After 20 years of military engagement and billions of dollars spent, NATO and the United States still grapple with the same, seemingly intractable conundrum how to withdraw troops from Afghanistan without abandoning the country to even more mayhem.
An accelerated US drawdown over the past few months, led by the previous US administration, has signaled what may be in store for long-suffering Afghans.
Violence is spiking and the culprits are, well, everyone: the Taliban, the Islamic State group, warlords, criminal gangs and corrupt government officials.
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden is reviewing his predecessor's 2020 deal with the Taliban, which includes a May 1 deadline for a final US troop withdrawal from the war-ravaged country. In Washington, calls are mounting for the US to delay the final exit or renegotiate the deal to allow the presence of a smaller, intelligence-based American force.
All key players needed for a stable post-war Afghanistan come with heavy baggage.
The Taliban now hold sway over half the country and both sides in the conflict have continued to wage war, even after peace talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government began last year in Qatar.
The Taliban have lately been accused of targeted killings of journalists and civic leaders charges they deny. But they lack credibility, particularly because they refuse to agree to a cease-fire. There is also no proof they have cut ties with al-Qaida militants as required under the Taliban-US deal. A January report by the US Treasury found that they continue to cooperate and that al-Qaida is getting stronger.
Some reports from areas under Taliban control speak of heavy-handed enforcement of a strict interpretation of Islamic law: While the Taliban allow girls to go to school, the curriculum for both boys and girls seems mostly focused on religion. There is little evidence of women's progress in the deeply conservative, rural areas.
Afghan warlords some accused of war crimes have been co-opted by international forces since the 2001 collapse of the Taliban regime, amassing power and wealth.
In a vacuum that would follow the withdrawal of foreign troops, activists and Afghans fear the heavily armed warlords would return to another round of fighting, similar to the 1992-1996 bloodletting. At that time, the warlords turned their firepower on each other, killing more than 50,000 people, mostly civilians, and destroying much of the capital, Kabul.
Afghan forces have also been accused of heavy-handedness. In January, a new UN report said that nearly a third of all detainees held in detention centers across Afghanistan say they have suffered some form of torture or ill-treatment. Corruption is rampant and government promises to tackle it, according to a US watchdog, rarely go beyond paper.
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