What will come after a US withdrawal from Afghanistan?

The United States and the Taliban may be nearing an agreement to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan after more than 17 years of conflict.

In return, the Taliban would commit to refusing access to anti-American organizations such as al-Qaida on its territory.

How did we get to this point – and what will be the consequences of such an agreement?

How did we get here?

As a longtime scholar of Afghanistan’s wars and conflict dynamics, I suggest beginning with a bit of history.

The current conflict began when the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan a few weeks after 9/11.

It was on Afghan soil that Osama bin Laden hatched the plot to attack the U.S. The Taliban, the de facto rulers of much of Afghanistan in the wake of a bloody civil war, had given bin Laden and his supporters shelter.

Two months into the U.S. invasion, Taliban state institutions and defensive positions crumbled and the United States formed new state institutions led by Afghans who had fought the Taliban. The U.S. maintained a limited force to fight and capture al-Qaida and Taliban leaders but otherwise invested little in the Afghan economy or society.

It took the Taliban four years to reconstitute itself as an effective force of insurgents to fight the U.S. and the Afghan government, and they became stronger every year after 2004. As I explain in my research, the United States and the coalition of 42 countries it formed to defeat the resurgent Taliban was poorly organized, abusive and mismanaged.

Since 2001, the U.S.-led coalition has spent US$1 trillion dollars and committed a peak of 140,000 troops and 100,000 contractors to an unsuccessful attempt to defeat the Taliban. More than 5,000 American soldiers and contractors were killed.

Today, a U.S. force of 14,000 troops and massive U.S. Airforce assets are helping maintain the defensive positions of an Afghan government that is widely considered as one of the most corrupt in the world.

The Taliban are making territorial gains and killing hundreds of regime troops each month, and feel that they are on the cusp of victory.

Militias that recruit from the Hazara, Tajik and Uzbek minorities have rearmed in anticipation of the collapse of the regime in Kabul and fear of a coming civil war with the mostly Pushtun Taliban. Afghanistan is nearing an endgame.

What it means for the Taliban

An agreement between the Taliban and the U.S. would be an impressive accomplishment for the Taliban. From their perspective, it would be their reward for fighting the world’s strongest military power to a stalemate.