After President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops and a failing peace process Afghanistan stands a perilous point. Foreign Editor David Pratt who has reported on the country’s conflicts for 40 years takes stock of what might happen next
It was a godforsaken place. One of those seemingly forgotten outposts which, if it had been in the Vietnam War, would be worthy of a scene from the movie Apocalypse Now. 
Clinging to a steep craggy mountainside, combat outpost Najil in the Alishang Valley in Afghanistan’s Laghman Province had frequently been attacked by the Taliban. 
Crouched opposite me in the US Black Hawk medevac helicopter that day was flight medic Sergeant Nate Whorton, who from the second we touched down had gestured for me to stay on board.  
It was crew chief Tom Gifford, a burly taciturn Californian who jumped from the Black Hawk’s door, keeping watch, and tracking the surrounding hillside with his M4 carbine rifle at the ready. All the time while on the ground, the helicopter’s engines were kept running for a fast getaway.  
Seconds later, two other US soldiers from the post slid our patient’s stretcher on board and Whorton went to work on the gunshot wounds to the man’s neck and stomach as the Black Hawk slewed skywards.  
It was only once back at our airfield HQ, near the city of Jalalabad, that the crew told me that the wounded man who lay bleeding on the stretcher a short while before had been Afghan, a suspected “bad guy” as US soldiers sometimes called Taliban fighters. 
Here in one cameo snapshot was the madness of the war in Afghanistan. A place where one moment US soldiers and Taliban fighters were trying to kill each other and the next an American medevac crew were risking their life to save a wounded enemy fighter.   
On hearing President Joe Biden announce last week that he was withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan, I couldn’t help thinking about those surreal moments like that day back in 2009 and many others like it during the 40 years that I’ve covered Afghanistan’s seemingly endless conflicts. 
One of America’s “forever wars” was how Biden had dubbed his country’s 20-year engagement in Afghanistan, its longest war in modern times. Ordinary Afghans could be forgiven for scoffing at such an “American” epithet, given that for them this current war is but only one of many in recent decades. 

Terrible suffering
FOR those of us outside looking on, we too often think only of Afghanistan’s terrible suffering in terms of the ongoing war against the Taliban. We forget that before this, in the 1990s, the country was torn apart by a bitter factional civil war which itself brewed over from an even earlier conflict, that against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. 
Should anyone have forgotten during these past 20 years why America went to Afghanistan in the first place, it invaded in 2001 to oust the Taliban, who were providing sanctuary for Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda figures linked to the 9/11 attacks. 
Bin Laden has been dead for a decade now and while al-Qaeda still has pockets in Afghanistan, and still co-operates with the Taliban – despite Taliban assurances to the contrary – the US intelligence community believes the group is no longer able to pose a credible threat to the US homeland.  
Now, exactly 20 years to the day after those attacks on the US that triggered the “war on terror” and the invasion and occupation that has cost an eyewatering trillions of dollars, America will remove its “boots on the ground” leaving Afghanistan and its people to an uncertain fate. 
“Three hours and they could be right here in Kabul, in fact many are already operating in covert groups in the city as you know, David,” one Afghan friend reminded me of the Taliban’s omnipresence around the capital when I was last there just before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.  
Since then, the insurgents have stepped up their deliberate targeting of local journalists, particularly women, as well as rights activists and civil society leaders. More than 1,700 civilians were killed or wounded in attacks during the first three months of 2021, up 23 per cent from the same period last year, according to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). 
The violence runs in tandem with negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, heightening concerns about preserving freedom of expression and women’s rights in any peace settlement. 

Fears of the people
TIME and again Afghans told me of their fears over an American pullout and of concerns that the country’s security forces might well collapse without the support of the US-led coalition that at times has comprised up to 40 countries including the UK, France, Germany, and Australia. 
So, with the departure of US troops imminent, what now does the future hold for Afghanistan and its people? The first thing to say in answering this question is that it’s important to recognise why America chose now to leave.  
Ending a “forever war” for the US is only part of the story and clearly the Biden administration is convinced that its unconditional troop withdrawal might ramp up the pressure on both the Taliban and Afghan government to reach a peace deal.  
Both sides, for a long time now, have used the US presence as leverage. The insurgents through escalating violence while the Afghan government under president Ashraf Ghani has done so by putting himself at the front of the long established and often corrupt political gravy train. The president, too, failed to build the kind of relationship or ties with Washington that might have allowed a long-term, stabilising US troop presence. 
Hardly surprising, then, that few ordinary Afghans have much trust in Ghani who has consistently dragged his feet on any power-sharing or peace deal.  
While Ghani supposedly “won” the disputed September 2019 elections with 50.64% of the ballots, this has hardly legitimised his presidency. Many Afghans remain disillusioned by the electoral process because of direct political manipulation, corruption, or outright threats. Only 1.6 million among Afghanistan’s 9.7 million registered voters bothered to turn up. This is not even counting another five to six million Afghans of eligible voting age who never registered. 
Ghani’s nationwide mandate is questionable, as are his efforts to engage in any serious dialogue with either his immediate political opponents or the Taliban in trying to bring about peace and stability. As Foreign Policy magazine columnist Elise Labott summed it up last week: “Afghans are coming to realise that Ghani can neither wage war nor make peace.” 

