Afghans fear US withdrawal could stifle progress as Taliban wait in the shadows

It’s been almost two decades since the United States declared a war on terror.

April 30, 2021, 5:04 AM

It's been almost two decades since the United States declared a war on terror, and the country is finally closing the chapter on its longest war.

President Joe Biden announced withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11. Yet, the Taliban is stronger than any time since their fall in 2001. As troops return home, the group's power has raised concerns not only of terror reaching Americans at home but more so among the Afghans who are living under the group's shadow government, which controls large swaths of the country.

A man is seen working at a field on the outskirts of Kabul on April 27, 2021.
Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

"It's so hard to keep track of people or plots that develop in these very, very remote regions [of the country]. ... The risk will be ... terrorist[s] plotting to attack the U.S. again from these remote areas of Afghanistan," said retired Col. Steve Ganyard, former deputy assistant secretary of state and an ABC News contributor.

In an exclusive interview, ABC News spoke to a Taliban commander who warned the U.S. that it should withdraw by May 1, the date originally agreed upon under former President Donald Trump.

A Taliban leader spoke with ABC News about the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

"If something happens it will be unfortunate for [the] U.S.," said the commander in a statement translated into English.

The commander had been released early from prison as part of the U.S.-Taliban deal.

On April 11, the Taliban announced that it would release 20 Afghan government prisoners as part of its commitment to the historic peace deal with the U.S. The deal calls for the release of 1,000 government officials held by the Taliban in exchange for the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners, The Associated Press reported.

Since the war began in the wake of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, more than 2,400 U.S. soldiers have been killed and over 20,000 service members have been wounded, according to a recent study by the Watson Institute. The study found that the war has cost the federal government more than $2.2 trillion.

Afghan men stand near damaged buses after a deadly accident on the Kabul-Kandahar highway, on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, April 27, 2021.
Rahmat Gul/AP

But that price in money and human lives pales in comparison to the number of innocent Afghan civilians killed in the decadeslong conflict: over 47,000, according to the Watson Institute.

Former defense minister Tamin Asey says that the Taliban have not changed.

"The ideology haven't changed. Their global claim to jihad haven't changed. They are more confident of their victory and they think that they have defeated the United States and NATO," said Asey.

The Afghan National Security Forces expressed concern that the peace agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban would still put Afghan citizens in danger. Many are fearful that the nation and its military is still too fragile to fight against extremists if they were to return.

Afghan security police search a man at a checkpoint in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, April 21, 2021.
Rahmat Gul/AP

Fawzia Koofi, a major Afghan politician and female rights activist, began her political career in Afghanistan 20 years ago after the fall of the Taliban. Since then, she has worked to help Afghan girls go back to school and pushed for women's equality at home and in the workplace.

Afghans are concerned about the withdrawal of U.S. troops. The Taliban controls large swaths of the country.

Koofi said she's worried that her work on women's equality will be lost after the troops leave.

"I feel like a lot of uncertainty -- things that will be unpredictable," said Koofi. "Uncertainty in terms of what will happen to the women."

She said that speaking out against militant groups is still dangerous and that hundreds of women have been targeted. She had personally survived two assassination attempts.

Koofi said she worries the U.S. decision to withdraw will influence other allies to move out as well.

"It has become not only a strategic failure for our international friends, but I must say, also a moral failure for our international friends in terms of leaving their main allies in the middle of nowhere and making the decision to leave Afghanistan," Koofi said.

Girls at this school are concerned about what will happen to their education after the U.S. withdraws troops.

While the war against the Taliban failed to uproot the militant group, the country has made tremendous strides in the economy, education, health care and gender equality.

Female enrollment in secondary schools grew from 6% in 2003 to 39% in 2017. A September 2020 study from the Brookings Institution also found that women's life expectancy had jumped by 10 years while childbirth mortality dropped by nearly two-thirds.

By 2020, 27% of parliamentary members in Afghanistan were women, the same study found.

At a girl's high school in Kabul, dozens of teenagers attend classes everyday, but one female student said she believes their ability to continue their education may hang in the balance once the U.S. troops leave.

"We are all worrying about stopping of our schools. My mom went to school, but when the Taliban came to Afghanistan, she was not allowed to go to school," said the student. "She wants me to learn everything I want to learn. She is doing everything for us to go to a school and to learn our studies."

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