle eastern studies at Indiana University.

INDIANA: The United States and the Taliban may be nearing an agreement to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan after more than 17 years of conflict.

In return, the Taliban would commit to refusing access to anti-American organisations such as al Qaeda on its territory.

How did we get to this point – and what will be the consequences of such an agreement?


The current conflict began when the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan a few weeks after 9/11.

It was on Afghan soil that Osama bin Laden hatched the plot to attack the US. The Taliban, the de facto rulers of much of Afghanistan in the wake of a bloody civil war, had given bin Laden and his supporters shelter.

Two months into the US invasion, Taliban state institutions and defensive positions crumbled and the United States formed new state institutions led by Afghans who had fought the Taliban. 

The US maintained a limited force to fight and capture al Qaeda and Taliban leaders but otherwise invested little in the Afghan economy or society.

It took the Taliban four years to reconstitute itself as an effective force of insurgents to fight the US and the Afghan government, and they became stronger every year after 2004. 

More than 2,750 people were killed when two passenger jets crashed into the World Trade Center
More than 2,750 people were killed when two passenger jets crashed into the World Trade Center during the 9/11 attacks in 2001. (Photo: AFP/Doug Kanter)

Since 2001, the US-led coalition has spent US$1 trillion dollars and committed a peak of 140,000 troops and 100,000 contractors to an unsuccessful attempt to defeat the Taliban. More than 5,000 American soldiers and contractors were killed.

Today, a US force of 14,000 troops and massive US Airforce assets are helping maintain the defensive positions of an Afghan government that is widely considered as one of the most corrupt in the world.

The Taliban is making territorial gains and killing hundreds of regime troops each month. They feel that they are on the cusp of victory.

Militias that recruit from the Hazara, Tajik and Uzbek minorities have rearmed in anticipation of the collapse of the regime in Kabul and fear of a coming civil war with the mostly Pushtun Taliban. Afghanistan is nearing an endgame.


An agreement between the Taliban and the US would be an impressive accomplishment for the Taliban. From their perspective, it would be their reward for fighting the world’s strongest military power and holding them to a stalemate.

They were already rewarded when they got to negotiate directly with the United States, as they have always requested, instead of the Afghan regime which they despise. If the negotiations are successful, they would also be getting precisely what they asked for: An American withdrawal.

The announcement signals a growing confidence among the Taliban for US troops to pull out of
The announcement signals a growing confidence among the Taliban for US troops to pull out of Afghanistan (Photo: AFP/WAKIL KOHSAR)

In return, they are making a commitment to do something they would likely have done anyway. Al Qaeda’s attack on the US caused the Taliban to lose control of Afghanistan for years. They are not likely to risk having to pay that cost again once they regain control of Kabul, even if they don’t sign an agreement.


There is little hope for an outright US victory over the Taliban at this point.

The remaining force of 14,000 US troops is mostly meant to shore up Afghan state defences. It is too small to reverse momentum on the battlefield. 

An agreement and withdrawal would therefore be attractive for those who value less military spending and stress on the military, including General John Nicholson, the previous commander of the American and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

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The agreement, however, could undermine US reputation in ways big and small. The Obama and Trump administrations never reversed a 2002 Bush executive order that added the Taliban to the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists, but they have simultaneously pleaded with them to negotiate in spite of claims that Washington does not negotiate with terrorists.

It also signals US weakness and inability to fight a dedicated force of insurgents. Militants elsewhere, including Islamic State leaders, could find this lesson instructive. 

U.S. military personnel pass in front of a U.S. A-10 aircraft, one of a squadron that has arrived t
US military personnel pass in front of a US A-10 aircraft, one of a squadron that has arrived to step up the fight against the Taliban, at the Kandahar air base, Afghanistan January 23, 2018. (Photo: REUTERS/Omar Sobhani)

An agreement could also signal that the US is an unreliable ally that abandons those who side with it. 

The United States is involved in numerous conflicts worldwide in places as diverse as Syria and Somalia, and many of its local allies would logically recalculate their own commitments after witnessing a US disengagement from Afghanistan.


As I describe in my book Organisations at War in Afghanistan, governments tend to unravel quickly in Afghanistan when foreign support, both military and financial, ceases.

This is precisely what happened after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan and stopped their support in the early 1990s. Different regime militias and military units either disintegrated, joined their erstwhile Mujahideen opponents or became independent militias.

Similarly, today’s Afghan state officials at all levels have long hedged their bets by maintaining ties with the Taliban, their nominal opponents and minority militias. 

If history is any indication, we can expect that entire agencies and units will either fragment or collectively join any of several strongman-led ethnic militias when the rewards of working for the regime stop outweighing the risks of facing the Taliban. 

Some may even defect to the Taliban. This is expected behavior in dangerous environments such as Afghanistan, where everyone is expected to have a hedging strategy for survival.

Once the state gets pulled in all directions, Afghanistan will likely degenerate into a civil war very similar to the one that the United States interrupted when it invaded in late 2001. 

Other countries, including Russia, Iran and India will choose sides to back. I estimate that the Taliban, with their dedicated Pakistani and Arab Gulf backers will win that conflict, just like they almost did in 2001. 

We may very well reach a point where we see the 17-year American occupation as merely a futile, bloody and costly interruption of the Afghan civil war.

Pakistan has long wielded influence over the militants and has been seen as key to any peace push in
Pakistan has long wielded influence over the militants. (Photo: AFP/FAROOQ NAEEM)

I consider a US-Taliban agreement to be no more than a face-saving measure to conclude a failed and costly American military intervention. 

If there is a useful lesson to be learned from this misadventure, it is that leaders of even the world’s mightiest military power need to reconsider the merits of a militarised foreign policy in the Muslim world. 

US military interventions are stoking resentment and inflaming a perpetual transnational insurgency across Muslim countries. If it doesn’t change its course, the US may very well suffer more defeats such as the one in Afghanistan and will cause even more hurt and damage in other countries along the way.

Abdulkader Sinno is associate professor of Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies at Indiana University. This commentary first appeared in The Conversation. Read it here

Source: CNA/nr