Warlords embraced
FURTHER undermining his credibility, Ghani has also embraced warlords he once shunned, like Uzbek powerhouse Rashid Dostum, accused of war crimes. These warlords are another potential wild card as Afghanistan enters a new and perilous phase.  
There are just too many old faces and political parties who have had access to power in some shape or form for years and will not relinquish it now. Many of these warlords, in a country awash with weapons, have substantial numbers of armed supporters which only adds to an already combustible political and military mix. 
Perhaps sensing how the US withdrawal has boxed him in politically, Ghani has recently – and reluctantly – proposed the formation of an interim government as a prelude to another election. But few are holding their breath and the bottom line is that Ghani has shown little enthusiasm for any power-sharing with the Taliban or anyone else that doesn’t include him as president. 
Seen from the Taliban’s perspective this matters little given that the insurgents hold the trump cards diplomatically and militarily because of the US drawdown. To date, the Taliban have even refused to sit across the table from Ghani.  
This is turn raises the spectre of escalating violence and perhaps another all-out civil war or even a takeover by the Taliban once the Americans are gone. There’s no doubt the insurgents sense a “victory” of sorts and have every reason for believing it possible. 
Despite a 20-year US presence, the Taliban currently hold or control up to 70% of Afghanistan including many provincial town and cities. They are within proximity, too, of Kabul and for a long time now have had a shadowy covert presence in the city terrorising the population and forcing the Afghan security forces to turn it into a labyrinth of checkpoints, emplacements, and blast walls. Any trip to the city gives the visitor that feeling of being hemmed in, surrounded.   
In such an intimidating environment, most Kabulis continue to fear the worst after the Americans leave with Ghani more isolated and the Taliban piling on the pressure. 
“It’s hard to imagine any scenario under which peace would break out post-September 11 in Afghanistan,” warned Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Programme at the US-based Wilson Centre speaking last week after news of the American deadline for a pull out. 
“The best hope is that the peace process won’t be dead,” Kugelman told the Associated Press, echoing the thoughts of many Afghanistan analysts and watchers. 
Most though are now pessimistic about the peace process with even the US intelligence community’s own prediction outlined in its annual Threat Assessment published last week concluding that current peace talks are unlikely to succeed.  
As if to underscore that last week the Taliban boycotted a scheduled peace conference in Turkey, again throwing the whole future of the peace process into doubt. 
What matters now if the worst-case scenarios are to be avoided is to urgently reassure Afghans that the most effective way of stabilising the country is by introducing a clean slate as far as representations goes. 
This is the proposal suggested by Edward Girardet and Peter Jouvenal, two veteran journalists and Afghan analysts who have reported on the Afghan conflict from its earliest stages, one arriving just prior to the Soviet invasion on December 27, 1979, the other shortly afterwards. Writing recently in the online reportage magazine Global Geneva, they outlined in what they described as a “feeler” article the way in which an independently mediated peace process could be created.  
It’s one that bypasses “self-centred politicians, power-mongering warlords and abusive insurgents” as well as “the undermining of outside powers with their own geopolitical agendas or, even if well-meaning, with policies that have consistently failed”.  
The two authors also detailed what they describe as the need for a “non-factional interim administration” in Afghanistan. “Even if not easy, the creation of such a transitional government involving 25-30 respected and diverse Afghans remains the only viable way forward. 
“Its representatives should come from different parts of the country and different walks of life from teachers, religious leaders (Ulema) and entrepreneurs to lawyers, farmers and civil servants,” suggest Girardet and Jouvenal. 

Political squabbling
THEY stress that at least one-third should consist of women (only one is participating in the current Doha peace talks) to guarantee the gains of women in Afghanistan. Equally important, they say, would be to exclude any officially designated government politicians or Taliban representatives, and to avoid political squabbling. The interim administration might be appointed by a neutral outside group, highly experienced outsiders well-respected by Afghans and who know the country well, such as former NGO co-ordinators and diplomats. 
It’s a novel idea and precisely the kind of imaginative thinking that has been missing these past years from an international engagement that has focused more on the security dimension. But escaping that insecurity and instability to make such an administration viable would remain an enormous challenge and, as the authors point out, would doubtless face hard resistance from political traditionalists like Ghani and others as well as the Taliban. 
Should such a peace process and new administration fail to emerge then it’s almost certain Afghanistan faces a potentially disastrous time ahead.  
Knowing my own long association with the travails of this long-suffering country it’s perhaps not surprising that many people ask how I think all this will ultimately play out. 
Sad as it is to say but without the emergence of some new peace process and interim administration initiative of the kind outlined by Girardet and Jouvenal, I believe the country most likely faces a civil war along the lines of that experienced in the mid-1990s.  
During those devastating times I was to visit Kabul often as factional fighting tore the city apart in a way even the guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation and communists had failed to do. 
That period in the 1990s was among the darkest days for Afghanistan in modern times and gave birth to the Frankenstein monster that became the Taliban. When so avoidable, what a tragedy it would be if Afghanistan were to go through that madness all over again.