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US with­drawal rat­tles Afghan al­lies and ad­ver­saries alike

- By Kathy Ganno | The As­so­ci­ated Press

IS­LAM­ABAD—AN ac­cel­er­ated US troop with­drawal from Afghanista­n, an­nounced by Wash­ing­ton this week, has rat­tled both al­lies and ad­ver­saries. There are fears of wors­en­ing vi­o­lence and re­gional chaos, which some say could em­bolden the lo­cal Is­lamic State af­fil­i­ate to re­group and per­haps even try to build an­other “caliphate.”

Un­der an ear­lier deal be­tween the US and the Tal­iban that out­lined a grad­ual pull­out, the re­main­ing US forces were to leave Afghanista­n by April. The Pen­tagon now says some 2,500 troops will leave by Jan­uary, just days be­fore Pres­i­dent-elect Joe Bi­den’s in­au­gu­ra­tion, leav­ing an­other 2,000 or so US forces in place. Bi­den has said he prefers a small, in­tel­li­gence-driven, coun­tert­er­ror­ism pres­ence in Afghanista­n.

The ‘deal’

A US with­drawal would be wel­come in most of ru­ral Afghanista­n where civil­ians are in­creas­ingly caught in the cross­fire be­tween Tal­iban and gov­ern­ment forces, said Torek Farhadi, a for­mer Afghan gov­ern­ment ad­viser and po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst.

“Af­ter a bomb­ing by any side of the con­flict, no one has gone back to re­build any in­fra­struc­ture. No one has re­ally worked on heal­ing hearts and minds,” he said.

The Us-tal­iban deal, signed in Fe­bru­ary, was largely pro­pelled by Wash­ing­ton’s fear of an ex­pand­ing Is­lamic State af­fil­i­ate in Afghanista­n, said a US De­fense Depart­ment of­fi­cial who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause of the sen­si­tiv­ity of the sub­ject.

With ter­ror­ist plots that he said had links to Afghanista­n, Wash­ing­ton sought a deal with the Tal­iban that would bring them into a co­or­di­nated fight—along with Afghan se­cu­rity forces—against the Is­lamic State mil­i­tant group, which lost its self-pro­claimed “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq.

A Us-led coali­tion top­pled the Tal­iban in Afghanista­n for har­bor­ing for­mer al-qaeda leader Osama bin Laden fol­low­ing the Septem­ber 11, 2001, at­tacks. The Tal­iban has re­gained strength in re­cent years in the coun­try, although the Is­lamic State and a de­graded al-qaeda still carry out at­tacks in the re­gion.

“Wash­ing­ton has looked at Afghanista­n largely through a coun­tert­er­ror­ism lens. And that will cer­tainly be the case for the in­com­ing Bi­den ad­min­is­tra­tion,” said Michael Kugel­man, deputy di­rec­tor of the Asia Pro­gram at the Wash­ing­ton­based Wil­son Cen­ter.

Tall or­der

NATO has fewer than 12,000 troops help­ing to train and ad­vise Afghan na­tional se­cu­rity forces. The 30-na­tion al­liance re­lies heav­ily on the US armed forces for trans­port, lo­gis­tics and other sup­port.

Kugel­man said Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ap­proach to end­ing Amer­ica’s long­est war was al­ways a gam­ble.

“While the idea of the Tal­iban mak­ing peace with the Afghan gov­ern­ment and then work­ing to­gether to tar­get ISIS sounds great in the­ory, it’s a very tall or­der, and es­pe­cially any­time soon.”

A Bi­den ad­min­is­tra­tion strat­egy of main­tain­ing a resid­ual force— even a nar­rowly fo­cused one— would re­quire a rene­go­ti­ated deal with the Tal­iban, which the in­sur­gent move­ment has al­ready re­jected. The Afghan gov­ern­ment, which has com­plained bit­terly about be­ing side­lined in US ne­go­ti­a­tions with the Tal­iban, wants the deal scrapped en­tirely.

With word this week of the ac­cel­er­ated US troop with­drawal, Afghans also fear pow­er­ful war­lords in Kabul with a long his­tory of in­fight­ing could again turn their guns on each other once the cur­rent de­ter­rence of an in­ter­na­tional troop pres­ence is sharply re­duced.

“One of the most crit­i­cal roles of the US in Afghanista­n…is to keep their own Afghan al­lies from fight­ing among them­selves and bring­ing down the state,” said Ana­tol Lieven, a New Amer­ica Foun­da­tion Se­nior Fel­low at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity’s Qatar cam­pus. “It seems un­likely, how­ever, that the US will be will­ing or able to do this in­def­i­nitely.”

