New study reveals insurgents strategically reduce violence prior to the departure of occupying military forces.
Assistant Professor Austin Wright

As the Biden administration moves to remove forces from Afghanistan on Sept. 11, putting an end to the United States’ longest war, a new research study brings to light troubling realities about the insurgency’s reaction to previous troop withdrawals, suggesting the war-ravaged nation may experience a period of “calm before the storm” as events on the ground further unfold.

Informed by data from the reduction in forces that marked the end of Operation Enduring Freedom, the new study co-authored by Harris Public Policy Assistant Professor Austin Wright shows that insurgents are strategic about drawdowns in troops, significantly reducing violence while authority gets transferred to local authorities but ramping up after the foreign troops are physically withdrawn from the country.

“In 2015, insurgents decided to ‘lay low’ as authority was transferred from the foreign (NATO) peacekeeping forces to local Afghan authorities,” explained Wright, a political scientist who studies global conflict. “This period of relative peace led to a perception that the Taliban forces were weaker than they actually were, and conversely that the Afghan security forces were stronger than they were, a miscalculation that ultimately resulted in further violence.”

 The findings from the study reveal a range of policy considerations, which mirror concerns of politicians from both major US parties, as the September deadline nears:

  • Further establishment of timetables, including the Sept. 11 one set by President Biden and his administration, may simply cause the Taliban to “hold its punches,” resulting in further faulty assumptions about the relative strengths of the local security forces and the insurgents, and eventually, cause greater bloodshed;
  • The strength of local Afghan authorities, and the way they are trained, may need to be reconsidered, as the study shows them to be relatively weak against insurgents. This finding lends credence to the recently released Afghanistan Papers, which demonstrate that funds intended for training local authorities end up enriching local politicians and other leaders; and
  • Stronger data collection and dissemination methods should be adopted and maintained, even following the withdrawal of troops, offering greater insight into the effects of transitions from foreign to local control.

“Our findings help to clarify the destabilizing consequences of withdrawal in one of the costliest conflicts in modern history, and they yield potentially actionable insights not only for future US policy in the region, but also for nations and governing bodies designing future security transitions in hotspots around the world,” Wright said.  

The study was released as a working paper by the Becker Friedman Institute at UChicago and has been accepted for publication at American Economic Review.