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For a full forty years, Afghanistan has known war. First came the Soviets, whose decade-long occupation brought devastation, death and little in the way of achievement. A cataclysmic civil war followed, pitting newly mustered Taliban fighters against government troops. And then, as the world still reeled from 9/11, America invaded. 

Twenty Years After 9/11: America is Still in Afghanistan

Almost twenty years on, US troops currently around 13,000 of them – are still Afghanistan. But not for much longer. A peace plan years in the making looks like it will soon be finalized, offering hope to a nation ravaged by war. 

A temporary seven-day truce will pave the way for a more comprehensive deal, American officials announced last week. February 29 is the day slated for the formal singing.

At that stage, the Americans will embark upon a four-month military drawdown of troops, leading to a complete departure by the mid-2020s. A mass prisoner swap will take place too, as will the commencement of “intra-Afghan” talks held by the Taliban leadership and Afghan government.

Just five months ago, this all seemed impossible. Amid a wave of bloody militant activity in Kabul, a US soldier was killed along with civilians and coalition troops. Negotiations stalled and peace looked as distant as ever.

The High Cost of Afghanistan’s War

But on both sides there is agreement that the war cannot continue. At least 30,000 civilians have been killed  and twice that injured  in the last decade alone. Economically, too, Afghanistan is counting the cost of enduring instability. In 2012, 34% of Afghans lived below the poverty line, $1 a day. Today, that figure is 55%.      

But an ill-thought through peace plan is as bad as none at all; and already questions abound. The war has created at least 3 million refugees, mostly living in Pakistan and Iran. At a time of growing impatience for peace, the UN has warned that these uprooted Afghans are at risk of falling through the cracks. 

‘We Live in Fear’

Many fled the Taliban’s uncompromising interpretation of Islamic rule, and now worry that their human rights will not be upheld upon return. 

One such individual, Saleema Rehman, is in her final year at a Pakistani medical school. Lacking citizenship, she will be forced to return to Afghanistan – where her parents fled from prior to her birth  if peace is agreed upon between the US and Taliban.  

“We live in fear,” Rehman told Reuters. “We are the third generation, my nephew and niece are the fourth generation, in Pakistan. We never experienced any war and we don’t want to go back to the area where peace is uncertain.”

Her fears are not unfounded. Under Taliban rule, Afghan women were prevented from working, studying, or even leaving home without a male chaperone.  

The militants have promised to uphold women’s rights under Islamic law in a post-war Afghanistan, but many fear that such assurances will be reversed after the US’s withdrawal.

The Taliban are in a Strong Negotiating Position

It’s a justified worry. Holding sway over half of the country, the Taliban’s negotiating hand is strong. Upholding rights, cracking down on international terrorism, ensuring economic reform: these promises are easy to make. In addition, America weary as it is of foreign wars  is unlikely to return to uphold the agreement, and it would be easy for the Taliban to break.

The peace deal’s conditions mitigate the risk of Taliban backtracking, US officials say. By agreeing only to a gradual withdrawal  one that takes years, not months  Washington can monitor the group’s compliance without losing its military leverage. How they intend to police the deal in the years that follow, however, is not clear.

Trump’s Focus: Bring the Troops Home

For US President Donald Trump, that matters little  his focus is on what might unfold during a second term, not after. The president’s promise to bring US troops home proved a vote winner in 2016 so he’ll be hoping to emulate that with a renewed Afghan withdrawal message as November’s election approaches.

But Trump’s political aspirations should have no bearing on the push for peace. Two generations of Afghans have endured an interminable cycle of violence, with one war leading onto another. For them, real and lasting agreement must be reached not just a quick-fix political victory.