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Press release: Final withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan could see drastic increase in violent activity, new research suggests

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Press release: Final withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan could see drastic increase in violent activity, new research suggests

Evidence from the first phase of NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan between 2011 and 2014 indicates that insurgents purposefully held back violent activity until after foreign troops had withdrawn.

President Joe Biden has committed to removing all US troops from Afghanistan by 11 September 2021, putting an end to America and NATO’s longest war. The withdrawal date marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks which led to the original invasion of Afghanistan and the ousting of the Taliban regime. The UK and most other NATO members have followed suit with a similar commitment. But new research shows that withdrawal risks exacerbating the insurgency.

In their new paper, ‘Security Transitions’, published in the American Economic Review, an international team of researchers study quantitative and qualitative data relating to the withdrawal of NATO troops during the completion of Operation Enduring Freedom 2011–14. The initiative saw the closure of 800 military bases and the reduction of troops from 140,000 to around 12,000. The authors find evidence that the Taliban strategically reduced violent activity during the transferral of authority from foreign to local forces, and increased attacks once foreign troops had withdrawn from an area.

Key findings are:

· During the transfer of authority to local forces, violent events declined and perceptions of security improved significantly

· These improvements were reversed after foreign troops were withdrawn and bases were physically closed: there was a notable increase in violence and a worsening of perceptions of security

· The Taliban appear to have strategically kept a low profile during the transfer of authority phase to produce the illusion of an improving security situation to facilitate NATO’s withdrawal.

· The timings of both the reduction and subsequent increase in violence strongly suggest that the Taliban was acting strategically, awaiting the physical closure and retrograding of bases to then mount an aggressive offence to take control

· Significantly, these findings correlate with similar patterns evident during the Soviet Union’s transfer of power to Afghan forces in 1989 and the end of US-led operations in Iraq in 2011.

The study uses exceptionally granular geotagged and time-stamped data on different types of insurgent and security operations collected since the start of NATO activity in Afghanistan in 2001. The authors combine the data with survey records of 370,000 individuals gathered between 2008 and 2016, which detail perceptions of security transitions, perceptions of territorial control and the extent of local security provision.

Professor Oliver Vanden Eynde of the Paris School of Economics said, 'We know from official publications that the data we study were also scrutinised by NATO planners during the transition. However, we think they misinterpreted the relative peace that followed the initial transfer of security responsibility to Afghan forces. The violence that resulted from actual base closures suggests that the Taliban just tried to facilitate the withdrawal of NATO troops'.

Professor Thiemo Fetzer of the CAGE Research Centre and the University of Warwick said, 'In communicating a roadmap for the 2021 military withdrawal to an electorate tired of this war in the US and Europe, political leaders may have undermined the ability of NATO to leave the country with a functioning security apparatus. It has encouraged the Taliban to simply wait out the withdrawal of foreign troops up to the point at which the political costs to Western leaders for a U-turn on Afghanistan will become too high'.

The research draws out important policy recommendations for future security transitions:

· The timetable for withdrawal should not be announced too far ahead of time, as it provides the opportunity for opposition forces to act strategically

· Any assessment of the security situation during a period of transfer should take into account the fact that insurgents may be holding back on their operations

· Increased commitment to and auditing of local force preparation is needed to stabilise transitions

· Stronger data collection and sharing is needed to enable a better understanding of the effects of withdrawal on economic development and political stability in the long term.

Professor Austin Wright of the University of Chicago said, 'The withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan will have enormous consequences for political stability, economic development, and refugee movement. Exit will test the capacity of the Afghan army and strain the hard-won support of NATO’s allies. This research provides evidence that clarifies how the Taliban has strategically used violence around the early phases of the withdrawal. Our findings also offer an opportunity to adapt practices around security transitions to facilitate the withdrawal of troops in a safer and more successful way'.



Fetzer, T., Souza, P., Vanden Eynde, O., Wright, A., ‘Security Transitions’ is forthcoming in the American Economic Review DOI: 10.1257/aer.20200412Link opens in a new window

A copy of the paper is available open access here: