Media reports of mid-August 2019, quoting Taliban sources, had stated that US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan will be over in 14 months, which possibly was keeping in mind that President Donald Trump was intent on the withdrawal before next US presidential election slated for November 3, 2020. But the quantum of troop withdrawal remained ambiguous.
According to former General David H. Petraeus, “If the Trump administration orders a full pullout from Afghanistan, there is considerably less doubt about what will happen — full-blown civil war and the re-establishment of a terrorist sanctuary as existed when the 9/11 attacks were planned there.”
On August 29, Trump had stated that the US will keep a permanent presence in Afghanistan, with 8600 troops initially, even after a deal is reached with the Taliban. In an interview with media, Trump said, “We’re going down to 8600 and then we make a determination from there. We’re always going to have presence.” Trump also warned that if another attack on the US originated from Afghanistan, “we would come back with a force like …. never before.”
Bilateral and multilateral parleys between the US and Taliban have been on since long through forums like the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) to the current bilateral round since 2018. Trump’s pre-election promise to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan would be met through the deal with Taliban. However, his remarks “we’re always going to have presence (in Afghanistan), underlines the ground reality.
Recent media reports of September 2 quote the draft peace agreement between the US and Taliban and indicate that US could withdraw some 5,400 troops from Afghanistan and close five bases in the country. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has been notified about the draft deal, albeit the deal “in principle” is already done, as per Zalmay Khalilzad, America’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation. Zalmay’s brief to media indicates that President Donald Trump’s approval of the deal remains mere formality.
Zalmay told media: the deal is closed; US would cut down troops and close bases within 135 days (once Trump accords approval), and; Taliban will reciprocate US troop withdrawal by committing not to let Afghanistan be used as base for terror attacks from groups like Al Qaeda or Islamic State against US and its allies.
It may be recalled that in his televised speech from Fort Myers on August 21, 2017, while outlining his strategy for resolving the long drawn conflict in Afghanistan, Trump declined to specify either the number of troops that would be committed, or the conditions by which he would judge the success of their mission there.
Trump had left operations in Afghanistan open ended, saying it is counterproductive to announce dates intended to begin or end military options, numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities.
Trump had said, “My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts. But all my life, I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.” He also added that he had been convinced that “a hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS and Al Qaeda.”
When Trump made the above speech in August 2017, US troops in Afghanistan numbered around 8300 plus, which later had to be boosted to 14000 by inducting additional troops. 18 years of US operations in Afghanistan have resulted in more than 2,400 US military personnel killed and some 20,000 wounded, in addition to more than 1,100 NATO troops killed as per US media.
The present scene is that the Taliban continue to attack Afghan security forces and have no compunctions in terrorizing innocent civilians; men women and children. They refuse to join the Afghan reconciliation process and terming the Afghan government “American puppets”. Additionally, Taliban don’t believe in democracy and the Afghan Constitution; their aim being to take over the country and institute the rule of Sharia.
To hope that Taliban would not permit Afghanistan to be used by terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS is bizarre. Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri had pledged allegiance to the Afghan Taliban chief in an audio message posted online in August 2015, which was covered in western media. Both Taliban and Al Qaeda hate the US.
No doubt terrorist organizations have multiple factions, some of which are available on hire by global players, but if Taliban are expected to not let ISIS operate from Afghan territory, how come latter are able to undertake terror attacks with impunity in Afghanistan including in Kabul?
As the US and Taliban negotiated peace, ISIS targeted a wedding celebration in Kabul on August 18 killing more than 60 of the 1000 guests and leaving hundreds injured. The Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIS would like to kill and eliminate all Shias in Afghanistan, in addition to targeting US troops and Afghan security forces.
A major factor contributing towards increasing instability in Afghanistan will be the five US bases that are planned to be shut down, particularly their locations, as these areas will be free for Taliban consolidation. A significant example is the Helmand Province from where US had withdrawn earlier, which became major Taliban stronghold. Despite using all the military might including air and artillery power, US forces could not re-establish themselves later in the manner they earlier held positions there.
Under the US-Taliban deal, the Taliban will reportedly be required to police areas it controls to prevent Al Qaeda and ISIS from gaining a foothold. To what extent Taliban will fight the Al Qaeda and ISIS is questionable albeit they would not like to share the opiate trade plus the minerals and oil-gas reserves of areas under their control To what extent the Taliban will showcase and execute such resolve by default or design, in order to prompt more US troop withdrawal will remain ambiguous. Also, prospects of Taliban eventually agreeing to power sharing with the Afghan government remain dim.
There is speculation that US may commit to withdraw most or all of its troops from Afghanistan in stages, after the Taliban show specific commitments, but America’s deep state refuses to acknowledge that the centre of gravity of Afghan instability lies in Pakistan.
Former US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis says he considers Pakistan the “most dangerous country” he dealt with in his career because of the level of radicalization of its society and its nuclear weapons. But even Mattis would not mention Pakistan’s continued support to Taliban and other Pakistan-based terrorist groups like Haqqanis, LeT, JuD etc that are attacking Afghanistan, in addition to Pakistani regulars and Mujahids operating covertly inside Afghanistan.
Independent Balochistan and Pashtunistan could bring Pakistan to its senses but there doesn’t appear to be any thinking on those lines in the US beyond the Blackwill Plan or Plan ‘B’ that Robert D Blackwill had proposed.
The US, therefore, will need to continue maintaining counter-terrorist units in Afghanistan in order to stem possibility of terror attacks on US mainland and assets abroad. Total troop withdrawal will be catastrophic – outright civil war and radical takeover of Afghanistan. On balance, the Af-Pak region will continue to remain in flux despite the US-Taliban deal.