Taliban Say US Troop Drawdown in Afghanistan ‘Positive’ Idea
Regional security expert: Ghani’s control of country slipping, security forces’ defense capabilities doubtful
[Islamabad] A political spokesperson for the Taliban has called reported White House plans for a 4,000-troop drawdown in Afghanistan a “positive step.”
Doha-based Suhail Shaheen told The Media Line that “both sides [the US and the Taliban] are the winners. … It is a positive step that can contribute to creating a conducive atmosphere to enhance the peace process.”
He added, however, that the Taliban would “assure the safe departure of NATO forces” only once a peace deal was signed.
There are currently some 12,000 US soldiers in the country as part of a 17,000-troop NATO coalition.
Over the weekend, US media outlets cited unnamed White House sources as saying that a drawdown announcement could come as early as this week. During a surprise Thanksgiving appearance before troops at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul, President Donald Trump said peace talks with the Taliban were back on after they fell off track in September.
Michael Kugelman, deputy director and South Asia senior associate at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center, told The Media Line he did not believe the Afghan government was ready for a reduction in US troops. A drawdown would leave some 8,000 in place.
“Intensified violence and record-breaking casualty figures for Afghan security forces and civilians alike indicate that the Afghan military is not ready to lead from the front in the fight against the Taliban,” noted Kugelman.
“The Afghan government wasn’t ready when the US military formally ended its combat role in 2014,” he added.
Kugelman thinks this announcement is meant to give Trump a political boost by demonstrating to his political base that he is committed to bringing American troops home.
Adil Farouqe, a regional security expert and former NATO-International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) coordinator, told The Media Line that “Trump’s decision to reduce US troops is not ‘conditions-based.’ It is part of the Doha peace talks and is based on the need, for the 2020 US presidential election campaign, to reduce war fatigue.”
During his first presidential campaign in 2016, President Trump had promised Americans to withdraw US troops and end the war in Afghanistan.
“The Americans hope that announcing this modest withdrawal will reduce violent attacks against US troops,” Kugelman noted.
He believes that the troops’ withdrawal is tied partly to the peace talks.
“The US is hoping that announcing this troop withdrawal will move the two sides closer to a deal,” he said.
Peace talks resumed on December 7, but on December 12, the Taliban took responsibility for a deadly suicide attack near Bagram, the largest US military base in the country. Though the attackers failed to breach the base perimeter, suicide bombers blew up a nearby hospital. Two civilians were killed and 70 others were wounded.
US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad expressed his deep concerns about the attack. In a tweet, he said he was outraged and that the Taliban needed to show they were willing and able to respond to the Afghan desire for peace.
“We are taking a brief pause for them to consult their leadership on this essential topic,” he said.
Hours after announcing this pause in the peace talks, Khalilzad landed in Islamabad. Accompanied by the US ambassador to Pakistan, he met with Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Chief of Army Staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa. A senior official told The Media Line that at Washington’s direction, Khalilzad requested that Pakistan persuade the Taliban to accept a ceasefire.
“We will continue to support all peaceful efforts in this regard, as we have done in the past,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Muhammad Faisal said during a weekly briefing in Islamabad.
Peace talks are complicated by the fact that while it is unclear who is winning in Afghanistan, the Taliban are emboldened by their recent victories.
Kugelman says there has been a “battlefield stalemate in place for several years marked by Taliban strength and, in some cases, outright control in rural areas, and Afghan state control over urban spaces. The problem,” he continues, “is that because the Afghan government certainly isn’t winning, the Taliban can claim it is winning. This reality gives the Taliban confidence on the battlefield and leverage at the negotiating table – and that does not bode well for US negotiating efforts.”
Brig. Gen. (ret.) Asif Haroon Raja, an Islamabad-based security analyst and director of the Measac Research Center, notes that the Taliban were empowered after the US reduced its troops five years ago.
“The US had already lost the war after pulling out the bulk of ISAF troops in 2014, thus allowing the Taliban to gain the initiative and an upper edge on the battlefields. After abandoning a boots-on-the-ground strategy and relying on airpower and a weak Afghan National Army, the allied forces are locked up in military bases with limited freedom of action and mobility,” he told The Media Line.
“The Taliban have gained the initiative and a decisive military edge over the coalition forces, and they are consistently attacking high-value targets all over the country and are gaining space,” he said. “In the last session [of peace talks] at Doha, all friction points had been settled, but unfortunately, the peace process was halted after Trump abruptly called off the talks.”
After the disruption, the Taliban continued to strike security forces, causing heavy causalities. Many of the victims of these firefights have been civilians.
Farouqe says the Taliban have real influence in Afghanistan and believes they are winning this “battle of attrition” fought through guerrilla war tactics similar to their commanders’ tactics in the war against the Soviet Union.
As the US pours trillions of dollars into Afghanistan to train and equip Afghan security forces with the latest weaponry, the Ghani government’s grip on the country, he says, is constantly shrinking, and it remains unclear if the security forces will be able to hold off Taliban resistance. He does not think it is realistic to expect the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police to take over security responsibilities.
Hassan Jan, a former official with the Afghan National Police Academy, told The Media Line he also thought the withdrawal of US troops would impact the country ‘s security situation.
“It is a fact that NATO trained the Afghan army and police forces, [and they] are not yet prepared to take on ‘solo’ responsibility to maintain law and order in the country,” he said.
Haroon asserts that American citizens are becoming more concerned about the war, which has become the longest in US history. It has cost $3 trillion and caused 2,400 US fatalities, in addition to the tens of thousands of US soldiers injured and traumatized. there is also the toll it takes on the families of the soldiers.