U.S. troops, about­turn

FrontLine - - WORLD AFFAIRS - BY JOHN CHERIAN

In a bid to take the diplo­matic op­tion to end the Afghan war, States de­cides to re­call half of its troops from Afghanistan.

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PRES­I­DENT DON­ALD TRUMP’S DE­CI­SION TO with­draw 2,000 of the United States’ Spe­cial Forces per­son­nel from Syria may have got most of the at­ten­tion, but it is the likely re­call of 7,000 troops from Afghanistan that will have a greater im­pact on the re­gional and global scene. Bring­ing back half of the 14,000 U.S. troops de­ployed in Afghanistan could be a strong sig­nal from Trump that he means to keep his cam­paign pledge of bring­ing home all the troops de­ployed in Afghanistan.

The U.S.’ mil­i­tary oc­cu­pa­tion of the coun­try, which started in 2001, may fi­nally come to an end sooner than many ex­perts and strate­gic thinkers ex­pected. The war has cost the U.S. tax­payer more than two tril­lion dol­lars. An­other $45 bil­lion was bud­geted for 2018. On the cam­paign trail, Trump con­stantly stressed that the money ex­pended on end­less wars such as the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq could in­stead be used to make “Amer­ica Great” again.

The Afghanistan gov­ern­ment was caught com­pletely off guard by the tim­ing of the an­nounce­ment but has put a brave face on it. Fazel Fa­zly, Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani’s Chief Ad­viser, claimed that the exit of “a few thou­sand troops” would not have any ad­verse im­pact on the se­cu­rity of the coun­try. He ex­pressed con­fi­dence that the Afghan army would be able to stand on its feet and de­fend the coun­try. Pri­vately, how­ever, Afghan of­fi­cials ex­pressed their dis­may at not be­ing con­sulted or warned about the move. The U.S. de­ci­sion comes just months after Trump as­sured the Afghan gov­ern­ment of more help to com­bat the Tal­iban surge. The U.S. Pres­i­dent had also is­sued stern warn­ings to the Pak­istani po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary es­tab­lish­ments to stop their clan­des­tine sup­port for the Tal­iban im­me­di­ately.

STRONGER TAL­IBAN

Sig­nif­i­cantly, the de­ci­sion to pull out troops also comes at a time when the Tal­iban is at its strong­est. In Au­gust, it at­tacked and briefly held Ghazni city, which is lo­cated close to the cap­i­tal, Kabul. Three U.S. sol­diers were killed in the at­tack.

The num­ber of U.S. sol­diers killed in Afghanistan in 2018 is much lower in com­par­i­son to that in the pre­vi­ous years. Afghan sol­diers and po­lice per­son­nel suf­fered most of the ca­su­al­ties in 2018. This is be­cause the U.S.

troops have en­gaged in fewer pa­trolling and com­bat op­er­a­tions in Afghanistan. All the same, more than 2,300 U.S. sol­diers and 500 con­trac­tors have been killed so far in Afghanistan.

The morale of the Afghan army, which is never high at the best of times, has seem­ingly hit rock bot­tom. The rate of at­tri­tion among Afghan sol­diers has es­ca­lated dra­mat­i­cally as has the num­ber of de­ser­tions. Pres­i­dent Ghani re­cently re­vealed that more than 28,000 Afghan sol­diers and po­lice per­son­nel had been killed since 2015. More than 60 per cent of Afghan ter­ri­tory is un­der the oc­cu­pa­tion or in­flu­ence of the Tal­iban. The Tal­iban now holds more ter­ri­tory than it had since the U.S. oc­cu­pa­tion be­gan. Opium pro­duc­tion, which pro­vides most of the rev­enue for the Tal­iban, too, is at an all-time high.

Gen­eral Joseph Dun­ford, Chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said re­cently that the war in Afghanistan was cur­rently at a stale­mate. Many U.S. com­men­ta­tors de­scribe the U.S.’ mil­i­tary de­feat in Afghanistan as its big­gest loss since the Viet­nam War.

