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The End of the United States’ Forever War

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Wesley Morgan’s recently released book about the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, “The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley,” is unique in its completeness. Arguably, it is the closest any book about the American war in Afghanistan has come to capturing what transpired in a slice of territory occupied by U.S. forces.

It is especially relevant now, in the wake of President Biden’s announcement that all American troops will withdraw from the country by September. Books like Morgan’s will serve as the epitaphs for the failures of the American military in its two-decade-long war.

Thousands of troops passed through the Pech in Afghanistan’s violent east, where famous documentaries and films were born and the Korengal Valley turned practically into a household name. The soldiers there built and tore down outposts. Went on hundreds of patrols. Fought and died. Morgan, a military affairs reporter, documents it all from the beginning to the end, a herculean task in a conflict that has gone on for so long, and with characters who continuously rotated in and out every few months. These men and women all left their own marks on a military strategy that was never understood or clearly defined.

different audiences, and the reviews had quite a bit in common. And a big part of what they had in common was a sense of bitterness over how a lot of heroic fighting had been built on really shaky foundations in terms of the intelligence and assumptions and decisions that led us into these valleys, and grief over how casualties had mounted as military units continually reinvented the wheel and kept flying back up to the same villages in the same valleys to go looking for firefights year after year, without a lot of knowledge being passed down or absorbed.

Read the casualty report.]


Here are five articles from The Times that you might have missed.

Read the article.]

“I am so worried about my future. It seems so murky. If the Taliban take over, I lose my identity.” Many Afghans fear that without the umbrella of U.S. protection, the country will be unable to preserve its modest gains toward democracy and women’s rights. [Read the article.]

“He’s dealing with the kiss of death from his own closest partner.” The Taliban are gaining militarily in Afghanistan, and President Ashraf Ghani’s international supporters are impatient with the stumbling peace process. [Read the article.]

Read the article.]

“The I.S.I., with the help of America, defeated America.” Pakistan’s military stayed allied to both the Americans and Taliban. But now the country may face intensified extremism at home as a result of a perceived Taliban victory. [Read the article.]


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White House Warns Russia on Bounties, but Stops Short of Sanctions

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration warned the Kremlin on Thursday over the C.I.A.’s conclusion that Russia had covertly offered payments to militants to encourage more killings of American and coalition troops in Afghanistan, delivering the diplomatic admonition as it imposed sanctions on Moscow over its hacking and election interference.

But the administration stopped short of inflicting sanctions on any Russian officials over the suspected bounties, making clear that the available evidence about what happened — primarily what Afghan detainees told interrogators — continues to fall short of definitively proving that Russia paid money to reward attacks.

The intelligence community, a senior administration official told reporters, “assesses with low to moderate confidence that Russian intelligence officers sought to encourage Taliban attacks against U.S. and coalition personnel in Afghanistan in 2019, and perhaps earlier, including through financial incentives and compensation.”

The New York Times first reported last summer the existence of the C.I.A.’s assessment and that the National Security Council had led an interagency process to develop a range of response options — but that months had passed and the Trump White House had failed to authorize any response, not even a diplomatic protest.

financial transfers, and that the C.I.A. placed medium confidence in its conclusion.

But, it also reported, the National Security Agency — which is focused on electronic surveillance — placed lower confidence in the assessment, citing the lack of smoking-gun electronic intercepts. Analysts at two other agencies that were consulted, the National Counterterrorism Center and the Defense Intelligence Agency, were also said to split, with the former backing the C.I.A. and the latter the National Security Agency.

Former intelligence officials, including in testimony about the issue before Congress, have noted that it is rare in the murky world of intelligence to have courtroom levels of proof beyond a reasonable doubt about what an adversary is covertly doing.

The re-scrub of available evidence by President Biden’s administration had not uncovered anything new and significant enough to bring greater clarity to that muddied intelligence portrait, so the disagreement over confidence levels remained, an official familiar with internal deliberations said.

The Biden official’s explanation to reporters dovetailed with that account.

