The U.S. pullout without any settlement leaves the Taliban stronger
By announcing that all U.S. troops would be pulled out of Afghanistan by September 11, President Joe Biden has effectively upheld the spirit of the Trump-Taliban deal, rather than defying it. In the agreement between the Trump administration and the insurgents in February 2020, U.S. troops were scheduled to pull back by May 1, in return for the Taliban’s assurance that they would not let terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State operate on Afghan soil. When Mr. Biden ordered a review of the U.S.’s Afghan strategy, there was speculation that he would delay the pullout at least until there was a political settlement. But he chose an orderly pullout — the remaining troops (officially 2,500) will start leaving Afghanistan on May 1, with a full withdrawal by September 11. Besides the U.S. troops, the thousands of coalition troops under the NATO’s command are also expected to pull back along with the Americans. Mr. Biden’s push to revive the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban has hit a roadblock. A U.S.-initiated, UN-led regional peace conference is scheduled to take place in Ankara, Turkey, on April 24. But the Taliban have made it clear that they will not participate in it, and have threatened to step up attacks if the U.S. did not meet the May 1 withdrawal deadline. It is not clear whether the peace conference will go through without the Taliban’s participation and what it would achieve even if it goes through without the Taliban.
This leaves the already shaky Ghani government in an even more precarious situation. After September, the government will be left with itself on the battleground against the Taliban. For now, Mr. Ghani has held together the powerful sections of the state and society against the Taliban at least in the provincial capitals. But once the Americans are gone, the balance of power in the stalemated conflict could shift decisively in favour of the Taliban. In the recent past, whenever the Taliban overran cities, U.S. air power was crucial in driving them back. The country is already witnessing a series of targeted killings of journalists, activists and other civil society members opposed to the Taliban. This does not mean that the government is on the verge of collapse. The U.S. has promised that it would continue remote assistance to the government. The role of regional players such as Russia, China and India, which have a shared interest in a stable Afghanistan, will also be crucial in deciding the country’s future. But one thing is certain: the U.S., despite all its military might, has lost the war and its withdrawal, without any settlement or even a peace road map, leaves the Taliban stronger and the government weaker. That is an ominous sign.