With the United States military presence in Afghanistan effectively over, the country faces an uncertain future with Taliban attacks rampant and the threat of civil war looming.
Fears are growing that the loss of vital American air cover – massively curtailed by the closure of Bagram air base – will knock the Afghan government’s ability to hold power, as multiple players circle to take advantage of the power vacuum.
Here are some of the scenarios at play:
– Will the US pullout end the war? –
While Washington’s withdrawal ends America’s longest war, the conflict in Afghanistan continues, with no obvious signs of a ceasefire.
The insurgents appear focused instead on a total military victory and the overthrow of President Ashraf Ghani.
They have recently made huge advances across the country, claiming control of dozens of new districts, but Afghan security forces remain in firm control of major cities.
‘For now, the fighting will intensify and Afghan forces will have a hard time sustaining militarily on their own,’ Afghan security analyst Bari Arez said.
A leaked internal US intelligence assessment reportedly said the Taliban could take Kabul within six months of the US departure.
Government forces and the Taliban regularly claim to have inflicted enormous casualties on each other, but independent verification is impossible.
However, the number of targeted assassinations of educated Afghans, and sticky bomb attacks against civilians, has dropped in recent weeks.
– Can Afghan forces provide security? –
That remains to be seen, with an all-out civil war looming.
US air power had been a key factor in the ongoing fight, offering vital support to Afghan security forces when they risked being overwhelmed.
In a sign of possible growing desperation, the Afghan government has made calls for civilians to form militias to fight the Taliban – a move some analysts say could only add fuel to the fire.
‘This strategy has to be well-led, well-orchestrated and well-controlled or else it might backfire,’ said a foreign security analyst who did not want to be named.
With warlords re-emerging, there is a risk of Afghanistan falling back into a state of civil war as security deteriorates, with armed factions entering the fray in a free-for-all power grab.
– Could there be a political settlement? –
President Ghani wants a ceasefire with the Taliban ahead of a presidential election where voters will choose a ‘government of peace’. He has refused calls for an unelected interim government that includes the Taliban.
The United States favours such a caretaker government, pushing for a consensus between the warring sides at landmark talks in Doha, which have stalled.
While loose on specifics, the Taliban insist Afghanistan should return to being an emirate, run along strict Islamic lines and led by a council of religious elders.
Afghanistan has seen four presidential elections since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001, and millions of Afghans have embraced a plural, democratic system – though voting was fraught with corruption.
Now that the stage is set for the insurgents to return, analysts fear the democratic gains of the past two decades could be lost.
‘The Taliban for now seem to be convinced they can take power forcefully,’ political analyst Ramish Salehi said.
‘This is a fight that will determine… whether democracy will prevail against ideological forces.’
– What about Afghanistan’s women? –
There is palpable fear that hard-fought women’s rights will be lost.
Before being deposed in 2001, the Taliban banned girls from studying and stoned to death women accused of crimes such as adultery.
With the Taliban out of power, Afghan women have become prominent politicians, activists, journalists and judges.
The Taliban insist they will respect women’s rights in accordance with Islamic law, but activists note the multiple interpretations of that across the Muslim world.
‘There is a general feeling of insecurity among women who think that the extremists would again imprison them in their homes,’ said activist Hosay Andar.
‘But they would not give up this time… there would be resistance this time.’
With the security situation deteriorating, development work will become increasingly hard to carry out across the impoverished country.
– What are the economic prospects? –
Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest countries, deeply indebted and utterly reliant on foreign aid.
While the nation boasts lucrative mineral reserves that neighbours including China and India are keen to exploit, the security situation has never been stable enough for revenues to boost state coffers.
In November, global donors pledged to offer aid to Afghanistan up to 2024, but there are concerns that with the imminent exit of foreign forces, the donors might not follow up on their commitments.
‘The economy is already in a steep decline… and the already terrible unemployment rate will again hit the skies,’ said analyst Salehi.