After 20 years of military engagement and billions of US dollars spent, NATO and the US still grapple with the same, seemingly intractable conundrum — how to withdraw troops from Afghanistan without abandoning the country to even more mayhem.
An accelerated US drawdown over the past few months, led by the previous US administration, has signaled what might be in store for long-suffering Afghans.
Violence is spiking and the culprits are everyone: the Taliban, the Islamic State, warlords, criminal gangs and corrupt government officials.
Illustration: Kevin Sheu
According to the NATO Web site, there are about 9,600 troops in Afghanistan, including 2,500 US troops. NATO defense ministers met on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss the way forward.
Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden is reviewing his predecessor’s deal last year with the Taliban, which includes a May 1 deadline for a final US troop withdrawal from the war-ravaged country.
In Washington, calls are mounting for the US to delay the final exit or renegotiate the deal to allow the presence of a smaller, intelligence-based US force.
All key players needed for a stable post-war Afghanistan come with heavy baggage.
The Taliban hold sway over half the country, and both sides in the conflict have continued to wage war, even after peace talks between the Taliban and the government in Kabul began in Qatar last year.
The Taliban have in the past few months been accused of targeted killings of journalists and civic leaders — charges they deny. However, they lack credibility, particularly because they refuse to agree to a ceasefire.
There is also no proof that they have cut ties with al-Qaeda as required under the Taliban-US deal.
A report by the US Department of the Treasury last month found that they continue to cooperate and that al-Qaeda is getting stronger.
Some reports from areas under Taliban control speak of heavy-handed enforcement of a strict interpretation of Islamic law: While the Taliban allow girls to go to school, the curriculum seems mostly focused on religion. There is little evidence of women’s progress in deeply conservative, rural areas.
Afghan warlords — some accused of war crimes — have been co-opted by international forces since the 2001 collapse of the Taliban regime, amassing power and wealth.
In a vacuum that would follow the withdrawal of foreign troops, international observers and Afghans fear that the heavily armed warlords would return to another round of fighting, similar to the 1992 to 1996 bloodletting.
At that time, the warlords turned their firepower on each other, killing more than 50,000 people, mostly civilians, and destroying much of Kabul.
Afghan forces have also been accused of heavy-handedness.
Last month, a UN report said that nearly one-third of all detainees held in detention centers across Afghanistan say that they have suffered some form of torture or ill-treatment.
Corruption is rampant and government promises to tackle it rarely go beyond paper, a US watchdog said.
The regional affiliate of the Islamic State, which targets in particular the country’s Shiite minority, has grown more brazen and violent, with its attacks increasing in frequency and audacity, testing a weak security apparatus.
Despite nearly US$1 trillion spent in Afghanistan — of which a lion’s share went on security — lawlessness is rampant.
The US Department of State said that crime in Kabul is widespread, with criminals typically working in groups and using deadly force.
“Local authorities are generally ineffective in deterring crime,” the state department said. “Officers openly solicit bribery at all levels of local law enforcement. In some cases, officers carry out crimes themselves.”
Economic benchmarks are no better.
The World Bank said that the poverty rate rose from 55 percent in 2019 to 72 percent last year.
Two-thirds of Afghans live on less than US$1.90 a day, and unemployment rose to 37.9 percent, from 23.9 percent, the World Bank said last week.
“This is an absolute disgrace given the billions spent on this country over the last two decades,” Saad Mohseni, owner of Afghanistan’s popular TOLO TV channel, wrote in response on Twitter. “Who will stand up and take responsibility?”
Meanwhile, young Afghans, minorities and women worry that the freedoms they have won since 2001 — while still fragile — would be lost to a Taliban-shared government, and if not to the Taliban, then to warring warlords.
For the US and NATO, the big concern is national security. Both want guarantees that Afghanistan would not again become a safe haven for militant groups as it was during the Taliban era, as well as when warlords ruled.
Among them is Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, now a key player in Kabul, whose group brought former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan from Sudan in May 1996.
Sayyaf was the inspiration behind the Philippine militant group Abu Sayyaf.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, another warlord in Kabul, briefly gave bin Laden a safe haven following the 2001 US-led invasion that ousted the Taliban, who had up to that point sheltered the then-al-Qaeda leader.
In 2017, Hekmatyar signed a peace agreement with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and is now a member of the Afghan High Peace Council.
In 2012, Human Rights Watch warned NATO that unless it held government forces and the Taliban accountable for abuses, the alliance’s “legacy would be a country run by abusive warlords — including the Taliban — and unaccountable security forces,” said Patricia Gossman, associate director for Asia at the New York City-based group.
Analysts agree that there is no easy solution to Afghanistan’s deteriorating conditions, regardless of whether NATO stays or goes.
“Let’s be very clear: A fragile peace process meant to stabilize the security environment hangs in the balance against the backdrop of a rogue’s gallery of spoilers,” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia analyst at the Wilson Center think tank.
Some say that NATO and the US should send a strong message for peace to all sides in Afghanistan’s protracted conflict.
“The US and NATO must be very clear ... that they do not wish more war in Afghanistan, that they want a political settlement between the warring parties and that those leaders who shout for more war, on both sides, are no longer good partners with the international community,” said Torek Farhadi, a political analyst and former adviser to the Afghan government.
“Absent a political settlement, Afghanistan is headed for a bitter civil war and potentially the country being fractured in the longer run,” he added.
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) between the US, India, Australia and Japan has found a new lease of life after China’s militarization of the South China Sea, acquisition and fortification of a new — and China’s first — naval facility in Djibouti, and growing naval activities in the Indian Ocean. With the Chinese navy consolidating its presence in the Indian Ocean and building a base in Djibouti, as well as foraying into the Mediterranean and Baltic seas, major European powers have been unsettled. France and Britain are already busy stepping up their naval presence in the Indo-Pacific region. In February,
US President Joe Biden’s first news conference last month offered reassuring and concerning insights regarding his administration’s approach to China. Biden did not mention the contentious meeting in Alaska where US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan confronted China’s top two foreign policy officials. The Americans implicitly affirmed the administration of former US president Donald Trump’s direct pushback against communist China’s repressive domestic governance and aggressive international behavior. Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) and Chinese Central Foreign Affairs Commission Director Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪) had explicitly demanded a return to the policies of
Then-US ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft originally planned to visit Taiwan on Jan. 12, but the plan was called off after drawing a fierce reaction from Beijing. On March 26, Taiwan and the US signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a coast guard working group. Beijing responded by dispatching 20 military aircraft to breach Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ), setting a new record for the highest number of incursions in a single day since the Ministry of National Defense began publishing information on the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft movements. Three days later, US Ambassador to Palau