US Pullout in Afghanistan: The Fallout
Donald Trump’s announcement to reduce American troops by half in Afghanistan seems to have caught everyone flatfooted, including his own administration, NATO partners, Afghan government and, naturally, the rest of the world. While there were many who, based on Mr. Trump’s penchant for unpredictability, felt that one day he may suddenly decide to de-induct from Afghanistan, keeping the present direction of peace talks and overall situation, the decision seems to be bordering on whimsical. However, post the breakthrough with North Korea due to the initiative of Mr. Trump, his present decision needs to be analyzed for its fallout including implications for India.
The US has been engaged in its longest War, post its induction into Afghanistan in 2001 and a resolution to the conflict seems to be eluding it. Trump in his new strategy for Afghanistan & South Asia in Aug 2017 announced that there would be no timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan and also increased the number of troops there. However, the Taliban seem to be increasing their dominance and as per the Dec18 report of Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) to the US Congress, Afghan government control (in terms of districts) has reduced to an all time low of 56.3%. The Islamic State (Khorasan) is also increasing its footprint despite being targeted by the American & Afghan forces, further contributing to the instability.
Narco terrorism also continues to flourish and SIGAR in it’s Jun18 report says that despite US spending, $8.62 billion for counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan, it remains the world’s largest opium producer and in 2017, poppy cultivation and opium production reached record highs. On the political front too the National Unity Government (NUG) lacks credibility and with the Presidential election scheduled for 2019, the cracks within the government are only increasing. Against this backdrop the US administration decided to open up direct negotiations with the Taliban and the third round of talks were recently held in Abu Dhabi from 16 Dec18. Mr Trump’s sudden declaration about the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan thus seems to be counterproductive to the reconciliation talks with the Taliban.
The Afghan government has tried to downplay the impact of the US downsizing and claimed that a reduction in number of the troops will not affect the security of the country since in the last four and a half years Afghan forces have been in full control of the security. However, there is no doubt that in the present circumstances the security situation is going to be adversely impacted. Taliban control may see a dramatic rise and they are likely to target the cities/provincial capitals more. The fence sitters are likely to support the Taliban more and it may also see the return of the warlords and strengthening of their militia thus vitiating an already complex situation.
The morale of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) has always been suspect, plagued as it is with a high desertion rate and corruption. The US troops ensures airpower, intelligence and guidance in planning and executing operations and their withdrawal may lead to an increase in desertions and lowering of morale. The future of the NATO mission also becomes suspect since the mission was on the behest of the USA, post 9/11 and its strength may witness a corresponding shrink.
The peace talks could be impacted positively or negatively by this decision depending on the perspective or final outcome. On one hand the Taliban has an opportunity to respond positively to the first step taken by Mr. Trump and grant some concessions of their own, or on the other hand it could become more dogmatic in its outlook and be less likely to negotiate. If the press reports of Taliban greeting the news of US partial pullout from Afghanistan as a sign of victory are true and reflects the thinking of their leadership, then they are only likely to wait it out and negotiate from a position of strength.
The partial withdrawal of US forces is likely to lessen its influence in the region and the ensuing instability is likely to create a power vacuum which could be filled by Russia or to some extent China. Other regional players like Pakistan and Iran will also try and increase their spheres of influence especially Pakistan who would try and stay central in any decision making related to the future of Afghanistan.
India has invested heavily in the Afghan stabilization and rebuilding process and enjoys a good standing with the government. It has earned a lot of goodwill with the common man in Afghanistan and is perceived as a country which helps Afghanistan without any ulterior agenda or motives. India needs to capitalize on the same and ensure that it stays relevant and its role does not get marginalized. It has for long maintained no contact with the Taliban though attendance of two Indians in the recently held peace talks in Russia, signaled a change in that strategy.
Strategic Masterstroke or Disaster in Making
As per news reports, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, post the recently held talks with Taliban in Abu Dhabi, said that United States would withdraw when terrorism from Afghanistan is not a danger to the world. However, US withdrawal plans announced a few days later then seem to be extremely abrupt, to say the least.
While the decision on troop withdrawal seems to be impromptu and ill timed, can it be a well-crafted political and diplomatic move which will lead to ending the war? The announcement can be construed as a confidence building measure which gives leeway to the Taliban to come forward and agree to a ceasefire and thus truly set the reconciliation process in motion. If this announcement is followed up by pressure on Taliban to commit to the reconciliation process, from countries having an influence on it, and results in some major concessions being announced by Taliban, then the gambit would have paid off and may lead the country out of the present quagmire. However if the Taliban do not respond positively to the withdrawal news and treat it as a sign of US defeat then it may only be a matter of time before the security situation deteriorates and the country slips into chaos. The Al Qaida as well as the Islamic State are also likely to get strengthened as a result of the turbulent security situation. India needs to keep its options open and while continuing to support the present elected government must also open channels of communication with the Taliban.
[i]chttps://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/20/us/politics/afghanistan-troop-withdrawal.htmll, acessed on 23 Dec 2018
[ii]. Santa Rosa Press Democrat. (2018). Large US troop pullout planned in Afghanistan, officials say. [online] Available at: https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9095371-181/large-us-troop-pullout-planned [Accessed 23 Dec. 2018].
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[v] https://www.tolonews.com/afghanistan/troop-withdrawal-will-not-affect-security-ghani%E2%80%99s-spokesman, accessed on 22 Dec 2018
[vi] https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/08/23/one-year-on-little-to-show-for-trumps-afghanistan-strategy/, accessed on 22 Dec 2018
[vii] https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/quarterlyreports/2018-10-30qr.pdf/, accessed on 24 Dec 2018