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EFSAS Commentary

Afghanistan: President Trump’s abrupt withdrawal plan has muddied the waters


A day after his unanticipated announcement of complete withdrawal of United States (US) forces from Syria last month, President Donald Trump reportedly instructed the Pentagon to draw up plans to pull out about half of the over 14,000 US troops currently stationed in Afghanistan by the summer of 2019. This knee-jerk decision has taken Trump’s key advisers, who believe that the move would plunge Afghanistan into further chaos, by surprise. This is especially so as it came at a time when Zalmay Khalilzad, the Trump administration’s Special Representative, was in the thick of talks with the Taliban on reconciliation in Afghanistan. Trump’s decision has also unsurprisingly caused considerable consternation amongst allies of the US, who have fought alongside it in both Syria and Afghanistan. Above all, it has rattled the democratically elected government in Kabul that was installed and propped up by a process set in motion by the US itself. 

Jim Mattis, the US Defense Secretary, who was among the very few senior members of Trump’s team that enjoyed the respect and trust of allied nations, chose to resign on 20 December when he was presented with the fait accompli of withdrawal from Syria and plans for a quick exit from Afghanistan. A retired 4-star US Marine General himself, Mattis was among the first US combat leaders in Afghanistan. He believed that leaving Afghanistan could present dangerous consequences in the US. He had articulated his views on the US military presence in Afghanistan by saying in August that they were there primarily to ensure American security at home. 

Another Marine General Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had on 6 December stated at a media event that “I had not recommended that we leave Afghanistan because, again, in my judgment, leaving Afghanistan not only would create instability in South Asia, but in my judgment would give terrorist groups the space within which to plan and conduct operations against the American people, our homeland and our allies. And that really is the problem we are trying to solve”

This line of thinking was also reflected in the confirmation testimony in June this year of the Army General Austin Miller, who took over as the new US commander in Afghanistan in September. He had told Senators that he believed that the US had the correct number of troops in Afghanistan, and that “I’ve learned these (terrorist) groups thrive in ungoverned spaces. And I've also learned when we maintain pressure on them abroad, they struggle to organize and build the means to attack us. Our core goal in Afghanistan is to ensure terrorists can never again use the country as a safe haven to threaten the United States or other members of the international community”

In the backdrop of these views that were dominant amongst the military establishment of the US, the Washington Post, quoting an adviser to Trump, reported on 21 December that the President had brought up the issue of leaving Afghanistan at a White House meeting of Cabinet-level officials. During the meeting he pushed National Security Adviser John Bolton to carry out the withdrawal. Bolton, however, resisted, as did the House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, a retired US Marine General. They, along with other US officials, persisted with their efforts to dissuade Trump, and that resulted in putting off a formal announcement. 

Under pressure from his own officials and allies alike, Trump appeared to play down the sharp criticism his decisions generated by suggesting in tweets earlier this week that the withdrawals were not imminent and would take time to be put into effect. Garrett Marquis, a spokesman for the US National Security Council, in an emailed statement to Bloomberg on Afghanistan claimed that “The president has not made a determination to drawdown US military presence in Afghanistan and he has not directed the Department of Defense to begin the process of withdrawing US personnel from Afghanistan”. Even this statement implicitly conveys that Trump is in the process of making the “determination to drawdown”, and that a decision “to begin the process of withdrawing” was in the offing. 

The stress and strain of fighting a 17-year long war, only to be locked in a wearisome stalemate with the adversary at the end of it, is without doubt highly frustrating and draining for the US. The talks that Khalilzad has been holding with the Taliban, the last round of which was held in Abu Dhabi last month and the next is scheduled to be held in Saudi Arabia this month, had been initiated with the aim of ending this impasse. The timing of Trump’s decision in the midst of the negotiations is unlikely to make Khalilzad’s already delicate and tricky task any easier. Trump has, in any case, undiplomatically made public his skepticism on what the talks would yield. He had the following to say in a recent interview, “I don’t know that they are going to be successful, probably they’re not. Who knows?" 