An­a­lysts fear the ac­cel­er­ated with­drawal could sig­nif­i­cantly com­pro­mise the de­fense ca­pa­bil­i­ties of Afghanista­n’s forces. Kugel­man says even a small num­ber of US forces can have an im­pact on the di­rec­tion of the war.

“The num­bers [of troops be­ing pulled out] may seem small, and they are, but the im­pacts of even small num­bers of troops are con­sid­er­able,” he said. “US air power has helped Afghan ground forces re­pel Tal­iban of­fen­sives. US troops help strengthen much-needed ca­pac­ity within Afghan se­cu­rity forces.”

Ready to de­fend

YET Afghanista­n’s act­ing De­fense Min­is­ter Asadul­lah Khalid told Par­lia­ment on Tues­day that the se­cu­rity forces were hold­ing their own and only 4 per­cent of their op­er­a­tions need US air as­sis­tance.

“There might be up and down in num­bers of troops, but we are not con­cerned. We are ready to de­fend Afghanista­n in­de­pen­dently,” Khalid told law­mak­ers.

Afghanista­n re­mains des­per­ately poor, even af­ter 20 years and bil­lions of dol­lars in in­vest­ment. More than 25 mil­lion of its 36 mil­lion peo­ple sur­vive on barely $1.40 a day. For many, the pres­ence of in­ter­na­tional forces brings lit­tle re­lief.

“There’s cer­tainly good rea­son to be­lieve that the US is wear­ing out its wel­come in Afghanista­n, given its in­abil­ity to rein in ris­ing in­sur­gent and ter­ror­ist vi­o­lence and given its own con­tri­bu­tion to the vi­o­lence through ac­tions that maim and kill civil­ians,” Kugel­man said. “And that’s aside from per­cep­tions of US com­plic­ity in Kabul’s cor­rup­tion.”

Wasted aid

AFGHANISTA­N’S gov­ern­ment is among the world’s 10 most cor­rupt, ac­cord­ing to Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional. Since 2002, Wash­ing­ton’s own watch­dog says the US has lost $19 bil­lion of aid to Afghanista­n to waste, abuse and fraud.

The US spends $4 bil­lion a year on Afghanista­n’s Na­tional Se­cu­rity and De­fense Forces, yet re­lent­less vi­o­lence in the coun­try has been de­mor­al­iz­ing and US air power has been the key to the abil­ity of Afghan forces to hold ter­ri­tory against Tal­iban on­slaughts.

Afghanista­n’s se­cu­rity forces also have been de­graded by cor­rup­tion. Ac­cord­ing to an Au­gust re­port by the Spe­cial In­spec­tor Gen­eral for Afghanista­n Re­con­struc­tion, about half of all po­lice in the Tal­iban stronghold­s of the south­ern prov­inces use drugs and up to 70 per­cent of po­lice po­si­tions in those re­gions are “ghost” jobs — in which they are not ac­tu­ally filled but the salaries are di­verted to of­fi­cials on the take.

The US troop with­drawal seems cer­tain to fea­ture promi­nently in the first visit to Afghanista­n on Thurs­day of Pak­istan’s Prime Min­is­ter Im­ran Khan. The neigh­bors have an un­easy re­la­tion­ship, with Kabul ac­cus­ing Is­lam­abad of strength­en­ing the Tal­iban by har­bor­ing its lead­er­ship. Pak­istan says Afghanista­n has be­come the stag­ing arena for In­dian-spon­sored at­tacks on its soil.

Pak­istan has been crit­i­cal in get­ting the Tal­iban to the ta­ble, and Khan has warned against a messy re­treat by US troops, fear­ing that the chaos in Afghanista­n will spill into Pak­istan, which still houses nearly 2 mil­lion Afghan refugees from four decades of war.

But Kabul wor­ries about Pak­istan might use proxy Tal­iban fight­ers to re­tal­i­ate if Is­lam­abad feels threat­ened by In­dia-spon­sored at­tacks from Afghan ter­ri­tory.

“In the end, the fu­ture of Afghanista­n de­pends on the Afghans them­selves and Afghanista­n’s neigh­bors. The USA is not go­ing to be in this re­gion for­ever,” Lieven said.

“As for most other Afghans, it seems that they are just des­per­ately anx­ious for an end to the war,” he added.

 ?? AP/MASSOUD HOSSAINI ?? IN this Jan­uary 15, 2018, file photo, US Marines watch dur­ing the change of com­mand cer­e­mony at Task Force South­west mil­i­tary field in Shorab mil­i­tary camp of Hel­mand prov­ince, Afghanista­n.
AP/MASSOUD HOSSAINI IN this Jan­uary 15, 2018, file photo, US Marines watch dur­ing the change of com­mand cer­e­mony at Task Force South­west mil­i­tary field in Shorab mil­i­tary camp of Hel­mand prov­ince, Afghanista­n.

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