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