Some analysts feel that this dim view may have prompted Trump to decide on a drawdown. Whether it did or not is debatable, but what is not is the fact that news of the proposed drawdown appearing just a few days after the Abu Dhabi discussions has rendered the US position vis-à-vis the Taliban highly vulnerable. As brought out in EFSAS commentary of 16-11-2018, the primary Taliban demand has been withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. This was reiterated by the Taliban in the Abu Dhabi talks. With the media extensively covering news of the proposed drawdown just after the Abu Dhabi talks, the Taliban interpreted Trump’s decision as being a direct consequence of their demand, reflecting a major success for them. A Taliban spokesman told the media that “we weren’t expecting that immediate US response. We are more than happy”. Graeme Smith, a consultant for the International Crisis Group, revealed that social media accounts run by the Taliban erupted in celebration at the news. 

As for Khalilzad, his claim made just a day before news of the drawdown broke out that he had made it clear to the Taliban that the US was committed to Afghanistan, and that “if they want to fight or continue fighting, we assured them that the United States will stand with the government and the people of Afghanistan”, is now bound to ring rather hollow. 

American experts, meanwhile, are convinced that the decision has irretrievably dented the US’ bargaining position. Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia programme at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC, termed Trump’s decision “a major propaganda coup for the Taliban. It’s gotten the foreign troop withdrawals it has always wanted, and without having to give up anything in return”. Similarly, retired General Stanley McChrystal, who had commanded US and NATO forces in Afghanistan for about a year, is convinced that the US has “basically traded away the biggest leverage point we have. If you tell the Taliban that we are absolutely leaving on date certain, cutting down, weakening ourselves, their incentives to try to cut a deal drop dramatically”. He also felt that Trump’s rash decision would lead to the Afghan people losing confidence in the US as an ally that can be trusted. 

The Afghan Government tried to put up a brave face despite the knowledge that a drawdown would be a huge setback for it. Fazl Fazly, the chief adviser to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, asserted in a statement that “if the few thousand foreign troops that advise, train, and assist leave, it will not affect our security. In the past four and half years our security is completely in the hands of Afghans and the final goal is that Afghan national defense and security forces will stand on their feet to protect and defend our people and soil on their own”. The reality, however, is more complicated and precarious for the Afghan Government. Despite the backing of over 14,000 US forces, 8,000 NATO troops, and unprecedented aerial attack support, a recent US military report disclosed that the Afghan Government currently controls or influences only 55.5% of the country's districts, the lowest level recorded since it began tracking the data in 2015, and that the Taliban control over Afghanistan has increased in recent months. Senior US military officials have warned recently that without American support, the Afghan military would disintegrate and within a few years Afghanistan would once again turn into a staging area for terrorist attacks abroad. 

Other Afghans painted a grim picture. Azada Khenjani, editor-in-chief of 1TV, a Kabul-based television station, advised that “Afghans should get ready for worst-case scenarios now”. Wahid Mojdah, an analyst with ties to the Taliban, cautioned that “unless there is a comprehensive plan for troop withdrawal and an ongoing program for the future, this would be very dangerous for Afghanistan and the region”. Davood Moradian, executive director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, predicted “a revival of hybrid civil and regional conflict, mass emigration, and the jihadist’s claim of defeating another infidel superpower”

There is little doubt that a major reduction in US military presence even before a peace deal with the Taliban is negotiated could spell serious trouble for Afghanistan, ushering in a period of even more mindless violence. The US, which entered Afghanistan uninvited in November 2001 to further its own post-9/11 security objectives, must bear in mind that 17 years later it cannot walk away and abandon the country to the mercy of the very same extremist Taliban forces it helped oust. As President Ashraf Ghani emphasized in a recent BBC programme, “we are not only dying for our own freedom, but for your security. The daily operations, the fighting and the dying is done by us. Countries don't have permanent friends or permanent enemies, they have permanent interests. The US is here because of its global and national security interests". He added that his country did not want "charity" from the US, but a "partnership that is meaningful”

The US owes it to the people of Afghanistan, and to the tens of thousands of Afghan citizens and soldiers who have lost their lives to the violence perpetrated by the Taliban as well as to indiscriminate bombing by the Americans themselves, to leave behind a country that is more secure than it was when they made their entry. If not, even the families of the over 2,400 US troops that have lost their lives battling the Taliban in Afghanistan would be left wondering what the ultimate sacrifice of their loved ones was worth.

Trump’s advisers, meanwhile, need to remind him of the bitter experience of the last time the US made a hasty exit from Afghanistan after driving the Soviets out of the country in 1989.