Intelligence agencies, the official explained, “have low to moderate confidence in this judgment in part because it relies on detainee reporting, and due to the challenging operating environment, in Afghanistan.”

fled to Russia — possibly while using a passport linked to a Russian spy agency.

As a result, the detainees who recounted to interrogators what they were told about the purported arrangement were not themselves in the room for conversations with Russian intelligence officials. Without an electronic intercept, either, there was a pattern of evidence that fit the C.I.A.’s assessment but no explicit eyewitness account of the interactions.

The Russian government has denied that it covertly offered or paid bounties to drive up attacks on American and coalition troops in Afghanistan.

The public disclosure of the C.I.A.’s assessment — and the White House’s months of inaction in response — prompted a bipartisan uproar in Congress. Defending the inaction, President Donald J. Trump labeled the reporting “a hoax” and his White House denied that he had been told about it, seeking to dismiss the intelligence assessment as too weak to be taken seriously.

In fact, it had been included in his written intelligence briefing in late February 2020 and disseminated more broadly to the intelligence community in early May.

But it was also true that analysts at the National Security Agency disagreed with the C.I.A. over how much confidence to place in the agency’s conclusion, based on the imperfect array of available evidence. The Trump administration played up that split.

In testimony before Congress about the issue, Michael J. Morell, a former acting C.I.A. director, disputed the White House’s suggestion that such an assessment had to be unanimously backed by intelligence agencies to be taken seriously.

In previous administrations, he said last July, if the intelligence community assessed such information at any level of confidence, officials would have told both the president and congressional leaders immediately about that judgment and any dissent. If the confidence level were low, he said, an administration would seek more information before acting, while a medium- or high-confidence assessment would most likely result in a response.

never raised the issue of the bounty intelligence in his conversations with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. But after the C.I.A.’s assessment became public, senior military and diplomatic officials, including the secretary of state at the time, Mike Pompeo, warned their counterparts after all.

“If the Russians are offering money to kill Americans or, for that matter, other Westerners as well, there will be an enormous price to pay. That’s what I shared with Foreign Minister Lavrov,” Mr. Pompeo said in August during a trip to the Czech Republic. “I know our military has talked to their senior leaders, as well. We won’t brook that. We won’t tolerate that.”

Still, in testimony before Congress and in other remarks, senior Pentagon officials — caught between not wanting to aggravate the White House and not wanting to appear indifferent about the safety of troops — said they would be outraged if the C.I.A. assessment was correct, but also had yet to see definitive proof.

“It is not closed because we never close investigations that involve threats or potential threats against U.S. forces,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the Pentagon’s Central Command, said late last year when asked about the status of the inquiry. “We’re looking at it very hard.”

Mr. Biden attacked Mr. Trump for failing to do anything about the C.I.A. assessment, portraying it as part of a strange pattern of deference he said Mr. Trump had shown toward Russia. Mr. Biden mentioning the matter in his speech accepting the Democratic nomination and brought it up in his first call as president with Mr. Putin.

While the sanctions imposed on Thursday were based on alleged Russian misdeeds other than the suspected bounties, the senior administration official said the diplomatic action about the available information “puts a burden on the Russian government to explain its actions, and take steps to address this disturbing pattern of behavior.”

The official added, “We cannot and will not accept the targeting of our personnel like this.”

Julian E. Barnes and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.

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Biden’s Afghan Pullout Is a Victory for Pakistan. But at What Cost?

Near the peak of the American war in Afghanistan, a former chief of neighboring Pakistan’s military intelligence — an institution allied both to the U.S. military and to its Taliban adversaries — came on a talk show called “Joke Night” in 2014. He put a bold prediction on the record.

“When history is written,” declared Gen. Hamid Gul, who led the feared spy service known as the I.S.I. during the last stretch of the Cold War in the 1980s, “it will be stated that the I.S.I. defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with the help of America.”

“Then there will be another sentence,” General Gul added after a brief pause, delivering his punchline to loud applause. “The I.S.I., with the help of America, defeated America.”

