US forces have been deployed to Afghanistan for nearly 20 years since the Taliban government was overthrown in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the United States.
Now, America’s longest war is about to end, as the US military has evacuated its most important airport in Afghanistan, a sign that the Pentagon plans to end its withdrawal within days.
Earlier this year, the Biden administration committed to withdrawing all US forces from Afghanistan by 9/11. But the operation was faster than expected, and almost all troops are now expected to leave in the coming days.
Here are the key questions about the conflict and efforts to resolve it, and answered:
Biden will withdraw all US forces from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021.
Why is the United States in Afghanistan?
US forces intervened in Afghanistan in October 2001, carrying out airstrikes that helped Afghan resistance forces overthrow the Taliban government, which harbored al-Qaeda fighters involved in planning the 9/11 attacks.
While the Taliban were driven from power in the capital, Kabul, on November 13, 2001, the movement retained support in rural areas and gradually began to regain strength and seize territory.
After nearly 20 years of conflict, the Taliban is the strongest it has been since 2001 and controls or exerts influence over nearly half of Afghanistan.
Many Afghans fear that the Taliban will one day return to power in Kabul. Under the Taliban, militants imposed strict interpretations of Sharia and essentially banned women from public life.
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What are the risks as the withdrawal approaches?
US-led NATO forces withdrew from combat operations at the end of 2014, although NATO forces remained on the ground.
The resulting vacuum is widely seen as allowing the Taliban to retaliate against Afghan security forces and seize territory.
US officials have historically wanted to keep troops in Afghanistan for this very reason, fearing that a withdrawal would allow militants to use the country again for attacks on the United States.
With the United States reducing the size of its operations, the daring Taliban have stepped up attacks on major provincial capitals and are now believed to control nearly a third of the country.
A recent US intelligence assessment warned that the Afghan government could fall within six months of the US military’s departure.
General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last month that a worst-case scenario could include a chaotic civil war.
Civilians have repeatedly expressed their fear that when US forces withdraw, ordinary Afghans will pay the price and be left to the mercy of the Taliban, which still aspires to form a hard-line Islamist government in Kabul.
How many US troops are in the country?
In January, the Trump administration reduced the official number of troops in Afghanistan to 2,500 – the lowest level since 2001. (The figure is volatile, more than 1,000 troops are on the ground in mid-April.) Aisle opposed this change, saying that it was not clear that there would be enough manpower for effective counterterrorism operations and that the troop reduction might not be consistent with the terms of the US deal with the Taliban.
While those numbers have been significantly reduced since the Biden administration announced its plans to withdraw, 650 to 1,000 troops are expected to remain in the country to guard the US embassy and airport.
What is the situation on the ground?
Violence has escalated across the country in recent months, and the Taliban’s growing dominance has led to the emergence of anti-Taliban militias and raised fears of an intensified civil war.
Taliban attacks continued to target civilians, and the group increasingly carried out targeted killings and assassinations. At least 11 journalists and media workers were killed in the country last year.
In recent years, other armed groups, including a branch of the Islamic State, have taken advantage of the chaotic conflict to pursue their own agendas.
The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for some of the deadliest attacks on civilians in the capital in recent years, often targeting the Hazara minority in western Kabul.
What is the status of peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government?
Peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban began in September after a long delay following the February 2020 agreement between the United States to withdraw its forces.
With Washington playing a major role in the peace process, Biden’s victory in the November presidential election contributed to a further delay, some analysts suspect, as the parties anticipated potential changes in US policy.
Since then, Afghanistan’s political elite has been deeply divided over the path forward.
Abdullah Abdullah, a senior Afghan official who heads the Supreme Council for National Reconciliation, told CNN on Wednesday that the parties had made “very little progress” and that talks were proceeding “at a very slow pace.”
Some have warned that the lack of consensus among Afghan leaders may allow the Taliban to present a more united front and thus gain greater influence.
Afghan civilians opposed to the Taliban fear that if the group secures a role in the power-sharing government, it could eventually take over the government in Kabul and return to the harsh rule it imposed before it was removed from power in 2001.
Afghan officials also expressed concerns about the complete withdrawal of US forces without a strong political settlement.
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