US forces begin to withdraw from Afghanistan, a nation torn apart by war, poverty and angst

US forces begin to withdraw from Afghanistan, a nation torn apart by war, poverty and angst

As America prepares to end its longest war in nearly 20 years, there is no guarantee that the withdrawal of its troops will end the much longer conflict that has ravaged Afghanistan for four decades. In fact, it can even extend it.

Since the Soviet invasion in 1979, war and violence have left this country of more than 30 million people impoverished, dependent on foreign aid and desperate for peace. Families have been torn apart and abandoned, with more than 100,000 civilians killed or injured in the past decade alone.

Today, as the United States begins its withdrawal, the Afghans brace themselves for further uncertainties. In a country where power transitions have often been violent, nothing reassures them that a peaceful settlement is on the horizon.

Growing insecurity

Violence and attacks against civilians rose 38% in the six months after the start of peace talks in September between the Taliban and an Afghan delegation in Doha, Qatar, compared to the same period a year more early, according to the United Nations.

Recent unrest has included a wave of assassinations targeting prominent women, journalists and other progressives. The Taliban are widely believed to be the main suspects in the attacks, although they have long denied targeting civilians.

Afghan men walk past the site of a suicide bombing attack in Kabul on April 21. Omar Sobhani / Reuters

At the end of last month, the State Department ordered government employees to leave the United States Embassy in Kabul if their work could be performed elsewhere, “due to increased violence and reports. threats “. He also suggested that US citizens consider leaving the country “as soon as possible”.

Afghans also fear that the Taliban may opt for further violence after the US pulls out.

In response to President Joe Biden’s announcement last month that all US troops would leave the country on September 11, Taliban leaders told NBC News they would refuse to attend further peace talks unless the United States will not withdraw from the country until May 1, as agreed. in a deal with the Trump administration last February.

UK-based Afghan researcher and human rights activist Orzala Nemat said the insurgent group’s reaction indicated it was not ready to accept peace or build a broad-based government that represents all Afghans, and that would put him on a collision course. with much of the political establishment.

“The Taliban should realize that this will be a recipe for another war,” she said.

Two Taliban commanders, one from Ghazni province and the other from Helmand province, said on Wednesday their top leaders were consulting international lawyers and experts on how to exit the February 2020 deal with the United States, in which the Taliban pledged to prevent terrorist groups from using Afghan soil to threaten Washington and its allies and engage in peace talks with an Afghan delegation.

The commanders, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that once they officially quit the deal, they would resume attacks on U.S. forces.

An official Taliban spokesperson declined to comment.

Weak governance

The US-backed government in Kabul relies on a fragile coalition between President Ashraf Ghani and his former political opponent Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the country’s National Reconciliation Council.

The government is unrecognized by the Taliban, who were ousted from power by the US invasion in 2001 but currently control or fight more than half the country.

An Afghan child displaced in a refugee camp in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2016. Anadolu Agency / Getty Images file

Ashley Jackson, a researcher at the Overseas Development Institute, a London-based think tank, said confidence in the Afghan government’s ability to win the war had already waned in recent months among its political supporters, and confidence would likely deteriorate. again after the withdrawal of the United States.

Troop morale is also likely to decline when Afghan security forces realize that without U.S. military support, they might not be able to hold certain front lines, she said.

“It’s a slow-motion collapse,” she said, referring to the Afghan government’s grip on the country.

Biden said the United States will continue to support the Afghan government and security forces, as well as ongoing peace talks and diplomatic and humanitarian work in the country.

Poverty, corruption and foreign aid

After more than 40 years of war, Afghanistan is ill-equipped to fend for itself.

In addition to the persistent violence and weak governance, the country has also struggled to fight corruption, wean itself from its dependence on international aid and deal with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which have all hampered its economic progress, according to the special inspector. General for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan, a US government watchdog.

Located at the crossroads of South Asia and Central Asia, Afghanistan has long been one of the poorest countries in the world, but for many Afghans their economic situation is becoming increasingly difficult. In July, the UN estimated the poverty rate would drop from 55% to 68% due to the pandemic.

Afghan schoolchildren study at Papen High School destroyed in Nangarhar province in 2019. Noorullah Shirzada / AFP via Getty Images File

Afghanistan also depends on foreign aid to support everything from its security forces to its schools. In 2018, it received at least $ 8.6 billion in foreign grants, accounting for nearly 80% of the country’s $ 11 billion public spending program, according to the Overseas Development Institute.

However, foreign aid is declining, with donors pledging less at a virtual conference for Afghanistan in November than they did at the last conference in 2016.

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It is still unclear to what extent the United States will continue to fund the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. Since fiscal 2002, Congress has allocated more than $ 143 billion to rebuild Afghanistan, according to the special inspector general.

Meanwhile, corruption threatens all U.S. and international efforts in Afghanistan, especially the development of a functioning government and effective security forces to deal with the Taliban insurgency, according to the watchdog.

The state of women

Afghan women, in particular, are preparing for a difficult road.

Under the hardline Taliban, women’s lives were strictly controlled. Many were not allowed to work outside the home or appear in public without full body coverage and a male escort.

Activists adopt a strict and austere version of Islam, and many women fear that if they return to power they will reestablish their draconian rule.

Those currently living in areas under Taliban control are already limited. Education for the most part stops at puberty, and women are not allowed to go to the bazaar, or market, unaccompanied, according to a study released by Jackson in 2018.

A girl searches for recyclable materials at a landfill on the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif in May 2020. Farshad Usyan / AFP via Getty Images File

Women across Afghanistan are also victims of the continuing violence.

In 2020, the UN recorded the highest number of women killed in a single year since it began systematically documenting the impact of war on civilians in 2009.

State Department spokesman Ned Price told a press conference last month that the United States had “made it clear that any country that seeks international legitimacy, that does not wish to be an outcast , must respect women and girls, and that includes any future government in Afghanistan. “

But many women also fear that even if there is peace, they will have to fight to make their voices heard. Of the 21 Afghan delegates negotiating with the Taliban in Qatar, only four are women.

Nemat, the Afghan researcher, said the Taliban’s disregard for women’s rights and the country’s broader patriarchal society means women will face a “very” difficult time ahead.

“We are heading towards a situation where the Taliban and many other misogynistic groups are going to take key positions of power,” she said, referring to some Afghan officials.