Western troop withdrawal allows Taliban expansion to continue

Uncertain future in Afghanistan

AP/RAFIQ MAQBOOL - A man waves an Afghan flag during Independence Day celebrations in Kabul, Afghanistan.

With the imminent withdrawal of the last US military from Afghanistan, the threat posed by the Taliban militia is growing. Joe Biden has announced that they will leave the country completely on 31 August, although some 650 troops will remain to protect the US Embassy in Kabul and the international airport. They will also provide support to the Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani. "No nation has ever unified Afghanistan. No nation. There are empires that have gone there and failed," Biden said. The US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 with the aim of capturing Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda and mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. This was the longest war in which the US has been involved and has cost it approximately 1 trillion dollars. Moreover, a Brown University study estimates that the two decades of war have cost the country $2.3 trillion.

The UK joined US troops in the first bombing raids in the country, and in January 2002 the NATO mission began. The international military coalition succeeded in driving the Taliban from power, but they eventually managed to reorganise and recapture territory.

From then on, Afghanistan was a central issue that moved from one administration to the next. George W. Bush, the president with whom this war began, passed the baton to his successor, Barack Obama. But before leaving the White House he decided to send 4,500 more troops to Afghan bases. The new Democratic president promised a "new strategy" based on dislodging al-Qaeda from the country. To try to achieve this goal he sent thousands more troops while NATO also increased its presence in Afghanistan.

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In May 2011 Obama finally achieved his goal in a special mission in Pakistan: capturing the great American enemy, Osama Bin Laden. This led to the withdrawal of some troops in Afghanistan. However, violence was already raging in the country. Extremist groups are becoming stronger and stronger, attacking international diplomatic targets in the country, such as the attack in 2014 that killed three members of the United Nations and one member of the International Monetary Fund. On the other hand, controversial actions by the US military are beginning to come to light, from the murder of civilians and minors, to degrading videos with dead bodies.

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In 2018, a historic event takes place: US authorities meet for the first time with Taliban representatives to agree on a safe departure of foreign troops in exchange for the militias not becoming a security threat. These negotiations culminate in the agreement signed in Qatar on 29 February 2020. Donald Trump, then US president, assured to withdraw the country from "its endless wars". The former Republican president criticised foreign interventions as "costly and ineffective". The Doha deal agreed to withdraw foreign troops from Afghanistan and laid the groundwork for future dialogue in the country.

Biden reiterated the agreement, announcing the end of "America's longest war". Since then, US troops have progressively begun to return home, as have other NATO military personnel. As the Pentagon reports, the US has completed its withdrawal by "more than 90 per cent".

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The UK, which accompanied Washington at the start of the war, has already moved most of its units back to the country. Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, has called for "no second thoughts" about the achievements of the past two decades, citing the "harsh reality of the current situation" in Afghanistan. Germany, one of the countries with the largest military presence in Afghanistan, has already completed the full withdrawal of its troops. Australia, which was part of the international coalition, has also left Afghanistan. According to EFE, Canberra sent more than 1,500 soldiers, the largest military contribution by a non-NATO nation. This intervention has meant "a great cost" for the Oceanic country, in the words of Scott Morrison, its prime minister. Morrison recalled the 41 Australian soldiers who died in Afghanistan and the many others who have suffered physical and mental scars that will take "many years" to heal. Lorenzo Guerini, Italy's defence minister, also announced his country's full withdrawal, thanking the 723 wounded and remembering "with deep emotion" the 53 fatalities.

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While some nations are beginning to withdraw their troops, others, such as Turkey, are already beginning to draw up plans to gain influence in Afghanistan and the region after the official withdrawal. Ankara offered to administer Kabul's international airport after September, although the Taliban declined Turkey's offer. "Turkey was part of NATO forces for the last 20 years, so they should withdraw from Afghanistan on the basis of the Agreement we signed with the United States on 29 February 2020," a Taliban spokesman said, urging Ankara to leave the country, even though it is "a great Islamic country" with which they hope to maintain good relations "as a new Islamic government is established in the country". However, despite the Taliban's refusal, the Eurasian country continues with its plan to expand its influence in the country through a military, economic and cultural presence. In this way, Turkey would also gain dominance in the Central Asian region.

