THE FUTURE OF AFGHANISTAN FOLLOWING THE WITHDRAWAL OF US TROOPS
Updated: Jul 1, 2021
Adele Carter, Amira Mahmoud, Cameron Price, Jujhar Singh, Juline Horan, Katherine Yampolsky, Vaania Kapoor Achuthan, Zaskia Torres, CENTCOM
Week of Monday, June 14, 2021
US Soldiers Depart From Afghanistan
As the two-decade war in Afghanistan, America's longest and bloodiest war comes to a close with the final withdrawal of troops to be completed by September, the future of Afghanistan will likely rest on the ability of the Afghan national government to sustain control of major districts. The departure of US contractors poses a significant threat to the stability of Afghanistan, the safety of its people, and the resurgence of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. Without the support of US intelligence and military aid for Afghan forces, the Taliban will likely have a slight military advantage when comparing size, cohesion, external support, material resources, and force employment to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). This indicates that even with international support, the Taliban is likely to gradually occupy Afghanistan in the mid-to-long term and probably set the foundation for the return of other terror groups. The withdrawal and the consequent increase in violence are likely to exacerbate the existing migration crisis as citizens flee to neighboring countries for refuge.
Initially set in motion by the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, the US war in Afghanistan pits the Western-supported Afghan government operating along democratic lines against Islamic fundamentalism in its most violent form. What began as military intervention, nation-building, and efforts to reshape the politics of the Middle East likely evolved into a strategic liability and colossal drain of resources, claiming the lives of tens of thousands with little to no gains in altering political and military discourse in the country. As the Taliban insurgency continues to be resilient almost two decades after the inception of the war, it is evident that the Trump Administration correctly assessed the disadvantages of maintaining an American presence in Afghanistan thereby signing the bilateral agreement with the Taliban to withdraw US forces by May 1, 2021. In return, the Taliban vowed to prevent other terrorist groups from using Afghan soil to threaten the United States and its allies. Although the Taliban has since made little effort to uphold the terms of the agreement, the thought of losing additional financial, diplomatic, and leadership resources was likely sufficient to persuade the US into continuing the withdrawal of its forces under the Biden Administration, albeit with an extended deadline of September 11, 2021, for the “final withdrawal” to be completed. The reduced presence of US military forces has likely emboldened the Taliban, still closely tied to al-Qaeda, to threaten a “war on all fronts” as the level of violence in Afghanistan continues to surge.
Figure 1- Provinces Under Taliban Control, 1996-2001
The US troop withdrawal is highly likely to destabilize Afghanistan by potentially leading to a power vacuum in which the Afghan national government and the Taliban vie for control of various districts. Without a continued presence of US military forces, the Taliban will likely not be deterred from attacking local villages across the country in an effort to occupy more territory. The Taliban is stronger now than at any point over the last two decades, with an estimated 60,000 - 85,000 active fighters. This leads us to believe that they may feel as though they can challenge, and even defeat the ANSF especially without tangible support from US troops and other NATO forces. Recent assessments have even indicated that the Taliban could have a slight military advantage when comparing size, cohesion, external support, material resources, and force employment with the ANSF. There is also a cause for concern over a renewed al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan after US troop withdrawal as reports have identified a strong connection between al-Qaeda and the Taliban still exists. It is possible that the Taliban could leverage this relationship for resources and training, while al-Qaeda may hope to use Afghanistan as a location to recover from sustained counterterrorism efforts against it in return. Perhaps most worrisome for US officials in this withdrawal is the potential harm that could be directed towards Afghan civilians.
It is assessed that those not granted safety by coalition countries are almost certainly at risk for Taliban retribution. The Taliban’s calls for interpreters to ‘return to their normal lives and that ‘they would not be in any danger’ lack credibility, given the Taliban’s past targeting of the press and journalists. It is assessed with high probability that specifically women that are in the field of journalism will continue to be the targets and victims of attacks. Moreover, it is highly likely that these calls to return to normalcy are deceitful and serve to boost perceived goodwill. It is concluded with a high probability that it is logistically impossible to evacuate all 70,000 interpreters and their families before the September 2021 deadline. This assessment is based on the fact that the US lacks the manpower to process and resettle them, despite the Pentagon’s work to coordinate evacuation plans. This failure to repay Afghan civilians for services rendered is highly likely to increase feelings of betrayal and complicate US efforts to acquire indigenous, on-the-ground support in future conflicts. The Taliban will likely use this sentiment in its propaganda to highlight the US’s unreliability and deter Afghans from supporting what they perceive as a US-backed puppet government. However, it remains unclear if those who helped coalition forces will be recruited by the Taliban because they are likely viewed as traitors given their prior affiliations with NATO. US inability to acquire local support during a future conflict will likely reduce the US’s combat effectiveness and legitimacy with the international community. The US and other coalition nations should work to accelerate the Special Immigration Visas process for Afghans who helped the US-led coalition forces and should create contingency plans (i.e. evacuation) in the likely case that visas are not processed prior to full withdrawal.
