With departure of US troops imminent, many Afghans are fearful for the future

By Henrietta Cullinan

On Christmas Day 2014 I was in Kabul with a peace delegation to a grassroots community, the Afghan Peace Volunteers. We stayed indoors that day, and celebrated Christmas by candle light. Our hosts were worried about the security situation because, after fourteen years, the UK army had announced it would be pulling out of Afghanistan, that very week.

Seven years later, Biden has announced the withdrawal of all US troops by 11th September. Today, May 1st, the US army begins the process of withdrawing the remaining 2,500 troops. The troops, that have been training the 300,000-strong Afghan army, are already handing over equipment and bases. The 7,000 NATO troops, that make up the rest of Operation Resolute Support are expected to move out by July.

There’s no shortage of mainstream commentary and speculation on the impact of the withdrawal in terms of world politics, security and the war on terror. But what about a different narrative that doesn’t involve militarism and bombs? I asked our friends from the APV, now adults with families to support, for their views.

Their message is clear: if you’re not going to help us with the things we need for life, then we’re not interested. Zhala writes:

“They spent huge amounts of money on war and made the situation dangerous and difficult for us. The Afghan people don’t know what the US army are doing here. They just made a land of war, of more guns and different ways to kill people.

“I think they should know that this country needs life, health, education. We need people to care about all the children and women who are so tired of military solutions.”

Naji has mixed feelings:

“On one hand, withdrawal of all US troops by September 11th is good news for me since they don’t have to kill anyone or get killed anymore. On the other hand, if the withdrawal is done without responsibility, we will go back to 1990s when terror ruled the country. On top of that, this time climate change will add to the problems. People already face a shortage of clean water.”

As well as fewer weapons, a reduced military presence means less carbon emissions.  Murtaza Hussein writes in the Intercept:

“It may come as no surprise that the largest industrial military in the history of the world is also the single biggest polluter on the planet.”

If the Pentagon were a country it would be the 55th heaviest carbon emitter in the world. Over the last twenty years, a large proportion of these carbon emissions must have been in Afghanistan. The sprawling US military logistics occupied multiple acres, and was responsible for deforestation and causing toxic pollution by burning human waste and computer parts.

The withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan is popular with the American people. Being the fifth president to be involved in a ‘forever’ war in Afghanistan, Biden is determined not to hand the war over to his successor. Others to benefit from the US withdrawal are the last two Afghans still held in Guantanamo. The legal authority for holding prisoners at Guantanamo has evaporated, giving new grounds for appeal.

Commentators, have called pushing back the agreed date of withdrawal to September 11th ‘Biden’s gamble’. The Taliban have agreed to talks with the Afghan government on the understanding that the US will withdraw troops by May 1st.

Some analysts believe that the Taliban wants to be seen as a credible player on the world stage, not a ‘pariah’, and will look for a political settlement rather than a military victory. Others say it is foolish to believe this and that the Taliban, not being a homogenous group, is not interested in its world standing. Some opposition groups have long made use of the chaos to benefit from illegal mining, extortion, the narcotics industry and endemic corruption. In the areas it controls, the Taliban runs its own courts and raises its own taxes.

In addition, ending American military involvement on the ground is far from the end of the ‘forever’ war, according to an article in the New York Times. The US believes Al Qaeda have left Afghanistan, but with weaker intelligence, it will be harder to detect training camps if they start popping up. The US will be searching for bases in neighbouring countries, from which to fly its surveillance drones.

While US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, declares civil war is in “no one’s interest”, many are fearful of the Taliban taking power whether by military victory or through political settlement. Ethnic groups, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazara, have no wish to be ruled by the Pashtun Taliban.

Even with mistrust of Ashraf Ghani’s government which has failed to protect minorities from discrimination, and failed to protect its people during the pandemic, many consider a government led by the Taliban would be a disaster.

Naji writes:

“Women won’t be treated as humans, schools and universities will close, people will migrate, and civil societies will vanish.”

Meanwhile daily reports of attacks suggest opposition groups are not happy with any kind of peace process. Alarming targeted attacks on individuals, particularly women in prominent roles, are designed to intimidate and discourage people from working for the government and taking part in civil society.

As Afghan MP, Fawzi Koofi point out in a recent podcast, Afghanistan is rich in valuable resources, in highly talented young people and in minerals: copper and gold and rare earths essential for modern life. Decades of war and now an ineffectual government mean it lacks the infrastructure or strong civil society to care for the poor and the environment.

Political commentators like to repeat the language of war, the cost in ‘blood and treasure’. What if we abandoned this cost benefit analysis? The mainstream press report only the movements of presidents and armies – even the Taliban with its head office in Doha – when Afghans such as the friends we spoke to are asking for livelihoods, education and health care and an end to reliance on military solutions.

Names have been changed.

Henrietta Cullinan is a peace activist and writer and member of Voices for Creative Nonviolence UK.

Image: Winter school for children who normally work in the street, run by the Bamiyan Youth Solidarity Team, 2020. Photo credit: Bamiyan Youth Solidarity Team.

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