In President Biden’s decision to withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan by September, Pakistan’s powerful military establishment finally gets its wish after decades of bloody intrigue: the exit of a disruptive superpower from a backyard where it had established strong influence through a friendly Taliban regime before the U.S. invaded in 2001.

social unrest, agitation by oppressed minorities and a percolating Islamic militancy of its own that it is struggling to contain.

If Afghanistan descends into chaos, Pakistanis are bound to feel the burden again just as they did after Afghanistan disintegrated in the 1990s following the Soviet withdrawal. Millions of Afghan refugees crossed the porous border to seek relative safety in Pakistan’s cities and towns.

thousands of religious seminaries spread across Pakistan. Those groups have shown no hesitation in antagonizing the country’s government.

bitter about the double role played by the I.S.I. The killing of Bin Laden in Pakistan by U.S. forces in 2011 was one rare moment when those tensions played out in public.

But Pakistan’s generals were also successful in making themselves indispensable to the United States — offering a nuclear-armed ally in a region where China, Russia and Islamist militants all had interests. Effectively, it meant that the United States chose to turn a blind eye as its Pakistani allies helped the Taliban wear down American and allied forces in Afghanistan.

Pakistan was 50 times more important to the United States than Afghanistan was.

In recent years, as American officials sought a way to leave Afghanistan, they again had to turn to Pakistan — to pressure the Taliban to come to peace talks, and to lend help when the United States needed to move against Al Qaeda or the Islamic State affiliate in the region.

With the U.S. intention to leave publicly declared, Pakistan did away with any semblance of denial that the Taliban leadership was sheltering there. Taliban leaders flew from Pakistani cities to engage in peace talks in Qatar. When negotiations reached delicate moments that required consultations with field commanders, they flew back to Pakistan.

When the United States finally signed a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban in February last year, the mood in some circles in Pakistan was one of open celebration.

Pakistan’s former defense minister, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, who had repeatedly visited the halls of power in Washington as a U.S. ally, tweeted a photo of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meeting Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban deputy at the talks in Qatar.

“You might have might on your side, but God is with us,” Mr. Asif said in the tweet, ending with a cry of victory. “Allah u Akbar!”

But there are signs that extremist groups within Pakistan have already felt emboldened by the Taliban’s perceived victory, giving a glimpse of the trouble likely to be in store for Pakistani officials.

The once-defeated Pakistani Taliban have increased their activities in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Ambushes against security forces have become more frequent.

Just how wide the problem of extremism might stretch has been on display in recent days on the streets of two of Pakistan’s main cities, Lahore and Karachi.

Supporters of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, a movement that sees itself as protecting Islam against blasphemy, thrashed uniformed members of Pakistani forces and took dozens hostage for hours. Videos emerged of Pakistani army officers trying to reason with the violent protesters. Officials said two policemen had been killed, and 300 wounded. The showdown continues, as the government moved to ban the group as a terrorist outfit.

“The state was not able to control the stick-yielding and stone-hurling members of the T.L.P. that paralyzed most parts of the country for two days,” said Afrasiab Khattak, a former chairman of Pakistan’s human rights commission. “How will they handle trained, guns-carrying Taliban militants?”

Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.

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Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State, Visits Afghanistan

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken traveled to Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday, less than a day after President Biden formally announced plans to withdraw all remaining troops from the country by Sept. 11. The trip was intended to signal continued cooperation amid the major shift in policy.

The withdrawal, which comes nearly 20 years after the United States first sent troops to Afghanistan, has raised profound questions within the country about its effect on Afghan civilians and the ability of the government and the Taliban to negotiate a peace deal.

Mr. Biden, laying out his plan in an address to the nation on Wednesday afternoon, said the country could no longer “continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan.”

Following the president’s announcement, NATO’s foreign and defense ministers agreed to begin withdrawing NATO forces on May 1 and finish “within a few months,” the alliance said in a statement.

Hours later, Mr. Blinken arrived in Kabul for the unannounced and brief trip, during which he visited the United States Embassy and then met with Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, and Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of the Afghan government council that has led peace negotiations with the Taliban. By Thursday evening, Mr. Blinken had departed for Washington.