It has been assessed that districts across Afghanistan will continue to face violence because of the Taliban’s preference to engage in an armed struggle over negotiating with an illegitimate government. The Taliban has increased their territorial expansion (see Figure 2), taking 30 districts since May 1st. Based on this evidence, the Taliban is unlikely to be interested in reaching a political settlement with the Afghan government as there may be no benefit for them in any such settlement. They are instead likely using negotiations to strengthen their military position and take control of more territory. It is believed with medium probability that the Taliban are preparing for a military offensive once US troops withdraw. The Taliban likely expects quick victories against key government positions without US troops to assist the ANSF. Districts with primarily Hazara communities will likely face continued attacks by Islamic State-Khorasan. Regional actors like Russian and China are likely to exacerbate violence in order to acquire influence through heavy-handed tactics. Increased violence is highly likely to alienate civilians and increase their probability of joining the Taliban. Villages such as Jaghori District, Farza District, and Musa Qala have peacefully resisted the Taliban in the past. Given their success, it is likely that many villages will see an increase in community-based peaceful mobilization. However, due to a lack of social cohesion and the increasing grip of Taliban’s rule, it is highly unlikely for any of these community-based peaceful mobilization initiatives to have any success.
Figure 2- Provinces Under Taliban Control, Current
Standards of living for Afghans, progress for women’s rights, and women’s access to quality education will likely deteriorate in the mid-term as the Taliban impose their interpretation of Islam. The CENTCOM Team has previously assessed that girls will find it even more difficult to access good quality education. Women, girls and Hazara Shia are highly likely to be the primary targets of continued indiscriminate attacks. Women’s, girls and other ethnic minority issues are likely to struggle to remain relevant as terror groups seek to exacerbate the divide between civilians and the government by sowing distrust in the government’s policies and expressing dissatisfaction with womens’ roles in society. Those who previously helped coalition forces are also especially vulnerable to Taliban retribution once US forces leave. A failure to evacuate them from Afghanistan could not only result in increasing numbers of Afghan refugees, but also could have profound strategic implications for the United States in future conflicts.
It is highly likely that internal displacement will continue as fighting and violence continues. Increased internal displacement is highly likely to serve as another factor in increasing instability in Afghanistan. It is believed that internally displaced people (IDP) will support any party who can provide them with promised or actual security and stability, which leads to two main possible outcomes. First, an increase in the Taliban ranks is likely, as Afghan refugees enter Taliban recruitment pipelines in Pakistan. Refugee children educated in madrassas are likely to form the next generation of Taliban and even Al-Qaeda fighters, threatening not only Afghanistan, but global security. It is assessed that IDPs are particularly vulnerable to recruitment as they seek assistance to ameliorate the conditions of their displacement, as well as the dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic. Alternatively, the Taliban’s heavy-handed tactics could promote greater migration away from rural areas to government strongholds. However, because it appears Afghans are ambivalent to the Taliban and government, who both have contributed to their suffering, it is unlikely that they prefer any party over the other. Humanitarian assistance should be made available as soon as possible to those displaced by the violence. Humanitarian organizations should be prepared to see increasing numbers of IDPs in the immediate and short term future as the troop withdrawal process continues.
