Debrief: US army’s Afghanistan withdrawal

Battles for those left behind appear no closer to conclusion

As the United States continues its military pullout from Afghanistan, signalling an end to a war it has waged for 20 years, battles for those left behind appear no closer to conclusion.

The Taleban - which the US set out to destroy after the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks because it sheltered Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda terror group - has been quick to seize US-vacated territories, sometimes after deadly clashes with Afghan security forces and civilians.

Taleban leaders have welcomed the US' withdrawal and declared it as the militant group's "victory", adding credence to its claims of outlasting a superpower in Afghanistan.

What's the story?

The US and allied forces have been steadily reducing their military presence in Afghanistan since April, after President Joe Biden set a symbolic Sept 11 deadline for American troops to leave this year.

Last Friday morning, in a significant but secretive move, US forces vacated Bagram Air Base, its largest remaining military centre in Afghanistan, that had also been key to protecting capital Kabul.

The foreign troop withdrawals have left a sizeable power vacuum which the Taleban has wasted little time in filling.

In recent days, the group has made territorial gains in the Afghan government's power centres in the north, forcing thousands of troops to flee to neighbouring Tajikistan.

Why it matters?

Research institute Foundation for Defence of Democracies estimated that the Taleban controls just under half, or 195 of 407, of Afghanistan's districts as at Monday, with 129 more being actively contested. At least 38 were taken in the past week alone.

While the Taleban has begun to rebrand itself to Afghans as capable leaders, attacks on civilians have continued. The group is widely blamed for a triple bombing that killed around 90 in May, mostly schoolgirls.

Human Rights Watch said that in a country where girls in Taleban-controlled areas were previously blocked from getting an education, the progress on women's rights during the US occupation could be under threat once more. Terrorist groups weakened by the US and allied forces could also re-emerge.

What lies ahead?

A US intelligence assessment said last month that there is a consensus the Afghan government could fall within six months of the US military departing. The top US commander in Afghanistan, General Austin Miller, also told reporters that "civil war is certainly a path that can be visualised".

If the Taleban returns to power, Afghanistan may once again be a hotbed for terrorists, including groups with ties to Al-Qaeda. These include the Jemaah Islamiah, which was behind the church bombings in Indonesia in 2000 and the 2002 Bali attacks.

Dr Sajjan Gohel, who studies extremism at think-tank Asia-Pacific Foundation, told the BBC that the Taleban's history for harbouring Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan could renew their "inseparable" ties, even if Taleban leaders wanted to abandon the relationship.

With a Brown University study saying that at least 47,000 civilians have died since 2001, it remains to be seen if peace in Afghanistan can be a realistic prospect. What remains more certain is that the US will, as Mr Biden said, leave the people "to decide their future".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 08, 2021, with the headline 'Battles for those left behind appear no closer to conclusion'. Subscribe