Afghanistan Without the US

A likely US withdrawal is resonating online -- but not in the ways Washington may want.

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After 18 years at war in Afghanistan, the United States may finally be nearing an exit. Late last week, international media reported that US and Taliban officials were close to reaching a deal that would see American forces withdraw by November 2020. However, patterns of online attention to subjects related to Afghanistan, the Taliban, and terrorism indicate the road ahead remains fraught for US foreign policy.

After multiple rounds of negotiations in Doha, US chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad and his Taliban counterparts had reportedly neared an agreement that would withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan within 14 months and enact an immediate ceasefire. That ceasefire, however, would not extend to the Afghan government, and thus may do little to ensure peace in the country. In fact, a Predata signal that tracks online attention to subjects related to security in Afghanistan has shown no reaction to the deal. That may indicate that the prevailing perception among online observers appears to be that the agreement may actually do little to change the overall security situation in Afghanistan.

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News of the likely withdrawal of US forces from the country did generate other patterns of online interest that may point to potential complications for US foreign policy. It appears, for instance, that Iran has taken a high level of interest in the negotiations. After reports of the deal emerged, activity on Farsi-language web pages about the Taliban spiked to its highest level in years. That might be a sign that observers in the Islamic Republic are considering the potential advantage of a reduced US presence in Afghanistan.

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Moreover, the peace deal may be contributing to concerns about the future of terrorism in the region. On the same day that details about the potential agreement emerged, the Pentagon issued a report warning that the partial withdrawal of US forces from Syria and shifting policy in Iraq had allowed for a resurgence of ISIS. Online attention to the terrorist group rose to its highest level in months. A reported sticking point in the US-Taliban negotiations is whether a US counterterrorism force will be allowed to remain in Afghanistan so long as a terrorist threat remains. The heightened interest in ISIS suggests that terrorism in the Middle East may resurge as a salient issue, thus complicating the possibility of a full US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

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