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Trump Leaves Behind Mess for Afghans to Clean Up
Reports of the withdrawal of U.S. troops took Afghans by surprise. And it gives the Taliban exactly what they want.
Fears that U.S. President Donald Trump would decide to reverse course and withdraw troops from Afghanistan are not new. But the latest reports of dramatic plans to bring back 7,000 troops has shocked several sources I have spoken to in the U.S. and Afghan governments. The withdrawal represents nearly half of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan, slashing its armed presence down to its lowest levels since 2002. The news broke a day after Trump’s decision to pull forces from Syria and hours after the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis was made public.
It is not necessarily the announcement itself that caught many by surprise, but the timing. Zalmay Khalilzad was appointed as the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation in September, raising hopes that a peaceful settlement to America’s longest war was in sight. Khalilzad—a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan under the George W. Bush administration—has shuttled across the region with a relentless energy since then, and a U.S. delegation concluded three days of talks with the Taliban in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday. There has been more momentum now for talks than ever before, which Trump’s decision significantly undermines.
The reduction in troop numbers diminishes U.S. leverage over the Taliban in negotiations, given that the latter’s stated priority is the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan. While the United States has pummeled Taliban targets with airstrikes, now at an all-time high, this has not yet eroded their control or dented their military capacity. The U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction reported this fall that Afghan government control had fallen to 56 percent of the country’s districts, a record low, and that Afghan National Security Forces casualties had hit a record high. Exact casualty numbers are classified, but the New York Times estimates an average of 50 Afghan soldiers are killed each week. Afghan forces remain deeply reliant on U.S. support to maintain current levels of control and protect cities vulnerable to Taliban capture.
The Taliban refuse to meet directly with the Afghan government; at the recent talks in Abu Dhabi, a delegation from the Afghan government waited in vain at a nearby hotel in the hope of a face-to-face meeting with the Taliban. There are many within the Taliban who oppose negotiations and advocate waiting out Washington’s patience and money. As the old saying goes, the West may have the watches, but the Taliban have the time. The Taliban have little incentive to agree to any deal quickly, particularly now that Trump has clearly demonstrated a desire to get out—regardless of the cost.
The situation on the ground in Afghanistan has only gotten worse in recent months, with escalating violence and an increasingly unstable government. The National Unity Government has been paralyzed by infighting and division ahead of presidential elections scheduled for April 2019. Results from parliamentary elections held in October have still not been announced. Given the level of disorganization, chaos, and violence that plagued those elections, presidential elections would be farcical if held as planned in the spring. Yet reports that the United States wanted the Afghan government to postpone elections and create an interim government to negotiate peace were met with defiance and outrage in Kabul.
A withdrawal of U.S. troops may force a reckoning within the Afghan government, which was reportedly caught unawares by the announcement. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s most pressing concern to date has been re-election rather than peace, and his intransigence has increasingly frustrated the United States and its allies in the international community. At a donor conference in Geneva in late November, Ghani announced his peace plan with a five-year timeframe, conveniently tying peace talks to his next presidential term should he win in April. Ghani’s plan is little more than a strategy to tighten his faltering grip on power, disguised as reconciliation.
The Afghan president is facing increasing discontent and open opposition from key political backers, many of whom oppose or have publicly expressed doubt about talks with the Taliban. This is not surprising. Many of these individuals have significantly benefited from the war and from U.S. support. They would lose considerable influence and power in any settlement with the Taliban. Some may dig in their heels or look for exit plans. Others, particularly within Jamiat-e-Islami or other old mujahideen factions, may accelerate efforts to re-arm their militias in anticipation of a full U.S. withdrawal.
If Trump were to rashly withdraw the remaining U.S. forces without a sound deal, a gradual decline into a new and more vicious phase of civil war is all but guaranteed. In the vacuum created by U.S. disengagement, regional actors such as Pakistan and Russia would throw their support behind Afghan proxies much as they did during the early 1990s. And while Afghanistan is no longer a major safe haven for international terrorist groups, that could quickly change.
It is clear that the current U.S. administration does not have the appetite or endurance to see through a political end to the war that would avoid this. Peace will take years of sustained effort. There is an alternative: handing the process over to a third party. The United States could back the establishment of an independent peace process focused on three core areas: Taliban-U.S. dialogue regarding an American drawdown of troops, intra-Afghan dialogue on a postwar political settlement, and shoring up support from regional actors.
This may be a pipe dream, as all parties still seem convinced they can secure the best deal themselves and are likely wary of handing over any part of the process to anyone else. However, it is the only responsible policy choice. It would tie the United States, the Taliban, and the Afghan government, along with regional actors, to a long-term process that would, hopefully, prioritize the stability of the country and preserve at least some of the gains made over the past 18 years. It is not only the future of Afghanistan at stake, but also the security of the region and the United States.