The withdrawal of NATO and US forces from Afghanistan begins. Experts fear an escalation of violence with many civilian victims up to civil war – and a return of the Taliban to power. Women would pay the price of Islamist rule.
20 long years. In November 2001, two months after the 9/11 attacks, Germany expressed unreserved solidarity with its ally USA in its fight against international terrorism. The Bundestag decided to deploy in Afghanistan, Bundeswehr soldiers, as part of NATO’s ISAF protection troops, also became part of the US Americans’ “War on Terror”. Operation “Enduring Freedom” marked the beginning of the longest war in the United States’ history. And one of the bloodiest. The UN did not begin systematic documentation of civilian victims until 2009; more than 100,000 civilians have been killed since then.
The complete US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan officially begins today. Ex-President Donald Trump’s negotiators had agreed with the Taliban to withdraw by this date (which can hardly be met in terms of time). Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, extended the withdrawal to the emblematic September 11th and only started the return of his armed forces to the United States on May 1st. Around 10,000 US and NATO troops (including 1,100 German armed forces) are still in the country. In response to the US, NATO is now also starting the withdrawal.
What is happening now in Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, in which at least 80 percent of the population live below the poverty line? There is a lot of uncertainty among experts due to the highly complicated situation on site and fear of even more violence. According to information from “Spiegel”, the federal government also fears a considerable deterioration in the security situation. A report by the US Inspector General for Reconstruction in Afghanistan (SIGAR) just traced the increased fighting in the first three months of the year, although peace talks between the militant Islamist Taliban and the Afghan government are ongoing.
“Sharia could become the only jurisdiction”
“Above all, the withdrawal of western troops strengthens the Taliban,” says Thomas Ruttig ntv.de. The co-founder and co-director of the research institute Afghanistan Analysts Network is internationally recognized as one of the best experts on the country and is now observing how the USA and NATO are “paving the way for the Taliban back to power”. In your own opinion, you are now on the verge of victory. On the other hand, the western troops were always “part of the problem” on site. Parts of the population have come closer and closer to the Taliban over the years due to the “way the War on Terror was waged, including against the Taliban, which did not take part in the 9/11 attacks”.
The balance of power is likely to shift further in the direction of the Islamists. For the population, the return of the Taliban to power would mean restricting democratic and civil liberties – and possibly much bloodshed along the way. “There is rapidly increasing uncertainty among Afghans,” explains Ruttig, referring to local sources. “Because they are afraid of the scenario that the government collapses and the government forces run away or change fronts and the ruling factional warfare spreads into a larger civil war.” The Afghanistan expert has been hearing from people on the ground for months that they were trying to leave the country.
Afghan women are particularly concerned about the withdrawal of troops. The NATO mission has brought some improvements and opportunities for social participation since 2001, but: Under the current conditions in Afghanistan, women still experience a lot of discrimination and violence and are suppressed. Psychosomatic illnesses, depression and even suicide are some of the consequences. In the best case, it is partial equality that is regionally dependent or on the personal family relationships that are granted to them. “Women become the biggest losers when the troops are withdrawn,” says Ruttig. “Sharia is already one of the four sources of law in force in Afghanistan. It could become the only jurisdiction with the Taliban in power.” If fundamentalist forces gain strength, lynchings, torture, stoning or poisoning – which women still have to endure today – could be far more frequented.
“Escalate into civil war unleashed”
Green veteran Winfried Nachtwei is also concerned about the situation of women in Afghanistan. The defense expert who, as a member of the Bundestag, accompanied the start of the Bundeswehr mission in Afghanistan and today advises the Ministry of Defense as a member of the Advisory Board for Civilian Crisis Prevention and the Advisory Board for Internal Leadership, also points out in an interview with ntv.de that “the Afghan Society is no longer the same as it was in 2001 and that this also applies to the Taliban “. This can be seen from the fact that schooling for girls is permitted in areas controlled by the Taliban. Many women also study in the country’s largest vocational training center, which Germany made possible in Mazar-e Sharif, and it continues to function undisturbed to this day.
In general, however, according to Nachtwei, “weeks before the withdrawal of all international troops and police forces, the future prospects are highly uncertain and the risks blatant”. In view of “the Taliban’s murder campaign since 2020, especially against reform forces, media people and moderate religious scholars in the country”, the former member of the Bundestag does not believe that the withdrawal of troops will advance the political negotiation process. On the contrary. By no means unlikely are “scenarios where the army and police fall apart and some are too strong warlords and militia leaders, others overflow to the Taliban.” The complicated mix could then “escalate into an unleashed civil war”.
So are some of the partial successes of the almost 20 year long NATO mission going overboard again soon? Are advances in health, education, infrastructure, media and women’s rights being reversed? Assessing the situation precisely seems impossible. Increased attacks by the Taliban on the withdrawing troops are also conceivable. There is a possibility that they “are now running bigger campaigns because the US has unilaterally postponed the withdrawal date,” says Ruttig of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. The expert would be “surprised” if nothing would happen and expects “a few attacks, but not many large ones either”.
Likewise, the Taliban could wait for the troops to withdraw and, from their position of increased strength, enter into talks with the other factions – on their own terms. The Taliban do not want to become part of the current government, they want to govern – that much seems clear. A Taliban rule could “calm the situation down,” says Ruttig. “Many Afghans emphasize security when they talk about the Taliban’s rule before 2001.” The various political forces would have to somehow agree among themselves that the war would end and even more civilian casualties avoided.
A mammoth task with an uncertain outcome lies ahead for the Afghans. For NATO and the USA, on the other hand, the withdrawal of troops means a political failure. They achieved the original partial goal of eliminating al Qaeda only to a limited extent; Although the terrorist group is hardly active in Afghanistan any more, according to UN reports there are still some fighters on the ground.
At the same time, through the manner of the Global War on Terror, militant, jihadist terrorism has expanded worldwide. Al Qaeda is also stronger worldwide than at the beginning of the war and has become a globally organized and active organization with many subgroups. “The War on Terror contributed to the spread of this hydra”, summarizes Green politician Nachtwei: “The War on Terror was a disaster overall.” US President Joe Biden is fooling himself when he says that “Afghanistan would no longer be a safe haven for international terrorist groups. That is not the case.” Politicians continue with “the many self-delusions of the last two decades,” said Nachtwei.
After 20 years of war, the country is certainly not more stable than it was before 2001. “The West has to say goodbye to the idea that it will still be able to achieve a lot in Afghanistan,” explains Ruttig. The Afghanistan expert also recognizes a clear failure of the West: “They wanted to destroy the Taliban, now the doors are being opened for them: This is quite a U-turn.” But Afghanistan will not necessarily become the center of global Islamist terrorism again if the Taliban come to power. They even fight terror groups like the Islamic State. “The Taliban actually want to be able to rule in peace and quiet,” says Ruttig. Because Afghanistan is still dependent on international grants, the Taliban could not afford to scare away the international community so that no more money would flow.
Deportation to civil war
There is still violence in many places in Afghanistan. An escalation can be expected in the next few weeks and months. Civilians, especially women, could in several ways become more and more victims of escalation of violence up to a full-blown civil war. The reconstruction mission that was supposed to stabilize the country has failed. The structures that the state should use to prevent terrorist groups from nestling themselves or the Taliban from taking over power are too weak.
The federal government, especially the Interior Ministry, does not seem to be interested in any of this. The next German Collective deportation flight to Afghanistan starts just three days after the start of the troop withdrawal, next Tuesday.