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Withdrawing Troops From Afghanistan Does Not Mean Conflict Will End In Country

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In 2001, the United States and its allies deposed the government of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The response to the 9/11 attacks seemed like it might bring an end to more than 20 years of war in Afghanistan, but instead, the country has experienced another 20 years of war. And as President Biden prepares to withdraw U.S. forces by September 11, U.S. allies and the government contemplate the continued Taliban insurgency. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre first covered Afghanistan almost 30 years ago and is here to help us get the long view. Hey there, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Having had that experience, how do you see the U.S. decision to withdraw now?

MYRE: Well, I think back to my first time there in 1993, and Afghanistan had really been abandoned by the rest of the world and was locked in this nasty civil war. It was a completely shattered country. Kabul had no electricity. It was a good day if you got running water. The economy didn't function. This was just a land ruled by warlords. Now, the U.S. military and the larger foreign presence over the past two decades has remade Kabul and a few other cities. But in some ways, Afghanistan is really at risk now of returning to that scenario in the '90s, where the U.S. and the NATO and foreign aid groups leave and the Afghan government and the Taliban and perhaps a few other militias will be left to sort out the country's fate.

INSKEEP: The hope had been that there would be some kind of peace deal or power-sharing agreement with the Taliban before U.S. forces left. What are the prospects for that?

MYRE: Not good at all. The Taliban have been reluctant or just flat-out refused to deal with the government. They have even less incentive now to negotiate with the U.S. troops about to leave. Here's the Afghan ambassador to the U.S., Roya Rahmani, who spoke yesterday.

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ROYA RAHMANI: We are very disappointed by the reaction of the Taliban to this announcement, saying that they are refusing to come to the table to discuss and negotiate. They are not taking the path to peace. There is a continuous conflict going on on a daily basis. People continue to get killed every day.

MYRE: So these peace talks were very fraught even before Biden's announcement of a U.S. pullout. They're supposed to resume on April 24 in Istanbul. That might give us some indication if they're going to go forward, if there's any possible progress. Again, a best-case scenario would be a power-sharing deal, but right now, that seems highly unlikely.

INSKEEP: OK. Let's scope out the more likely scenario that the war goes on. Is there a real danger the Taliban could win, could retake power?

MYRE: Sure. That's absolutely one of multiple military scenarios. The Taliban already control much of the countryside and have been gaining ground. They could go on an offensive and try to take major cities like Kabul, which is exactly what they did back in 1996. Some of the former U.S. commanders in Afghanistan, like General - retired General David Petraeus, they strongly oppose a pullout. Now, they acknowledge that this small U.S. presence there right now isn't going to defeat the Taliban and change the stalemated war, but they say it does provide stability. There's about 2,500 U.S. troops there. They help with counterterrorism, airstrikes, intelligence, doing things that the Afghan military really can't do very well. But the Afghan military is still very dependent on the U.S. for equipment and training - a very open question about how effective they'll be without U.S. backup.

INSKEEP: Part of the rationale for keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan all these years is it must be kept from being a terror haven again. That's what people would say. Could it become one without the United States?

MYRE: Well, the director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, was asked this very question on Thursday when she was testifying before the House Intelligence Committee.

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AVRIL HAINES: Years of sustained counterterrorism actions have really degraded the ability of al-Qaida and ISIS to attack U.S. interests, and we assess, really, that neither group is currently positioned to conduct attacks against the West.

MYRE: And now President Biden says the U.S. will be able to sort of keep close watch on Afghanistan from over the horizon, as he puts it, suggesting the U.S. forces will be somewhere in the region, but we don't know where that will be. The real risk here, what many people point to, is U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. That was quickly followed by the rise of the Islamic State and then the return of U.S. troops.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Myre. Greg, thanks for the insights.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.