The perils of a sudden US pullout from Afghanistan
US President Donald Trump’s contentious decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, even as fighting rages on, raises some serious questions about America’s reversal of tactics in the war. In an unexpected move that left several US allies surprised, Trump issued orders to pull out half of the 14,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan. The decision is seen as the first step of a phased withdrawal of the US forces as Washington seeks to end the 17-year-long war. However, there is little hope of peace returning to the war-torn country.
Not surprisingly then the Taliban who hold sway over more than 50 percent of the country see Trump’s decision as a victory. America’s withdrawal is being compared to the US’ evacuation from Vietnam. There are also concerns that the abrupt US pullout, without a political settlement in place, could deepen the Afghan crisis thereby threatening regional security.
It is apparent that an undertrained and poorly-equipped Afghan national army — further demoralized by the US’ withdrawal plan — could hardly be a match to the highly-motivated insurgents. More worrying is the possible domino effect that the move will have with warlords who are part of the current dispensation in Kabul, seeking to mend fences with the Taliban, and invariably triggering another protracted civil war in the country.
The vacuum created by the US’ withdrawal and the impending power struggle could lead to a deeper involvement of regional countries in the Afghan conflict. It will be back to the situation in 1990 — in the aftermath of the Russian withdrawal — compounding the miseries of the Afghan people. The US pullout could very likely help the Taliban gain further ground in key areas across Afghanistan.
Intriguingly, President Trump’s announcement came as the talks between the United States and the Taliban leadership had shown some progress. The two sides met last week in Abu Dhabi in the third round of talks which, according to the Taliban, focused on the group’s demand for the US to withdraw its forces, release prisoners, and halt attacks on civilians by pro-government forces.
There are concerns that the abrupt US pullout, without a political settlement in place, could deepen the Afghan crisis thereby threatening regional security.
Although no official statement has been released by the United States after the talks, Zalmay Khalilzad, the US’ chief negotiator, termed the meeting productive. In a significant development, the meeting also involved officials from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, with the Taliban adamant with their refusal to sit across the table with the Kabul government.
Additionally, two members of the Haqqani network – which is considered to be the most feared of the insurgent factions and declared as a terrorist group by Washington — were also present during the talks. They were part of the four-member Taliban delegation which included two representatives from the group’s political office in Doha, Qatar.
As the most lethal insurgent force, the presence of the Haqqanis at the meeting was particularly significant because no agreement could be enforced in an effective manner without their support. Furthermore, Pakistan’s alleged patronage to the network has been a major cause of tension between Islamabad and Washington. Therefore, Pakistan’s role in getting the faction at the negotiating table is likely to improve relations between the two estranged allies.
According to a Taliban spokesman, the insurgents called for an end to the invasion and insisted on the exchange of prisoners as a confidence-building measure. Unconfirmed reports state that some Taliban prisoners have already been released. The Taliban have, however, refused to agree to a cease-fire as demanded by Khalilzad.
One major challenge that Khalilzad faces is to get the Kabul government on board during the reconciliation process. While giving tacit support to direct US talks with the insurgents, President Ashraf Ghani has expressed some reservations over his government being kept away from the negotiating table. The Afghan president does not share Khalilzad’s optimism that a peace deal is around the corner.
Addressing a conference on Afghanistan in Geneva last month, Ghani stressed the need for an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led peace process as the only viable solution to ending the long conflict. He also declared that the next presidential elections were critical for successful peace negotiations, asserting that only an elected Afghan government would have the mandate to ratify and implement an agreement with the Taliban.
It is true that the Trump administration is extremely serious in finding a political solution to the Afghan war which has already cost Americans nearly $1 trillion and killed more than 2,400 American soldiers since 2001. However, the sudden decision to pull out more than half of its troops, even before the structured peace talks have started, would widen the wall of distrust between Washington and the Kabul government. That could also diminish any prospect of reaching a political settlement to end the Afghan war.
— Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC, and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in Washington DC.