“I wanted to demonstrate with my visit the ongoing commitment of the United States to the Islamic Republic and the people of Afghanistan,” Mr. Blinken said before his meeting with Mr. Ghani began. “The partnership is changing, but the partnership is enduring.”

Mr. Ghani said the Afghan government respected the decision and was “adjusting our priorities.”

Mr. Blinken and Mr. Ghani “discussed the importance of preserving the gains of the last 20 years, especially in building a strong civil society and protecting the rights of women and girls,” said Ned Price, a spokesman for the State Department.

The pair also spoke about counterterrorism cooperation and their shared commitment to ensuring that Al Qaeda does not regain a foothold in Afghanistan.

Mr. Blinken then met with Mr. Abdullah, who said he was grateful to the American people and the Biden administration.

“We have a new chapter, but it’s a new chapter that we’re writing together,” Mr. Abdullah added.

Mr. Blinken had traveled to Afghanistan from Brussels, where, alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, he briefed NATO officials on the decision to withdraw American troops.

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U.S. and Allies Plan Fight From Afar Against Al Qaeda Once Troops Exit Afghanistan

Daunting challenges face the American-backed Afghan security forces. Over the past year, they have lost territory from repeated assaults by the Taliban and have relied on U.S. air power to push back the insurgents.

With the Afghan government’s credibility waning, militias — once the main power holders during the days of the Afghan civil war in the 1990s — have rearmed and reappeared, even challenging Afghan security forces in some areas.

“If the president authorizes it, we will still be able to provide some level of military support to the Afghan national security forces after we depart the country,” William H. McRaven, the retired Navy admiral who directed the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, said in an interview on Wednesday.

For the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies, a key issue now is how readily counterterrorism operations can be carried out from beyond Afghanistan. The history of such operations has a decidedly mixed record. Cruise missile strikes launched from distant ships against terrorist targets in Afghanistan have had a low rate of success.

The United States maintains a string of air bases in the Persian Gulf region, as well as in Jordan, and the Pentagon operates a major regional air headquarters in Qatar. But the farther that Special Operations forces have to travel to strike a target, the more likely the operations are to fail, either by missing their mark or resulting in a catastrophic failure that could kill American service members or civilians on the ground, according to officials who have studied the record.

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, meeting with allies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels on Wednesday, cited the military’s ability to strike terrorist targets in far-flung hot spots “in Africa and other places” where few, if any, troops are stationed, apparently referring to drone strikes and commando raids in Somalia, Yemen and Libya in recent years.

“There’s probably not a space on the globe that the United States and its allies can’t reach,” Mr. Austin told reporters.

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Biden, Setting Afghanistan Withdrawal, Says ‘It Is Time to End the Forever War’

Mr. Bush opted not to publicly second-guess Mr. Biden’s decision.

“As he has maintained since leaving office, President Bush will decline to comment on private phone calls or his successors,” said Freddy Ford, his chief of staff.

A series of Afghan governments have failed to sustain control over vast sections of the country, the essence of the American military’s “clear, hold, build” strategy for years after the initial invasion. While a succession of Afghan leaders, supported by the United States and its allies, promised to fight corruption, end the drug scourge and establish stable governance, all of those gains have proved fragile at best.

Women have taken a more prominent role in the government, and girls have been educated on a scale not seen before the war began. But the future of those gains is in doubt if the Taliban gain more ground.

In a statement on Twitter, President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan said his country “respects the U.S. decision and we will work with our U.S. partners to ensure a smooth transition.” He added that his country’s security forces were “fully capable of defending its people.”

But in private, Mr. Ghani has fumed about the American decision, according to people who have spoken to him. He fears that it will embolden the Taliban, and give them little to no incentive to stick to the terms of the agreement they reached a year ago with Mr. Trump. And many around Mr. Ghani fear that his own government, already diminished in influence, could fall if the Taliban decide to try to take Kabul, the capital.

“Just because we withdraw from Afghanistan doesn’t mean the war ends,” said Lisa Curtis, a top Trump national security official who dealt with Afghanistan. “It probably gets worse.”

