THE AMERICAN withdrawal from Afghanistan will not have a Saigon-style moment, with helicopters ferrying people out of its embassy as the Taliban encroach on Kabul. Yet 2020 was the year in which the war, at least as far as America is concerned, began to reach its end. In February President Donald Trump’s administration signed a deal with the Taliban to withdraw American troops. In exchange, the militants promised to start talking to the internationally recognised Afghan government, which in turn was forced to release some 5,000 Taliban prisoners. By the end of the year the number of American soldiers in the country had dropped to fewer than 5,000. That is just about enough to ensure the security of international organisations’ headquarters in Kabul, but not much more.

Does this mean that peace is about to come to a country that has known war since the Soviet invasion in the late 1970s? Sadly, that is less clear. Nobody really has a clue what 2021 will look like, says Ashley Jackson, a researcher at the Overseas Development Institute, a think-tank in London. The American withdrawal leaves behind a mess. But one thing seems likely: two decades after being pushed out of Kabul by a coalition of NATO and the rebels of the Northern Alliance, the Taliban have a good chance of returning to power. The question is what sort of a government they will join.

Talks were meant to start in March; eventually they kicked off in September in Qatar but they have moved slowly, and been dominated by arguments over protocols. The government wants the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire before moving on, but that seems unlikely. Afghanistan’s government has rarely looked more feeble. Its army, never exactly effective, is much weaker now that it is deprived of American air support. The Taliban have forsaken spectacular attacks on American targets, but stepped up targeted assassinations of Afghan government officials. They have entrenched their control of some major roads, on which they collect tolls. As the siege of Kabul deepens, the government’s negotiating power slips away.

The Taliban have contradictory goals. What they clearly want is to be the dominant force in a new government—an Islamic emirate, not constrained by the constitution written after the invasion of 2001. But they also seem to want the international aid on which Afghanistan survives. So a bleak sort of peace might be possible. The trouble for Ashraf Ghani, the president since 2014, is that this would mean in essence dissolving his administration in order to form a government with his former enemies. Having come to power promising to fix the failed Afghan state, he would find that a bitter pill to swallow. Whether or not he is willing to do so may prove the most important question of the coming year.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition of The World in 2021 under the headline “An Afghan mess”

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