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If the US withdraws from Afghanistan, who will fill the security vacuum?

US Army soldiers walk to their C-17 cargo plane for departure May 11, 2013 at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan [Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images]
US Army soldiers walk to their C-17 cargo plane for departure May 11, 2013 at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan [Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images]

Military withdrawals announced by the United States don't always happen the way that we expect them to. They are either drawn-out over a number of years, during which they may be delayed and rescheduled; are cancelled by the return of "boots on the ground" a short while later; or never fully happen at all, with the deployment of advisers or "contractors".

You have only to look to Iraq as an example. The Americans took at least four years to withdraw in 2011, before returning in 2014 to lead the coalition against Daesh. The same year was also meant to be when former US President Barack Obama finished the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, but the continued presence of over 9,000 US soldiers suggested otherwise.

The Trump administration announced last year the planned military withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan in a landmark deal with the Taliban. Trump's successor Joe Biden brought the date forward symbolically to 11 September. It should be no surprise that many are sceptical about whether it will actually happen.

If Washington does go through with the plan, there is still the issue of the Afghan government's ability to survive when left at the mercy of the Taliban and the unstable security situation that it will face. A potential takeover by the Taliban is especially daunting for Kabul, given that the group has taken control of more than 30 districts in the past six weeks alone; government forces made little or no progress when trying to recapture any contested district.

Despite putting on a brave public face, therefore, the Afghan government will need some guarantees that the security vacuum left behind by US and NATO forces will be filled. The candidates for that role are becoming clearer by the day.

READ: The mighty US military has been humbled by the Taliban

Turkey's offer last month to guard Kabul International Airport was a surprise to many. It has boosted the long-strained ties between Ankara and Washington and has re-established some trust in Turkey amongst fellow members of the NATO alliance. New military and diplomatic opportunities may yet bear fruit. With that offer reportedly being agreed by Biden and welcomed wholeheartedly by the Afghan government, plans look set to be drawn up in the coming weeks ready for the US withdrawal.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is reported to be considering Hungary and Pakistan as partners in the defence of Kabul airport and in Afghanistan's overall security. Hungary is even more of a surprise option than Turkey. Prime Minister Viktor Orban reportedly offered Hungarian forces to Erdogan for the Turkish-led mission, which would prove Budapest's own ability to deliver results as a fellow NATO member and ally of Turkey.

Although Pakistan has deep ties with Ankara and has been a partner of the Turkish defence industry for many years, this would be the first time that the two will cooperate as partners in a security project. It is particularly significant as it is in Pakistan's own backyard, where Islamabad has had some degree of influence since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the later creation of the Taliban.

Another potential player in Afghanistan is Iran. Earlier this year, Tehran was reported to have offered Kabul the protection of its vast network of Shia militias in the Middle East, particularly the Fatemiyoun militia made up predominantly of the Afghan Shia Hazaras minority.

That offer, although not openly accepted by the Afghan government, provided an insight into Iran's potential long-term aims in the neighbouring country. Many believe that it wants to be a guarantor of Afghanistan's security by extending the reach of its militia networks there.

If the interests of Turkey, in partnership with Pakistan and Hungary, collide with those of Iran in Afghanistan, then there is the potential to replicate the situation seen in Syria over the past five years. There could be geopolitical clashes while avoiding any direct confrontation.

READ: In offering its militias as security contractors, Iran is exporting its revolution

This is far from certain, however, as in this case both states openly support the Afghan government and are offering to defend it while both share good working relations with the existing prominent security stakeholder in the country, Pakistan. Both Turkey and Iran, therefore, would likely seek to work together with Kabul, while attempting simultaneously to protect their individual interests. The possibility of this happening was demonstrated last week at the Antalya Diplomacy Forum, where the Turkish, Iranian, and Afghan foreign ministers met trilaterally.

As often happens when America withdraws its troops from anywhere, Washington plans to keep military advisors in Afghanistan. According to a report by the New York Times, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is also scrambling for a new approach in the country, in which the agency intends to have a presence. Such a presence isn't obvious yet, but we can expect it soon, not least because Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has refused to allow the agency to have a base in his country, as it had throughout the "war on terror".

There is also the issue of private military contractors — mercenaries – to be considered. They could be deployed by the US as proxies instead of regular troops. Mercenaries have operated within Afghanistan over the past decade at least; one in every four American military personnel was reported to have been a private contractor in 2016.

Such a move has proven effective in lowering costs and risks to US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example. It is thus likely that it will be used again when the US troops leave.

It should also be remembered that the prominent former diplomat James Jeffrey admitted last year that he and his team purposefully hid the true number of troops in Syria from former President Trump. Having made the number of troops appear lower than it was, Jeffrey proved that the American defence and diplomatic community is able to conceal operations and troop figures from the US president himself. Could there be a secret troop deployment left behind when the official "withdrawal" takes place?

It looks certain that there won't really be a security vacuum in Afghanistan if and when US troops leave. But that "if" is itself uncertain. Whatever happens, the Afghans are unlikely to see a complete end to the presence of US military personnel of one kind or another in their country post-September this year.

READ: The US strategic shift in the Middle East

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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