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Constraints On The US In A Post-Withdrawal Afghanistan – Analysis

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By Saaransh Mishra

In April, President Joe Biden said that while the US withdrawal from Afghanistan was an end to America’s prolonged military involvement in the country, it would still continue diplomatic and humanitarian engagement and also keep supporting the Defence and Security Forces. It is understood that even after withdrawal, it would be impossible for the US to completely disengage because of certain challenges that could very plausibly arise out of Afghanistan, mainly the resurgence of terrorist outfits that could possibly target the US later, necessitating the maintenance of military bases around Afghanistan and ensuring civil liberties, especially human rights of girls and women in the backdrop of a regressive Taliban gaining power. However, the US is faced with constraints on all fronts to appositely deal with these, which could make it almost impossible for them to secure their own interests or prevent Afghanistan from descending into further chaos.

Since 2009, the then Vice-President, Joe Biden, has been expressing his vociferous scepticism towards an expansive strategy in Afghanistan that entailed a big troop influx. Instead of nation building and population protection, Biden wanted the US to focus on disrupting the Taliban, improving the quality and training of Afghan forces, and expand reconciliation efforts to peel off some Taliban fighters. He was also more concerned with the Al-Qaeda which was predominantly in Pakistan at that point. In April, Biden declared that since the US had accomplished its goal to not let Afghanistan be used as a haven for terrorist outfits such as the Al-Qaeda to launch attacks against them, the forces needed to come back.

But the UN Security council estimates that the Al-Qaeda (which provided rationale to the US to invade Afghanistan), continues to have around 400-600 members in Afghanistan. Concerningly, two Al-Qaeda operatives recently told CNN that the “war against the US will be continuing on all fronts unless they are expelled from the rest of the Islamic World”. Moreover, the Al-Qaeda has been weakened in the past decade or so after the death of Osama Bin Laden, and the group has also been eclipsed by the ISIS after its recurrent attacks and atrocities across Europe. An Afghanistan, free of the US and an unstable security environment could become an ideal ground for the Al-Qaeda to re-launch itself, giving it ample motivation to resort to more violence. Additionally, the threat of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) in Afghanistan remains an extremely potent one. By December 2019, the ISKP was described by US officials as the most powerful and dangerous branch of the Islamic State. Despite having its leadership targeted and losing territory, the ISKP has proven remarkably resilient. Even without large swaths of territory under its control, ISKP retains a robust cadre of committed fighters dispersed throughout Afghanistan. ISKP also has extremely strong grassroots support in Kabul and likely throughout the country, particularly amongst middle-class Tajiks and maintains dozens of cells in major cities, each capable of mounting sophisticated, devastating attacks. The group has, in the past, openly expressed its explicit intentions to attack the West and has conducted some too, raising concerns about the course that it might take in Afghanistan, devoid of any foreign pressure.

While the Taliban had pledged to stop cooperating with terrorist groups, it is reported that they have continued their association with the Al-Qaeda, permitting the militants to conduct training in Afghanistan and also deploy fighters alongside them. With respect to the ISKP, it is speculated that the Taliban remain adversaries with them but for the US to rely on the Taliban as a cornerstone of its counterterrorism strategy seems too risky.

Resultantly, U.S military commanders want bases preferably in Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, for troops, drones, bombers, and artillery to monitor these extremists, because bases within Afghanistan has been a major point of contention between the US and the Taliban with many failed negotiations since 2018 when the US wanted to retain the Bagram and Shorabak bases and the Taliban staunchly opposed it. Given that the Taliban has still not changed its stance, the US Special Representatives for Afghanistan recently travelled to the Central Asian countries in the beginning of May to further discussions on the same. However, in spite of reports that Putin offered Russian bases in Central Asia for information gathering in Afghanistan, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov emphasised at a 9 July conference said that the deployment of the American military presence in Central Asia would be deemed unacceptable by Russia and that this had been conveyed to the US in a very straightforward manner. The US’s other option for a base, Pakistan, is also ruled out of the equation after Prime Minister Imran Khan stated that Pakistan cannot afford to host US bases because it will make Pakistan a target for ‘revenge by terrorists’ in case civil war ensued in Afghanistan because of bombings. Essentially, the US will be unable to set up bases in countries that would allow for quick access to Afghanistan, which could severely hamper counterterrorism operations and intelligence-gathering in a swift manner post-withdrawal.

Women and young girls face an immediate threat to their civil liberties from the Taliban because their ideology towards women remains orthodox, regressive, and downright extremist. The Post-Taliban Constitution of 2004 gave women all kinds of rights that had bolstered their social standing compared to during the Taliban regime. In 2003, fewer than 10 percent of the girls in Afghanistan were enrolled in primary schools; by 2017 the number had increased to 33 percent; female enrolment in secondary education grew from 6 percent in 2003 to 39 percent in 2017,;women’s life expectancy grew from 56 years in 2001 to 66 in 2017; mortality during childbirth decreased from 1,100 per 10,000 live births in 2000, to 396 per 10,000 in 2015 and finally, by 2021, 21 percent Afghan Civil Servants were women, 16 percent in senior management levels and 27 percent members of the Afghan Parliament were women.

Biden, having branded himself as a champion of human rights would not be able to turn a blind eye to the threat of these changes getting reversed lest the Taliban gains power. Recognising the urgency to protect women and girls, a bi-partisan “Protect Women and Girls’ Rights in Afghanistan Act” was introduced in the US Congress on 14 May 2021. The legislation promulgates that economic aid will not be provided to the Afghan government if minimum standards of treatment for women and girls are not met. The US is understandably eager to ensure a future for Afghan women that is not devoid of human rights, but the billions of dollars that have been sent to restructure the devastated Afghan economy since 2001 has made it extremely civil-aid dependent. Afghanistan spends about US $11 billion every year on public expenditure, out of which 75 percent is funded by international grants majorly from the US. In the past, when the US reduced civil aid in 2013/14, there was a three percent increase in overall poverty rate, the unemployment rate tripled and 76 percent of the rural jobs that were created since 2007/08 were lost. Besides, the NATO has warned that the Taliban is very close to attaining complete financial control, which could make it impervious to any international pressure. Therefore, the US will be left with very few alternatives to protect women’s rights and civil liberties in Afghanistan without utilising measures that affect the general Afghan public massively.

To be sure, the US has already been facing incessant criticism for its decision to withdraw from Afghanistan despite so many security and other challenges in the country, a lot of which are attributed to the Americans in the first place. Many prominent personalities such as former President George W. BushHillary Clinton, and even defense experts have exhibited serious concerns about the catastrophic consequences that this might have. The Peace Deal has been deemed as a failure and it has already been estimated that the Afghan government could collapse within six months of foreign withdrawal. The inability to tackle post-withdrawal challenges too would only further exacerbate scrutiny of America’s largely-criticised role in leading Afghanistan to the predicament that it currently finds itself in. But the US does not seem very well poised at the moment to deal with any of them, ultimately jeopardising its own long-term interests and also stability in a post-withdrawal Afghanistan.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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