Mr. Biden is the first president to have rejected the Pentagon’s recommendations that any withdrawal be “conditions based,” meaning that security would have to be assured on the ground before Americans pulled back. To do otherwise, military officials have long argued, would be to signal to the Taliban to just wait out the Americans — after which they would face little opposition to taking further control, and perhaps threatening Kabul.

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US Troop Withdrawal From Afghanistan: What to Know

The reality of an imminent American withdrawal from Afghanistan differs from its long-anticipated likelihood. Already the anxiety engendered by this new certainty in the capital, Kabul, and other urban centers is making itself felt.

Afghans’ fear is multifaceted, evoked by the Taliban’s grim record, bitter and vivid memories of civil war and the widely acknowledged weakness of the current government. These conditions in turn push Afghan thinking in one direction: The country’s government and armed forces won’t survive without American support. Many American policymakers, security officials and diplomats concur with this gloomy view. Just this week, the U.S. intelligence assessment, presented to Congress, suggested as much: “The Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.”

During their five years in power, 1996-2001, the Taliban operated one of the world’s most oppressive and theocratic regimes, and there is little in their public posture and behavior during the group’s years of insurgency to suggest much has changed, at least ideologically.

In Afghanistan’s cities, the new middle-class society that emerged under the American security umbrella over the last 20 years dread a return to that era of rule.

some analysts say, there is some imperative to find political solutions to achieving their desired return to power.

And, most important, there are too many potential centers of armed resistance that will not go down quietly. And that in turn would lead to an intensification of the civil war that is already consuming much of the country.

With the Biden’s administration’s announcement on Wednesday of a complete withdrawal of American forces by Sept. 11, there are still several questions that will need to be answered between now and then.

believe they have already militarily won the war with Afghan forces, and they may be right.

Afghan soldiers and police have abandoned dozens of checkpoints, while others have been taken by force, while the attrition rate among security forces is considered unsustainable by Western and Afghan security officials.

Still, as long as Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani. can continue to maintain his elite special force of 20,000-30,000 men and pay them, thanks to the Americans, he may be able to maintain his hold on power, for a time. The Americans fund the Afghan military to the tune of $4 billion a year; if those funds are cut by a Congress unwilling to pay for somebody else’s war, Mr. Ghani is in trouble.

Also likely to be emboldened by the American withdrawal, and constituting a further threat to the Ghani government, are the forces controlled by the country’s numerous and potent regional leaders. These power brokers may now be tempted to cut deals with the side that clearly has the upper hand, the Taliban, or buckle down and try to secure their small portions of the country and again take up the mantle of warlords.

believe Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups pose an immediate threat to the United States from Afghanistan — although the congressionally mandated Afghan Study Group said earlier this year that withdrawal “could lead to a reconstitution of the terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland within 18 months to three years.”

Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan was militarily defeated their eastern stronghold in late 2019. But smaller and more amorphous elements continue to operate with low intensity in the region, including in Kabul, waiting to take advantage of whatever might happen in the coming months.

U.S. military and intelligence officials have suggested a limited timeline — a handful years at best.

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Afghans Wonder ‘What About Me?’ as US Troops Prepare to Withdraw

KABUL, Afghanistan — A female high school student in Kabul, Afghanistan’s war-scarred capital, is worried that she won’t be allowed to graduate. A pomegranate farmer in Kandahar wonders if his orchards will ever be clear of Taliban land mines. A government soldier in Ghazni fears he will never stop fighting.

Three Afghans from disparate walks of life, now each asking the same question: What will become of me when the Americans leave?

President Biden on Tuesday vowed to withdraw all American troops by Sept. 11, nearly 20 years after the first Americans arrived to drive out Al Qaeda following the 2001 terrorist attacks. The American withdrawal ends the longest war in United States history, but it is also likely to be the start of another difficult chapter for Afghanistan’s people.

reported that in the first three months of the year there were 573 civilians killed and 1,210 wounded, a 29 percent increase over the same period in 2020. More than 40,000 civilians have been killed since the start of the war.

