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EXCLUSIVE: Despite Public Concern, Pakistan Foreign Minister Says U.S. Pull-out From Afghanistan Positive
Taliban fighters pose in Afghanistan's Farah province. (Courtesy)

EXCLUSIVE: Despite Public Concern, Pakistan Foreign Minister Says U.S. Pull-out From Afghanistan Positive

President Trump’s desire to remove half of America’s soldiers from the war-torn country has divided the region

ISLAMABAD—The prospective withdrawal of some 7,000 American troops from Afghanistan has been met with derision in the war-torn country but hailed by the Taliban and other regional players such as Pakistan. Most analysts agree that the United States-trained Afghan army is not in a position to secure the nation and therefore the move could create a chaotic vacuum that terrorist elements anathema to the internationally-recognized government will vie to fill.

This sentiment is palpable on the ground in Kabul, which has been struck by a wave of fear of renewed Taliban rule or, at the very least, an increase in insurgent activity.

For its part, the Afghan government has refrained from publicly denouncing the American decision and a statement by a senior adviser to President Ashraf Ghani asserted that, “If a few thousand foreign troops that advise, train and assist [Afghan forces] leave, it will not affect our security.”

However, behind closed doors many officials are angered.

“When he previously unveiled his Afghanistan policy, President Trump promised to send more troops here,” explained a senior official at the Afghan Ministry of Defense who spoke to The Media Line on condition of anonymity. “That announcement was well-received by the government, but now instead of sending additional troops the Trump administration is pulling half of them out.

“[Kabul] feels threatened and betrayed by the U.S., which didn’t even discuss the move with government of Afghanistan,” the source added.

“We are shocked.”

For is part, the Taliban hailed the development, with a high-ranking commander affirming that “Afghanistan’s solution lies in negotiations and peace talks and it is good the U.S. administration has accepted the reality on the ground.”

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi also praised the move, telling The Media Line by phone that “I appreciate the reduction of American troops in Afghanistan. It will help to make [ongoing] U.S.-Taliban talks productive.”

Pakistan has used its connections to and leverage over the Taliban to bring it to the negotiating table, even though the group still refuses to hold direct talks with the Afghan government. Earlier this month, President Trump reportedly wrote a letter to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan requesting Islamabad’s “support and facilitation” in securing a “negotiated settlement” to the war.

To this end, Taliban members recently met with U.S. officials in the United Arab Emirates amid an intensifying diplomatic push. Efforts to reach an agreement have to date failed primarily due to the Taliban’s insistence on the removal from the country of all foreign troops. The meetings in the UAE are believed to have lasted three days and were attended by emissaries of Mullah Yaqub, the oldest son of the Taliban’s deceased founder Mullah Mohammad Omar.

Thereafter, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad described the proceedings as positive, whereas officials privy to the substance of the talks suggested to The Media Line that President Trump’s subsequent announcement of a partial troop withdrawal came at the behest of the Taliban leadership.

Notably, France and Germany also reacted angrily to the move, arguing that vacating the country could compromise operations against a resurgent Islamic State and possibly even al-Qa’ida.

Indian officials likewise expressed concern and, according to reports, stressed that in the absence of an American military presence terrorist groups such as the Taliban will have free reign to retake control of Afghanistan. This would not only jeopardize New Delhi’s investments in reconstruction projects but also potentially empower arch-rival Pakistan which has long been accused of supporting the Taliban in order to foment regional unrest and prevent India from expanding its influence over Kabul.

“The withdrawal of U.S. forces means giving up and leaving millions of Afghans at the mercy of the ultra-conservative and ruthless Taliban and other terrorist groups,” Qazi Khalil, owner of the biggest electronics shop in the heart of the Afghan capital, told to The Media Line. “I will be the first one to leave if Trump’s plan materializes.”

Indeed, the prospect has revived memories among Afghans of the Taliban takeover in the mid-1990s, which included a major crackdown on civil society and the banning of materials and cultural events perceived to contravene strict interpretations of Islamic law. Concurrently, Afghanistan’s financial sector was decimated, forcing business leaders to flee and leaving many impoverished.

This was meant to change in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, perpetrated by al-Qa’ida which at the time was being harbored by the Taliban. In fact, with the Taliban’s overthrow the situation improved temporarily and a modicum of normalcy returned along with an influx of expats.

But now things stand to change.

In November, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) revealed in its quarterly report for the U.S. Congress that the Afghan government currently controls or influences only 55.5 percent of the nation’s districts, the lowest level recorded since figures started being collected three years ago.

Independent reports estimate that more than 2,400 Americans have died in Afghanistan since 2001, including 13 over the past twelve months. Since the end of 2014, when the Pentagon declared an end to combat operations in the country, more than 25,000 Afghan soldiers and police have been killed.

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