Turkey's aspirations in Afghanistan could also lead to an improvement in relations between Washington and Ankara, which have deteriorated in recent years. For the moment, the Afghan issue has already brought the two countries closer together. "Staying in Afghanistan is not a responsibility that one country alone can take on without support," said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. Cavusoglu's remarks seem to open the door to possible international cooperation after the withdrawal.

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During the NATO summit in June, Erdogan and Biden held talks on issues of common interest, including Afghanistan. "I explained to Biden frankly our thinking on Afghanistan. If we are asked to stay, it would be important to have American diplomatic, financial and logistical support," Erdogan said. The Turkish president also added that he would like to have Pakistan and Hungary on his side.

The meeting between the two leaders was followed by talks between Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and his US counterpart Lloyd Austin. During the phone conversations, the plan developed by Turkey to manage and secure Kabul's international airport was discussed. The Pentagon reported that Akar and Austin "reaffirmed the importance of providing adequate security" at the airport. They also agreed to talk again in the near future.

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International community fears Taliban advance

The Taliban militia reportedly controls 85% of Afghan territory, according to representatives of the Islamist organisation. In addition, the towns of Islam Qala and Torghundi, on the border with Iran and Turkmenistan respectively, are under Taliban control. The town of Islam Qala, in particular, is a key location for the Afghan economy as it brings in about $20 million to the state from its commercial activities. Both towns are located in Herat province, where the Taliban are conducting a military offensive. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Yavad Zarif has offered to help resolve the crisis in neighbouring Afghanistan. Zarif also took the opportunity to underline "the failure of the United States" in the country.

Another border of concern is the one between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, which is also controlled by the Taliban militia. More than 1,000 Afghan soldiers crossed the border into the former Soviet country after fighting in the north.


The chaos and instability that is already spilling over into nearby countries has alarmed Russia. Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, assured that Moscow was ready to defend its regional allies. Lavrov referred in particular to the Russian military base in Tajikistan. Central Asian countries must deal with the violence in Afghanistan, but they must also control many of their citizens who plan to join the ranks of the Taliban. As Huloberdi Holiknazar, Director of the Tajik Centre for Central Asian and Chinese Studies, told EFE, "various experts estimate that between 3,000 and 5,000 Tajik, Uzbek and Turkmen jihadists are fighting in Afghanistan".

China, which borders Afghanistan through the Wakhan Corridor, and India have evacuated their citizens in the country as foreign troops have begun to withdraw. Beijing, like Tehran, has pointed the finger at Washington as the main culprit in the situation. "The United States disregards its responsibilities and duties and hastily withdraws troops from Afghanistan, leaving disaster and war on the Afghan people and countries in the region," the Chinese foreign ministry said. The ministry also called the US "the original culprit of the Afghan problem".

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While countries evacuate their citizens and the military returns home, the Afghan population suffers most from the Taliban's advance. Recent attacks in Kabul and Kandahar have claimed the lives of several civilians, but these are only a small fraction of the thousands killed by the war. During 2009 and 2020, 38,000 people were killed according to a report by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. Last year, 5,939 civilians lost their lives.

Within the population there are several sectors that are particularly vulnerable, such as women or some professions. Translators, for example, are targeted by the Taliban for having worked with foreign troops during the years of the intervention. Journalists and politicians are also persecuted and killed.

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Women's and girls' rights will suffer a major setback because of the Taliban. In recent months there have been attacks on girls' schools as Islamists oppose women's education. "After fighting tirelessly for two decades to gain recognition of our fundamental rights, Afghan women face the prospect of seeing these gains traded away," warns Amnesty International.

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Nevertheless, some Afghan women have taken to the streets with weapons to defend their rights and fight against Taliban extremism. "Many of us women are ready to go to the battlefields. That includes me," says Halima Parastish, head of the Women's Affairs office in Ghor. In the regions under militia control, they have already begun to impose restrictions on women's dress, freedom of movement and education. However, their extremist rules will clash with Afghan women's struggle to maintain and gain more fundamental rights.