US President Donald Trump’s announcement in December 2018 of the pullout of 7,000 US troops from Afghanistan took both his allies and adversaries by surprise. As expected, Trump ran out of patience due to the lack of progress on his South Asia policy announced in September and the worsening security situation in Afghanistan. The announcement came in the middle of the US-Taliban talks in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to find a politically-negotiated end to the war. It prompted the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis, the principal architect of Trump’s South Asia policy.
Trump’s announcement will change the calculus on the ground in Afghanistan with far-reaching consequences for regional peace and security, although it remains to be seen if this change will be for the better or worse. In any case, it is the beginning of the end of the 17-year war in Afghanistan.
Broadly, Trump’s drawdown announcement from Afghanistan has generated two kinds of reactions among the strategic and diplomatic communities.
Some policy experts believe that the United States has lost the war in Afghanistan and there is no point wasting more blood and treasure. They have welcomed the announcement with cautious optimism and view it as part of the on-going confidence-building measures (CBMs) between the United States and the Taliban. A credible timeframe of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has been the long-standing demand of the Taliban for a ceasefire agreement. This school of thought believes that troop reduction would bridge the trust-deficit between the United States and the Taliban and incentivize the latter’s participation in future peace talks. Further, it will lessen US troop casualties and expenditure in Afghanistan.
The bulk of US troops, about 100,000, left Afghanistan in 2015 and since then the Afghan security forces have been responsible for security maintenance in Afghanistan with training, assistance and advice of the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission (RSM). If the withdrawal of 100,000 troops did not lead to a civil war in Afghanistan, then reducing the remaining 14,000 US troops by half will not change the situation dramatically, particularly when the Taliban are engaged in peace diplomacy with the United States. As a matter of fact, the announcement constitutes a step in the direction of peace, not war.
The growing footprint of the Islamic State’s formal franchise, the Islamic State of Khorasan, has also compelled the Taliban to engage in the peace process. If the war continues and the fight escalates, then the Islamic State of Khorasan will benefit from it and dent the Taliban’s credibility as a Jihadist organization. The common criticism by the Islamic State of Khorasan on the Taliban has been their Afghan-centric approach and refusal to participate in Jihad elsewhere, and exploitation of Islam to restore their toppled regime in Afghanistan. Following battlefield losses and territorial setbacks in Iraq and Syria, as many as 69 members of the Islamic State core and 300 to 400 fighters have relocated to Afghanistan. Given this, further conflict perpetuation in Afghanistan will not favor the Taliban.
The contending view is that the war is deadlocked with no military solution and requires a complex and consistent diplomatic efforts to break the logjam. This set of experts consider Trump’s drawdown announcement from Afghanistan (coupled with full withdrawal from Syria) as capitulation of the US influence to stabilize conflict zones around the world. This will allow the competing states like Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China to fill the vacuum created by the US retreat from Afghanistan. The announcement is a recipe for regional proxy wars among competing states like Pakistan and India on Afghan turf. Further, it will dent the United States’ credibility among its friends and allies as a reliable partner and security guarantor.
Instead of searching for a hasty withdrawal through political quick fixes, the United States along with regional powers should ensure a political termination of the conflict that ushers in a stable political order.
It is naïve to assume that the Taliban are genuinely interested in peace talks. The Taliban are too clever by half, and they are trying to achieve on the negotiation table what they could not gain on the battlefield. Buoyed by their recent territorial gains, they are using the peace negotiation as an opportunity to gain political legitimacy and present themselves as Afghanistan’s rightful future rulers. As such, the Taliban are not interested in power-sharing with other political groups in Afghanistan.
Operationally and structurally, the Taliban are an insurgent and a Jihadist organization. The Taliban do not have a robust political wing unlike the Lebanese Hezbollah or the Palestinian Hamas which transformed into political parties and participated in elections. For the sake of argument, even if the Taliban had a political wing and they were willing to enter Afghanistan’s fragile and fractious political system, it would only exacerbate the existing ethnic, political, tribal and regional fault-lines.
In 2018, Afghanistan overtook Iraq as the country most affected by terrorism. With the presence of over 20 insurgent and terrorist groups, Afghanistan has the highest concentration of violent extremist organizations in the world. The sudden draw-down announcement will create a triumphant Jihadist narrative in the region that after the former Soviet Union, another super power has been defeated in Afghanistan. It will mobilize worldwide terrorist recruitment. The Taliban’s field commanders are already in a celebratory mood and treating the announcement as a victory of sorts. Trump’s announcement will harden the Taliban’s position and embolden them to stick to their maximalist positions in peace talks.
At the same time, Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is far from defeated. On the contrary, the group has grown in size and numbers in recent years in Afghanistan. The United States’ fixation with the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria allowed Al-Qaeda to stay under the radar of the intelligence and quietly rebuild its organizational infrastructure and augment its operational capabilities. It has proven to be resilient, adaptive and agile with tremendous regenerative capacity. The group is on the rebound and closely allied with the Taliban. The US troop reduction will further ease the military pressure on Al-Qaeda and allow it to expand further in Afghanistan.
Since the beginning of the war on terror, the United States has been part of the problem as well as part of the solution in Afghanistan. The paradox of the Afghan war is that the conflict resolution is neither possible by keeping the United States in the equation, nor by taking it out of the equation. No country other than the United States has the diplomatic clout, military wherewithal and economic resources to keep the myriad Afghan political groups within the existing democratic framework. The manner in which the United States withdraws from Afghanistan will directly affect the future political order in Afghanistan. A phased withdrawal coinciding with political settlement will lead to stabilization, while a sudden pullout with a premature peace deal will be a recipe for a civil war.
The war in Afghanistan is at the cross-roads and requires deft handling and leadership skills. Instead of searching for a hasty withdrawal through political quick fixes, the United States along with regional powers should ensure a political termination of the conflict that ushers in a stable political order. If history is anything to go by, what happens in Afghanistan does not stay in Afghanistan.