Over two decades, the American mission evolved from hunting terrorists to helping the government build the institutions of a functioning government, dismantle the Taliban and empower women. But the U.S. and Afghan militaries were never able to effectively destroy the Taliban, allowing the insurgents to stage a comeback.

The Taliban never recognized Afghanistan’s democratic government. And they appear closer than ever to achieving the goal of their insurgency: to return to power and establish a government based on their extremist view of Islam.

Women would be most at risk under Taliban rule. When the group controlled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, it banned women from taking most jobs or receiving educations and practically made them prisoners in their own homes.

“It is too early to comment on the subject. We need to know much more,” said Fatima Gailani, an Afghan government negotiator who is involved in the continuing peace talks with the Taliban. “One thing is certain: It is about time that we learn how to rely on ourselves. Women of Afghanistan are totally different now. They are a force in our country; no one can deny them their rights or status.”

Afghanistan’s shaky democracy — propped up by billions of American dollars — has given way to an educated urban class that includes women like Ms. Gailani. Many of them were born in Afghanistan in the 1990s and came of age during the U.S. occupation of the country. Now these women are journalists, part of civil society and members of government.

In the countryside, by contrast, fighting, poverty and oppression remain regular parts of life. Despite the challenges, residents found some comfort in knowing that Afghan forces, backed by the American military, were keeping the peace at least in some areas.

Haji Abdul Samad, 52, a pomegranate farmer from the Arghandab district of Kandahar Province, has been displaced from his home for two months because of the heavy fighting there.

“I am too tired of my life. We are now in a position to beg,” Mr. Samad said. “The Americans are responsible for the troubles, hardships that we are going through. Now they are going to leave with their troops, with no peace, no progress. They just want to leave their war behind.”

Fears about the future are as palpable in the presidential palace in Kabul as they are in far-flung corners of the country. And people across Afghanistan are confused about who will soon be in charge.

The Taliban have repeatedly called for President Ashraf Ghani to step down to make way for an interim government, or most likely, their own. Mr. Ghani has refused, instead pushing for elections but also opening the door to more fighting and a potential civil war. The peace talks in Qatar have faltered and the Taliban have all but backed out of proposed talks in Turkey.

“Ghani will be increasingly isolated. Power brokers see every one of his moves as designed to keep himself and his deputies at the helm,” said Torek Farhadi, an adviser to former President Hamid Karzai. “Reality is, free and fair elections are not possible in the country amid war. In fact, it could fuel more violence.”

As American troops prepare to leave and fractures form in the Afghan government, militias controlled by powerful local warlords are once more rising to prominence and attacking government forces.

The American withdrawal will undoubtedly be a massive blow to morale for the Afghan security forces, spread across the country at hundreds of checkpoints, inside bases and along violent front lines. For years, the U.S. presence has meant that American air power, if needed, was nearby. But since the Trump administration’s deal with the Taliban, those airstrikes have become much less frequent, occurring only in the most dire of situations.

Without American military support, Afghan government troops are up against a Taliban enemy who is frequently more experienced and better equipped than the average foot soldier.

The history of Afghanistan has been one of foreign invasion and withdrawal: the British in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 20th. After each invasion, the country underwent a period of infighting and civil war.

“It is not the right time to withdraw their troops,” said Major Saifuddin Azizi, a commando commander in the southeastern province of Ghazni, where fighting has been especially brutal in recent days. “It is unreasonable, hasty and a betrayal to us. It pushes Afghanistan into another civil war. Afghanistan’s destiny will look like it did two decades ago.”

Reporting was contributed by Fahim Abed, Najim Rahim and Fatima Faizi from Kabul, and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar.

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Afghans Wonder ‘What About Me?’ as American Troops Prepare to Withdraw

KABUL, Afghanistan — A female high school student in Kabul, Afghanistan’s war-scarred capital, is worried that she won’t be allowed to graduate. A pomegranate farmer in Kandahar wonders if his orchards will ever be clear of Taliban land mines. A government soldier in Ghazni fears he will never stop fighting.

Three Afghans from disparate walks of life, now each asking the same question: What will become of me when the Americans leave?