De­spite his cam­paign pledge for a quick pull­out of troops from Afghanistan, Trump has not vis­ited the sol­diers sta­tioned in the coun­try so far. Once in of­fice, he caved in to his mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers and even sent in ad­di­tional mil­i­tary re­in­force­ments. “We will fight to win,” Trump boasted. “From now on, vic­tory will have a clear def­i­ni­tion: at­tack­ing our en­e­mies, prevent­ing the Tal­iban from tak­ing over Afghanistan, and stop­ping mass mur­der in Amer­ica be­fore they emerge.” De­fence Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis went to the ex­tent of claim­ing that the U.S. was in Afghanistan “to pre­vent a bomb from go­ing off in Times Square”, the iconic land­mark in New York City.

EN­GAG­ING WITH THE TAL­IBAN

Trump’s sud­den de­ci­sion to with­draw troops comes at a time when U.S. ne­go­tia­tors are en­gaged in pre­lim­i­nary talks with the Tal­iban. Trump told The Wash­ing­ton Post in Novem­ber that his in­stincts from the be­gin­ning were for re­call­ing U.S. troops from the coun­try and that he did not act on it be­cause “vir­tu­ally every ex­pert” he con­sulted, in­clud­ing his Sec­re­taries of De­fence and State, had warned him about the grave dan­gers of do­ing so.

In 2001, Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush launched “Op­er­a­tion En­dur­ing Free­dom” with an aim to de­stroy the Tal­iban and to en­sure that Afghanistan never again be­came a ter­ror­ist haven. Trump’s de­ci­sion now is an ad­mis­sion that Wash­ing­ton has failed in its pri­mary ob­jec­tive of de­stroy­ing the Tal­iban. It seems that in 2018, the U.S. once again wanted to try the diplo­matic op­tion to de­clare an end to the Afghan war.

The con­sen­sus in the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity too is that a durable peace in Afghanistan is pos­si­ble only with the Tal­iban on board. Sig­nif­i­cantly, the U.S. de­ci­sion was made even be­fore the Tal­iban had of­fered any mean­ing­ful con­ces­sion.

Trump’s de­ci­sion to re­duce U.S. troop pres­ence in Afghanistan sub­stan­tially fol­lows the lat­est round of talks in­volv­ing U.S. and Tal­iban of­fi­cials in the third week of De­cem­ber in Abu Dhabi. The Tal­iban, even while con­tin­u­ing its mil­i­tary at­tacks and sui­cide bomb­ings in Afghanistan, has been send­ing del­e­ga­tions to at­tend talks aimed at speed­ing up the Afghan rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process. It has, how­ever, re­fused to en­gage di­rectly with the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Afghan gov­ern­ment, which it deems as “il­le­git­i­mate”. The Afghan gov­ern­ment was

an­gry and felt in­sulted when the Tal­iban del­e­ga­tion re­fused to meet with its del­e­ga­tion in Abu Dhabi even as it was con­vers­ing at ease with the U.S. and Pak­istani del­e­gates.

The Tal­iban has been in­sist­ing that a com­pre­hen­sive peace agree­ment can only be reached once all U.S. troops left Afghanistan. After the Tal­iban del­e­ga­tion met with the U.S. Spe­cial En­voy, Zal­may Khalilzad, its spokesman said that the “root cause and big­gest ob­sta­cle” to peace was the con­tin­ued oc­cu­pa­tion of the coun­try. He also de­manded that the U.S. stop its “in­dis­crim­i­nate bomb­ing cam­paign” on civil­ian ar­eas. The United Na­tions es­ti­mates that around 1,700 peo­ple were killed in the first six months of 2018 as a re­sult of U.S. air strikes. The U.S. has dropped more bombs in 2018 than it has since the oc­cu­pa­tion be­gan 17 years ago. In 2017, more than 10 civil­ians died as a re­sult of U.S. bomb­ings and Tal­iban at­tacks.

Ear­lier, in Au­gust, U.S. diplo­mats met with the Tal­iban in Doha, Qatar, in an ef­fort to kick-start talks. A pre­vi­ous at­tempt to start talks with the Tal­iban by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion had failed ow­ing to a num­ber of rea­sons. The Tal­iban was then go­ing through a lead­er­ship change, and Pak­istan felt slighted as it was not kept com­pletely in the loop by its U.S. part­ners. Dur­ing the Doha meet­ing, the U.S. side in­di­cated to the Tal­iban that it was will­ing to talk about with­drawal of its troops from Afghanistan. In fact, Ab­dul Salam Zaeef, who was the Tal­iban’s Am­bas­sador to Pak­istan, told re­porters in Doha in Au­gust that the U.S. had agreed in prin­ci­ple to start the with­drawal of troops.

