Leaving Afghanistan: is the NATO withdrawal creating a security problem?

After twenty years of continuous military presence, the gradual withdrawal of NATO forces from the country is already negatively affecting Afghanistan’s internal security. The Taliban and local branches of the Islamic State have already stepped up the number of attacks on civilian and military targets. A further deterioration of the situation seems likely.
Photo by Massoud Hossaini / AP

The withdrawal – an old dilemma

After the attacks of 9/11, the US intervention in Afghanistan in the fight against international terrorism would become one of the longest military operations for US forces and their NATO partners.

In late 2001, US troops took back control over large parts of Afghan territory, which had been governed by the Taliban since 1996. The subsequently created interim government supported by the US was however a fragile institution, as Taliban forces were far from being defeated. In response, NATO troops were sent to the terrain as part of the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) in a bid to provide military assistance and support Afghan security forces. The ISAF was constituted of soldiers from the US, the UK, Germany, France, Poland and Australia among other nationalities.

The ISAF mandate was increased over the years to extend the international support in tasks such as patrols, training of Afghan security forces and establishment of democratic structures. However, the end of the mission in 2014, which aimed to return security matters to Afghan control, already suggested that the overall international military presence would also have to come to an end sooner or later.

In 2015, the international responsibilities in Afghanistan became more focalised on training and advising of Afghan security institutions with the replacement mission for ISAF, Resolute Support. The number of troops in the country have gradually been reduced in the context of Resolute Support, which emphasises a more localised role of NATO forces. Yet with threats from the Taliban to take more violent measures against the foreign military presence, the remaining 10,000 NATO troops are to be withdrawn from the country by 11 September 2021 at the latest.

A deterioration of the situation

The withdrawal has nevertheless been accompanied by growing violence. This has manifested itself both against military and civilian targets. While attacks by the Taliban on personnel of the Afghan security forces are a regular occurrence, the number of so-called enemy-initiated attacks has risen by 37 % between January and March 2021 in comparison with the year before. Likewise, there has been a rise in insider attacks, which are attacks from Afghan security forces on their peers. The latter have led to 115 deaths in the first few months of 2021.

Civilian victims of terrorism have also risen by almost 30 % as the UN mission to Afghanistan has documented. Several bombings, notably on a girls’ school in early May, have drastically augmented the number of terrorism victims. Most of the 85 victims of these most recent bombings in Kabul were girls aged 13 to 17.

In light of these worrying developments, international efforts to counteract the escalation are numerous. The neighbouring Pakistan for instance has been recognized as a key element in the attempts to resolve the conflict; its diplomats and defence staff are notably participating in negotiations with the Taliban, pushing for a resolution of the conflict. Nevertheless, peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government held in Qatar have stalled; even international diplomatic interventions have led to few results.

And indeed, the situation has worsened; active fighting between Afghan government forces and the Taliban has recommenced Sunday 16 May 2021. The renewed clashes come after a three-day ceasefire agreed by the Taliban for the celebration of the end of Ramadan.


As peace achieved through negotiations seems unlikely, the problem of the Taliban becoming more violent in either way arises. This is only confirmed through the latest series of attacks and violence that accompany the gradual retreat of international forces.

Leaving security matters in Afghan hands does represent an important step towards independent management and less reliance on international intervention. Furthermore, the overall mediocre results of the twenty-year war have strongly suggested an end to the international military presence. Aside from its cost, the war has by far not eradicated the threat of terrorism from the country, although it has likely prevented a more widespread international presence of Al-Qaida or the Taliban.

However, with the withdrawal Afghanistan is effectively at risk of a civil war; its armed forces are not sufficiently prepared and equipped to succeed against the Taliban in the long term. This scenario is also being considered by US military experts.  US General Mark Milley for instance has said that the fall of the Afghan government after the complete withdrawal could be a possibility.

The international community is therefore well aware of the problematics the withdrawal represents. Some NATO countries are therefore looking for solutions to avoid a complete deterioration of the situation. Germany, for instance, has promised “continued support” to Afghanistan, even after its military withdrawal. Germany’s Minister of the Exterior, Heiko Maas, has stressed the importance of continuing support in peace negotiations with the Taliban. It is possible that other NATO partners will continue similar engagements.

Overall, the latest surge of violence leaves doubts regarding the situation after September 2021. In the dilemma between transferring responsibility of internal security to Afghanistan and risking a severe deterioration in the region, it remains questionable whether non-military support will truly suffice to maintain a status quo.


withdrawal = retrait

nevertheless = néanmoins

peers = collègues; pairs

counteract = neutraliser; contrebalancer

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