America plans to “close the book” on its 20-year war in Afghanistan – but the departure of US troops will usher in an uncertain chapter for Afghan civilians.
US President Joe Biden announced Wednesday he would end America’s longest war by September 11, deeming the two-decade-long conflict in Afghanistan no longer an American priority. “We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result,” Biden said.
In Kabul, there were no illusions about the conditions that would ensue. “The withdrawal isn’t for our benefit,” says Mohammad Edriss, 31, who works for a foreign NGO in the Afghan capital. “There will be violence, insecurity will dramatically increase, and once again the Afghan people will start leaving Afghanistan and seeking asylum in other countries,” he says.
Many Afghans fear that the Taliban may edge closer to power without the presence of the US military. The extremist group is fighting Afghanistan’s US-backed government and already controls vast swathes of the county’s rural areas.
Fighting has surged this year, even as the Taliban engaged in on-and-off peace talks with government negotiators.
A UN report out Wednesday said there has been a 29% increase in the number of civilians killed and injured during the first three months of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020, with anti-government elements responsible for the majority of casualties,
President Ashraf Ghani has said he “respects the U.S. decision,” but the speaker of Afghanistan’s parliament, Mir Rahman Rahmani, warned the country might slide into civil war. Afghans want American troops to leave, he said — just not yet.
“The withdrawal of these forces is a desire of the Afghan people, but at the moment, the conditions have not been made for this to happen. There is a possibility of the return of civil war and this will change Afghanistan into a hub of international terrorism,” Rahmani said, according to the Afghan news service Tolo News.
His concerns were echoed by Fatima Gailani, one of just four women negotiating with the Taliban for Afghanistan’s government. A “withdrawal without having a peace settled in Afghanistan is… irresponsible,” she told CNN, adding that her “greatest concern” is a civil war.
A Taliban resurgence would also jeopordize hard-won gains made for Afghan women since the group was ousted from power in 2001. Under Taliban rule in the late 1990s, girls were excluded from education and most women were not able to work or even leave the house without a male guardian.
Fawzia Ahmadi, 42, currently lectures at a private university in Balkh province in northern Afghanistan – a job she could not have dreamed of when the country was governed by the Taliban in the 1990s.
“We have bad memories of the Taliban regime,” she says. “Women were not allowed to go to school or university and we couldn’t even could go to the market alone.”
Under the western-backed Afghan government, women’s rights have been protected Ahmadi says, but the risk of backsliding looms. “(The Taliban’s) thoughts are the same as they were in 1996,” she says. “We fear for our freedom.”
One student in Kabul, however, told CNN he was confident Afghanistan’s civilian government could fend off the Taliban and preserve the country’s hard-won gains for civil society.
“Some people think Afghanistan will fall into the hands of militants after the Americans withdraw,” said Sayed Shaheer, a 20-year-old student at Kabul University, who has lived his entire life under the shadow of the American war there.
“But it’s not like that. We can rebuild our country and we’ll have peace. Our security and defense forces are stronger than before.”