Election 2020

Whatever Happens on Tuesday, Afghans Just Want an End to Their Own National Nightmare

Both Biden and Trump have pledged to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. But the Taliban have a vote, too.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the troops during a surprise Thanksgiving visit at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan on Nov. 28, 2019.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the troops during a surprise Thanksgiving visit at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan on Nov. 28, 2019. Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

KABUL—Since the United States invaded Afghanistan almost 20 years ago, the Afghan people have experienced four U.S. elections and three different U.S. presidents. Each vote brought feelings of uncertainty, hope, and trepidation. But this year, with both Donald Trump and Joe Biden saying they finally want to withdraw U.S. forces from the country, this could end up being the most consequential vote for Afghans since 2001.

There’s the question, of course, of whether and how either candidate will actually carry out this withdrawal. Trump’s tweets about pulling out troops by December were quickly corrected by military officials; Afghan security officials for their part doubt the United States can dismantle a decades-long presence in a couple of months in the middle of a pandemic. And then there’s the Taliban.

KABUL—Since the United States invaded Afghanistan almost 20 years ago, the Afghan people have experienced four U.S. elections and three different U.S. presidents. Each vote brought feelings of uncertainty, hope, and trepidation. But this year, with both Donald Trump and Joe Biden saying they finally want to withdraw U.S. forces from the country, this could end up being the most consequential vote for Afghans since 2001.

There’s the question, of course, of whether and how either candidate will actually carry out this withdrawal. Trump’s tweets about pulling out troops by December were quickly corrected by military officials; Afghan security officials for their part doubt the United States can dismantle a decades-long presence in a couple of months in the middle of a pandemic. And then there’s the Taliban.

On Monday, terrorists attacked Kabul University and killed at least 19 people, wounding dozens more. Afghan government officials blamed the Taliban; the militant group denied it was behind the attack, though both the Taliban and the Islamic State have targeted schools in the past. Since signing a deal with the United States in February, and promising to curtail attacks against U.S. forces and cut ties with al Qaeda, the Taliban have been emboldened in Afghanistan. 

The peace agreement has done nothing to curb violence against Afghan civilians and security forces, with violence reaching record levels in recent months. Over the last year, the Trump White House has offered the Taliban a lot while proffering Kabul very little, continually criticizing the administration of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and cutting U.S. aid. 

But it’s not clear where Biden—who as vice president long favored an enduring U.S. counterterrorism mission in the country—really stands on the Taliban or Afghanistan’s future. And Afghans worry that he’ll have enough nation-building to do at home after four years of Trump’s wrecking ball. That could leave an early Biden administration distracted and looking anywhere but at Afghanistan. The upshot, many in Kabul fear, is that Washington will continue to string the country along—even as the carnage continues.

Ali M. Latifi is a freelance journalist based in Kabul. He has reported from Qatar, Turkey, Greece, Washington, and more than a dozen provinces of Afghanistan. He has worked with Al Jazeera English, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, and Deutsche Welle.