For the first time, three rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Haqqani net­work were present at the talks hosted by the United Arab Emi­rates (UAE) gov­ern­ment in De­cem­ber. Although it is part of the Tal­iban, the Haqqani net­work has its own mil­i­tary com­mit­tee. Ac­cord­ing to Western in­tel­li­gence sources, the Haqqani fac­tion of the Tal­iban has close con­nec­tions with the Pak­istani mil­i­tary and se­cu­rity es­tab­lish­ment. Khalilzad had vis­ited Islamabad and held talks with the Pak­istani lead­er­ship be­fore go­ing to Abu Dhabi. Islamabad could have well had a role in en­sur­ing the pres­ence of rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the Haqqani net­work. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the Pak­istani, Saudi Ara­bian and UAE gov­ern­ments were also present at the meet­ing in Abu Dhabi. Pak­istan, the UAE and Saudi Ara­bia were the only three coun­tries along with Pak­istan which had for­mally recog­nised the Tal­iban gov­ern­ment in Kabul in the mid 1990s.

A pre­cip­i­tate with­drawal of U.S. and North At­lantic Treaty Or­gan­i­sa­tion (NATO) troops from Afghanistan could lead to more chaos. Coun­tries such as Rus­sia, China and Iran that have a stake in keep­ing the coun­try and the re­gion peace­ful would like an or­derly with­drawal. In­dia will not be too happy if the Tal­iban is back in Kabul, given the Tal­iban’s close links with Pak­istan. In­dia’s re­la­tions with the gov­ern­ment that took over in Kabul after the U.S. in­va­sion have been ex­cel­lent, much to the cha­grin of Pak­istan. Pak­istani mil­i­tary thinkers have al­ways main­tained that a friendly gov­ern­ment in Kabul will give them the nec­es­sary “strate­gic depth” visa-vis In­dia.

Moscow, which has es­tab­lished di­rect links with the Tal­iban, wants the war­ring Afghan sides to sit down face to face and thrash out a power-shar­ing so­lu­tion. The Krem­lin feels that the desta­bil­i­sa­tion of Afghanistan could ex­pe­dite the flow of ter­ror­ists and drugs to the Cen­tral Asian republics and Rus­sia. How­ever, it is scep­ti­cal of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s com­mit­ment to take U.S. mil­i­tary forces com­pletely out of Afghanistan. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion had also promised to pull out troops in 2014. “We don’t see any signs of the with­drawal of Amer­i­can troops,” Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin said in his an­nual press con­fer­ence. “How long has the United States been in Afghanistan? 17 years? And al­most every year they say they’re pulling out their troops.”

AG­GRES­SIVE POL­ICY

Pres­i­dent Ghani, mean­while, re­act­ing to the un­fold­ing events, reshuf­fled his Cab­i­net in the last week of De­cem­ber. He ap­pointed two hard-line anti-tal­iban per­son­al­i­ties in two key posts: As­sadul­lah Khalid as Min­is­ter of De­fence and Am­rul­lah Saleh as Min­is­ter of In­te­rior. Both Khalid and Saleh were vo­cal crit­ics of the Afghan Pres­i­dent’s han­dling of the anti-in­sur­gency cam­paign. They want the Pres­i­dent to im­ple­ment a more ag­gres­sive pol­icy against the Tal­iban. The new ap­point­ments by the Afghan gov­ern­ment, which feels marginalised in the talks be­ing ini­ti­ated with the Tal­iban, are a sig­nal to the Tal­iban that there is still a lot of fight left in the Afghan armed forces.

U.S. SOL­DIERS dur­ing the in­spec­tion of a lo­cal bazaar in Yayeh Kehl, Pak­tia prov­ince, Afghanistan, a 2002 pic­ture..

AFGHAN PRES­I­DENT Ashraf Ghani (right) at a meet­ing with (from left) Chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen­eral Joseph Dun­ford, U.S. Am­bas­sador to Afghanistan John Bass and U.S. De­fence Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis at the Pres­i­den­tial Palace in Kabul on Sep­tem­ber 7, 2018.

TAL­IBAN FIGHTERS CEL­E­BRAT­ING Id with the res­i­dents of Nan­garhar prov­ince, Afghanistan, in June 2018. The Tal­iban’s pres­ence has grown in the re­gion.

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