America's Afghan retreat: what's next for the violence-wracked nation?

Kabul, Afghanistan: The final US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan begins on Saturday, bringing relief to those who want the war to end, but fear to many Afghans who live on the frontlines.

President Joe Biden announced the pullout last month, which will be matched by a withdrawal of remaining NATO troops, which will be completed before the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

The most recent development in the nearly two-decade war has sparked questions about the country's future prospects.

Would the US pullout bring the war to an end? 

That's highly doubtful.

Most analysts, leaders, and ordinary Afghans believe the country will descend into civil war in the absence of a conclusive truce between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

"The war will intensify, turn uglier, and drag on until the Taliban capture power in whatever ruined state is left of Kabul and other provincial capitals and districts," said Nishank Motwani, an independent specialist on Afghanistan.

General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this week that once the troops depart, a variety of outcomes are expected, including a  "potential collapse of the government" and "a potential collapse of the military".

"What is clear is that the parties (the Taliban and Afghan government) now have very little to move forward towards a serious compromise in the negotiations, and peace efforts are effectively stalled," said Andrew Watkins, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.

Can Afghan forces provide protection without the presence of the US? 

Who will have to wait and see?

According to Afghan officials, the national security forces' 350,000 soldiers and police officers carry out 98 percent of all operations against insurgents.

The US air force, on the other hand, is an important part of the ongoing conflict, providing constant and essential support to ground operations, particularly when regular troops are at risk of being overwhelmed.

Analysts believe that without US help, their will to fight, which is currently led by President Ashraf Ghani, could be put to the test.

"They can survive as long as they are paid," said Afghan political analyst Fawad Kochi.

The Taliban have taken hold of large swaths of the countryside, as well as strategic roads connecting major urban centers, but they have yet to seize any major cities or towns, at least not for long.

However, they continue to terrorize city dwellers with almost regular car bombs or targeted assassinations of influential people.

"The Taliban have grown incredibly effective in demonstrating the gaps in the Afghan government's capacity," said Watkins.

Do you think there's a path to democracy? 

If that's the case, it's got a lot of forks.

President Ghani has devised a three-stage strategy for forming a "government of stability," which involves achieving a political settlement and truce with the Taliban ahead of a presidential election.

The US prefers an interim government that includes the Taliban and allows both parties to map the country's future together.

Although the Taliban are vague on details, they believe Afghanistan should revert to being an emirate, governed by a council of religious elders and run according to strict Islamic principles.

Since the Taliban were deposed in 2001, Afghanistan has had four presidential elections, and millions of Afghans have adopted a pluralistic, democratic culture.

Analysts warn that now that the stage is set for the rebels to return, the democratic gains of the past two decades will be lost.

"The consequences of Biden's decision to exit from Afghanistan guarantees a Taliban return, but not before sparking state collapse, a multi-dimensional civil war, and burning down of democracy," said analyst Motwani.

What is the outlook for the economy?

Afghanistan is one of the world's most impoverished countries, deeply indebted and utterly reliant on foreign aid.

Though the country has lucrative mineral deposits that China and India want to tap into, the security situation has never been secure enough for revenue to flow into the government coffers.

Global donors promised to provide assistance to Afghanistan until 2024 November, but there are fears that with the imminent departure of international troops, the donors will not follow through on their promises.

What about the women of Afghanistan? 

There's real concern that they'll lose everything they've gained.

Until they were deposed in 2001, the Taliban prohibited girls from working and stoned to death women convicted of crimes such as adultery, but Afghan women have risen to prominence as politicians, activists, journalists, and judges in the interim.

The Taliban claim to uphold women's rights in compliance with Islamic law, but activists point out that Islamic law is interpreted differently in the Muslim world.

"When they say they will protect women's rights, it is according to their interpretation of sharia," said Mariam Safi, a senior Afghan researcher.

"But that interpretation of women's rights will not be different than our previous experience of the Taliban regime."

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