U.S. forces have been deployed to Afghanistan for nearly 20 years since toppling the Taliban government from power in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
In 2021, America’s longest war could come to an end. President Joe Biden plans to withdraw all remaining U.S. troops from the country this year by the 20th anniversary of the attacks. Biden is expected to announce his plan Wednesday, as part of the ongoing U.S. push for a political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
The Biden administration has been up against a May 1 deadline to bring home all U.S. troops from Afghanistan under a deal inherited from the Trump administration. But Biden had acknowledged since taking office in January that it would be “hard” to remove troops under the terms of that February 2020 agreement with the Taliban.
Over the past year, high-level talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban that were supposed to occur immediately after the U.S. deal have stalled. But on Tuesday, Turkey announced that alongside Qatar and the United Nations, it would convene representatives from both sides for talks in Istanbul later this month, in a bid to reignite efforts to reach a resolution.
Here are key questions about the conflict and efforts to resolve it, answered.
Q: Why is the United States in Afghanistan?
A: U.S.-led forces invaded Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, seeking to oust the Taliban government, which had harbored the al-Qaida militants involved in planning the attacks.
While the Taliban was removed from power in months, the group retained support in rural areas, and gradually began regaining strength and seizing territory.
After nearly 20 years of conflict, the Taliban are the strongest it’s been since the 2001 invasion and controls or exerts influence over roughly half of Afghanistan.
Many Afghans fear that the Taliban will one day return to power in Kabul. Under Taliban rule, militants enforced hardline interpretations of Sharia law and essentially barred women from public life.
Q: What is at stake as withdrawal looms?
A: NATO forces withdrew from combat operation at the end of 2014, although NATO troops remain on the ground, although NATO troops remain on the ground, and many argue that the resulting vacuum allowed the Taliban to push back against Afghan security forces and gain power. U.S. officials have historically wanted to keep troops in Afghanistan for that very reason, fearing that withdrawal could allow militants to use it once again to stage attacks on the United States.
Already, as the United States has reduced the scale of its operations, an emboldened Taliban have taken control of major highways and attempted to choke off cities and towns in surges that are exhausting Afghanistan’s elite forces. While a broad consensus has emerged in the United States that the war has gone on too long and cost far too many lives, critics questioned whether withdrawal by the May 1 deadline was realistic, and if a rushed departure could do more harm than good.
Civilians have repeatedly expressed concerns that when U.S. troops pull out, regular Afghans will pay the price and be left at the mercy of the Taliban, who continue to make key territorial gains across the country and still aspire to establish a hardline Islamic government in Kabul.
Q: How many U.S. troops are in the country?
A: In January, the Trump administration shrunk the official number of troops in Afghanistan to 2,500 — the lowest level since 2001. (The figure fluctuates, and there are currently about 1,000 more than that on the ground.) Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle opposed that change, saying that it wasn’t clear that there would be enough manpower for effective counterterrorism operations, and that the reduction in troops may not have been consistent with the terms of the United States’ agreement with the Taliban.
Q: What is the situation on the ground?
A: Violence has ramped up across the country in recent month and more than 3,000 civilians were killed last year alone, according to a U.N. estimate.
Amid increased effort to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict, Taliban attacks have continued to target civilians, as the group attempted to gain leverage in various talks. In addition to Taliban efforts to gain control over swaths of territory, the group has also carried out mounting 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 an Islamic State offshoot, have taken advantage of the chaotic conflict to pursue their own agendas. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for some of the deadliest attacks on civilians in the capital in recent years, often targeting the minority Hazara population in west Kabul.
Several other targeted assassinations have occurred thus far this year. Three female journalists were killed in Nangarhar province, where both the Islamic State and the Taliban are active. In March, three women working on a polio vaccination campaign were killed in two separate attacks.
Q: What is the status of the peace talks between the Taliban and Afghanistan’s government?
A: Peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban began last September after a lengthy delay following the U.S. agreement in February 2020. With the United States playing a key role in the peace process, Biden’s win in the November election contributed to further delays, some analysts suspect, as parties expected potential changes to U.S. policy.
There are hopes the talks in Turkey will jump-start the Doha talks and lead to substantive steps toward peace. But the ongoing efforts to have left Afghanistan’s political elite deeply divided over a path forward.
More than half a dozen potential peace plans are now circulating in Kabul, including some suggesting power-sharing arrangements between the Afghan government and the Taliban. President Ashraf Ghani, for his part, has suggested a cease-fire ahead of elections, as well as constitutional changes.
Some have warned that the lack of consensus among Afghan leaders could allow the Taliban to present a more unified front and thus gain greater leverage in upcoming talks. Civilians opposed to the Taliban in Afghanistan worry that if the group secures a role in a power-sharing government, they could eventually take over the government in Kabul and a return to the harsh rule they imposed before their removal from power in 2001.
Afghan officials have also expressed fears over the complete removal of U.S. troops without a solid political settlement in place.