The US and its allies can implement a variety of different counterterrorism measures such as usage of drones, sharing intelligence with allies, and repositioning forces in neighboring countries to deter both the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The US will very likely reposition forces to the neighboring countries of Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan to stay vigilant on potential threats the Taliban will pose after the withdrawal. The US almost certainly needs to find new bases, most likely in Oman or Qatar as it has a pro-west government and hosts multiple major British bases. Another potential location to host US troops could be Pakistan however, the government has publicly announced it will not allow the US to build bases in the country. It is highly likely that the US is also suspicious of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), as they suspect the agency is possibly linked to violent Islamist groups. It is evident that the US must monitor how and with whom it shares its intelligence. Turkey, a US ally, will also leave behind troops that can potentially help the US collect intelligence in Afghanistan and guard the vulnerable Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
Another potential way to deter both the Taliban and al-Qaeda is through drone strikes in which will highly likely force Taliban and al-Qaeda commanders and leaders on the ground to constantly be on the move and not be able to permanently stay in one place. Although drone strikes will very likely have a negative impact on civilians, who may potentially be collateral damage, this measure may be the most effective in stopping future attacks from these entities. Special force raids will also likely play a critical role in keeping pressure on the Taliban and al-Qaeda. US special forces working with Afghan special forces have the potential to prevent attacks in the future. Although due to the withdrawal of troops, there will be more room for the error, time delays, and the terrorists may be given warning. It is evident that intelligence will play a critical role in keeping the Taliban and al-Qaeda at bay. The C.I.A, the UK Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), NATO intelligence forces, and Afghanistan's intelligence forces will very likely work together to gather information and track both these entities. It is evident that if these teams work on intelligence gathered information that it will impact insurgent commanders and their networks.
The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) CENTCOM team assesses that after the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, the US must continue to sustain pressure on the Taliban and al-Qaeda to prevent the planning and execution of future attacks against the Afghan civilian population, neighboring countries, and the US. It is highly recommended that the US and allies reach a permanent ceasefire and peace agreement with the Taliban in order to maintain regional stability, detach the Taliban from transnational jihadist groups, emphasize the importance of diplomacy going forward, and instill trust between both parties. The inclusion of the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the negotiation talks will highly support the call for peace in Afghanistan and hold the Taliban accountable for their actions lest a ceasefire or peace deal is breached. Atop of a peace deal, the US and allies must develop a coherent, long-term regional policy that integrates the Afghan government, Pakistan, and neighboring countries in order to coordinate robust strategies to combat terrorism, share intelligence, and continue to support human rights organizations, non-profits, and social workers in the country. CTG recommends that threat assessment specialists remain on high alert regarding al-Qaeda in which the absence of US presence will likely motivate them to plot and carry out future attacks without detection. Lastly, CTG recommends that the Biden administration and allies be prepared to re-establish troops in Afghanistan and provide military assistance to Afghan security forces in the event that the Taliban overthrow the current government and instill a new regime. The CTG CENTCOM Team will continue to use open-source intelligence to monitor, analyze, and remain on alert on new developments in Afghanistan.
_________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)
 Figure 1- Provinces Under Taliban Control, 1996-2001, by Vaania Kapoor Achuthan and Jujhar Singh, via Google My Maps
 The Taliban in Afghanistan, Council on Foreign Relations, March 2021, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/taliban-afghanistan
 Afghanistan’s Security Forces Versus the Taliban: A Net Assessment, Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, January 2021, Afghanistan's Security Forces Versus the Taliban: A Net Assessment – Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
 The Taliban in Afghanistan, Council on Foreign Relations, March 2021, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/taliban-afghanistan
 Afghanistan: Taliban Target Journalists, Women in Media, Human Rights Watch, April 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/04/01/afghanistan-taliban-target-journalists-women-media
 Austin Asks Top General For ‘Options’ to Evacuate Afghans, Defense One, June 2021, https://www.defenseone.com/threats/2021/06/austin-asks-top-general-options-evacuate-afghans/174457/
 Taliban takes control of 30 districts in past six weeks, Long War Journal, June 2021, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2021/06/taliban-takes-control-of-30-districts-in-past-six-weeks.php
 STRATEGIES AND STRUCTURES IN PREVENTING CONFLICT AND RESISTING PRESSURE: A study of Jaghori District, Afghanistan, under Taliban control, CDA Collaborative, March 2003, https://www.cdacollaborative.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Strategies-and-Structures-in-Preventing-Conflict-and-Resisting-Pressure.pdf
 Part Two: The Taliban and Girls’ access to Education, The Counterterrorism Group, March 2021, https://www.counterterrorismgroup.com/post/part-two-the-taliban-girls-access-to-education
 No US military or air base in Pakistan: FO, DAWN, May 2021, https://www.dawn.com/news/1625604/no-us-military-or-air-base-in-pakistan-fo