President Biden on Tuesday vowed to withdraw all American troops by Sept. 11, nearly 20 years after the first Americans arrived to drive out Al Qaeda following the 2001 terrorist attacks. The American withdrawal ends the longest war in United States history, but it is also likely to be the start of another difficult chapter for Afghanistan’s people.

reported that in the first three months of the year there were 573 civilians killed and 1,210 wounded, a 29 percent increase over the same period in 2020. More than 40,000 civilians have been killed since the start of the war.

Over two decades, the American mission evolved from hunting terrorists to helping the government build the institutions of a functioning government, dismantle the Taliban and empower women. But the U.S. and Afghan militaries were never able to effectively destroy the Taliban, allowing the insurgents to stage a comeback.

The Taliban never recognized Afghanistan’s democratic government. And they appear closer than ever to achieving the goal of their insurgency: to return to power and establish a government based on their extremist view of Islam.

Women would be most at risk under Taliban rule. When the group controlled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, it banned women from taking most jobs or receiving educations and practically made them prisoners in their own homes.

“It is too early to comment on the subject. We need to know much more,” said Fatima Gailani, an Afghan government negotiator who is involved in the continuing peace talks with the Taliban. “One thing is certain: It is about time that we learn how to rely on ourselves. Women of Afghanistan are totally different now. They are a force in our country; no one can deny them their rights or status.”

Afghanistan’s shaky democracy — propped up by billions of American dollars — has given way to an educated urban class that includes women like Ms. Gailani. Many of them were born in Afghanistan in the 1990s and came of age during the U.S. occupation of the country. Now these women are journalists, part of civil society and members of government.

In the countryside, by contrast, fighting, poverty and oppression remain regular parts of life. Despite the challenges, residents found some comfort in knowing that Afghan forces, backed by the American military, were keeping the peace at least in some areas.

Haji Abdul Samad, 52, a pomegranate farmer from the Arghandab district of Kandahar Province, has been displaced from his home for two months because of the heavy fighting there.

“I am too tired of my life. We are now in a position to beg,” Mr. Samad said. “The Americans are responsible for the troubles, hardships that we are going through. Now they are going to leave with their troops, with no peace, no progress. They just want to leave their war behind.”

Fears about the future are as palpable in the presidential palace in Kabul as they are in far-flung corners of the country. And people across Afghanistan are confused about who will soon be in charge.

The Taliban have repeatedly called for President Ashraf Ghani to step down to make way for an interim government, or most likely, their own. Mr. Ghani has refused, instead pushing for elections but also opening the door to more fighting and a potential civil war. The peace talks in Qatar have faltered and the Taliban have all but backed out of proposed talks in Turkey.

“Ghani will be increasingly isolated. Power brokers see every one of his moves as designed to keep himself and his deputies at the helm,” said Torek Farhadi, an adviser to former President Hamid Karzai. “Reality is, free and fair elections are not possible in the country amid war. In fact, it could fuel more violence.”

As American troops prepare to leave and fractures form in the Afghan government, militias controlled by powerful local warlords are once more rising to prominence and attacking government forces.

The American withdrawal will undoubtedly be a massive blow to morale for the Afghan security forces, spread across the country at hundreds of checkpoints, inside bases and along violent front lines. For years, the U.S. presence has meant that American air power, if needed, was nearby. But since the Trump administration’s deal with the Taliban, those airstrikes have become much less frequent, occurring only in the most dire of situations.

Without American military support, Afghan government troops are up against a Taliban enemy who is frequently more experienced and better equipped than the average foot soldier.

The history of Afghanistan has been one of foreign invasion and withdrawal: the British in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 20th. After each invasion, the country underwent a period of infighting and civil war.

“It is not the right time to withdraw their troops,” said Major Saifuddin Azizi, a commando commander in the southeastern province of Ghazni, where fighting has been especially brutal in recent days. “It is unreasonable, hasty and a betrayal to us. It pushes Afghanistan into another civil war. Afghanistan’s destiny will look like it did two decades ago.”

Reporting was contributed by Fahim Abed, Najim Rahim and Fatima Faizi from Kabul, and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar.

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