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Afghan gun Ryanzo Perez/EyeEm via Getty Images

Afghanistan on the Brink

The US military’s recent handover of the Bagram Air Base near Kabul to the Afghan government effectively marks the end of a 20-year war that has cost more than $2 trillion. With the Taliban, which had been removed from power by the 2001 US-led invasion, now poised to regain control, many in Afghanistan and the region are bracing for further conflict and chaos.

In this Big Picture, former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer warns that the humanitarian consequences of the West’s withdrawal could be catastrophic. Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt agrees, and argues that avoiding a new spiral of violence requires US President Joe Biden’s administration to ensure that any exit strategy includes a plan for the country.

Without such planning, warns Brahma Chellaney of the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, a full US military withdrawal will make America an accomplice of the Taliban and trigger a rebirth of global terror. The problem with this and other sensible demands, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass pointed out last spring, is that the US weakened its leverage with the Taliban by its obvious desire to end its military presence.

But the Taliban may soon face obstacles of its own. In a 2019 commentary, Amin Saikal of the University of Western Australia doubted whether it would be able to control other armed opposition groups in Afghanistan or enlist the support of a cross-section of the country’s diverse population. Likewise, Anne-Marie Slaughter of the think tank New America and Ashley Jackson of the Overseas Development Institute, also writing in 2019, argued that women’s rights, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, are essential to any serious efforts at conflict resolution.

In any case, Afghanistan is almost certainly facing more conflict than resolution in the coming months. As Jackson explains in a recent podcast, the lack of progress in intra-Afghan power-sharing talks reflects the government’s desire to hold onto power and the Taliban’s aim of establishing an Islamic emirate. Faced with this prospect, notes former Kyrgyz Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev, Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors are wondering just how much it will cost them to maintain security after the US troops are gone.

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