The last of Britain's troops in Afghanistan returned home Sunday after a somber flag lowering ceremony at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province. By the end of the year, most Americans troops will have left the country too.
It's not clear who will fill the vacuum left by the Brits and Yanks after 13 years of fighting that began as a response to the 9/11 terror attacks. Questions remain regarding the Taliban, the ability of Afghanistan's new government to assert control, and the role Pakistan will play. While the answers to these questions are unclear, experts have predicted difficult times ahead no matter what.
"The ability of the Afghanistan state to do those things in Helmand and elsewhere is an open question," said Benjamin D. Hopkins, a professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University, told VICE News.
The US says it wants Afghanistan to become a functioning democracy with a centralized state in the capital, Kabul. But American officials haven't pursued those goals seriously, Hopkins explained.
US officials ignored voting irregularities that helped the country's first president, Hamid Karzai, win office in 2004, Hopkins said. Last month, they gave the green light to a last-minute power-sharing agreement between Afghanistan's new president, Ashraf Ghani, and his former political opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, who is now the country's so-called chief executive officer. They have also empowered regional warlords and tribal militias — rather than government troops — to quell violence in the countryside.
With Britain gone and the US slated to leave behind only 9,800 troops in Afghanistan by the end of the year, nobody knows if the bubble-gum-and-tape regime they've left behind will stand on its own two feet or buckle like the Iraqi government this summer in the face of the Islamic State.
The British are leaving primarily because they don't have the money or manpower to remain, while the US is pulling out because Americans have grown sick and tired of wars, Hopkins added. "This timetable is being driven by circumstances that have very little to do with the reality on the ground there," he said.
Republican critics and even President Barack Obama's former defense secretary, Leon Panetta, have been critical of Obama's push to leave Afghanistan.
But Thomas Sanderson, co-director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Transnational Threats Project, told VICE News that Helmand remains dangerous despite billions in spending and the deaths of more than 2,200 American and 450 British troops in Afghanistan since 2001.
"We put too much hope and credit on what forces on the ground can do in terms of impact," Sanderson said. "At what point do you force the host to take on the responsibility of keeping their country together? I want to keep the Taliban and the Haqqani network and Al Qaeda and others on their heels, but that is not practical."
What's more, much of Afghanistan's future rests not in Washington, London, or Kabul, but in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, said Sanderson. That nuclear-armed country has been involved in Afghanistan's affairs for years but is in danger of falling apart at the seams in the future, too.
Hopkins could think of one bright spot. He didn't predict Afghanistan to crumble like South Vietnam in 1975 after American troops stopped propping up Saigon. The US isn't quitting the country entirely. "As long as you have that contingent of American troops, you wont see the Taliban marching in victory through Kabul," he said. "The US is just not going to let that happen."
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