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Bashdar Ismaeel

A speedy US exit could hand Afghanistan to Taliban

It has been 17 years since the initial US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 [Getty]

Date of publication: 27 December, 2018

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Comment: Afghanistan finds itself in a precarious political and security position, with the resurgent Taliban a persistent thorn on the side of the Afghan government, writes Bashdar Ismaeel.
In two sudden announcements by US President Donald Trump last week, two sworn enemies of the US – Islamic State group (IS) and the Afghan Taliban – were given an unexpected boost.

On the heels of Trump's surprise announcement to withdraw US troops from Syria, widespread reports emerged of Trump green-lighting the withdrawal of roughly half of the 14,000 US forces in Afghanistan.

Much like the volatile scenario faced in Syria, Afghanistan finds itself in a precarious political and security position, with the resurgent Taliban a persistent thorn on the side of the Afghan government.

While current troop numbers are far fewer than at the height of the surge campaign, the US presence acts as a military cushion and morale booster for Afghanistan's beleaguered security forces.

Seventeen years since the initial US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, US longest ever war has no clear outcome in sight. After losing thousands of lives and ploughing an estimated trillion dollars in military expenditure, no one expected an indefinite military commitment from Washington.

After all, Trump, who has made it abundantly clear his dislike for the prolonged military intervention in Afghanistan, does have a point. Successive Afghan governments could have done much more to ensure stability, security and political progress.

According to the Global Terrorism Index, a quarter of all worldwide terrorism-related deaths during 2017 occurred in Afghanistan

After almost two decades of fighting, a substantial portion of the Afghan population does not reside under government control. The Taliban either control or contest half of the territory of Afghanistan.

Then there is the fact that the country's security is at its worst state since 2014. According to the Global Terrorism Index, a quarter of all worldwide terrorism-related deaths during 2017 occurred in Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, any sudden withdrawal of forces remains ill-timed and rash at a sensitive political juncture.

As the protracted and deadly war has proved, fighting alone is not enough, even with the might of the US on your side. It needs peace efforts and a long-term political solution in hope of bringing a semblance of stability to a country ravaged by decades of war.

In this context, the withdrawal of US troops will harm nascent peace talks with the Taliban. US special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalizad, held preliminary talks with a Taliban delegation just days before reports of US withdrawal.

Khalizad, who had the message that "American commitment was firm" will now have a tougher time of getting an already lukewarm Taliban, who have so far refused to talk with the Afghan government, to make real concessions let alone agree to any ceasefire that the US had pressed for.

Perhaps, Khalizad, the highly experienced US diplomat, already had greater insight to Trump's intentions in Afghanistan as he stressed he was "in a hurry" to secure a peace agreement.

Unsurprisingly, the Taliban hailed the reports of a US withdrawal as a victory. They will see this as vindication of their long-standing strategy of weakening US appetite to stay in Afghanistan.

The presence of US forces was a "carrot" and "stick" in peace talks with the Taliban. The US continued to launch hundreds of airstrikes against Taliban positions as well as propping up Afghan forces.

A Taliban official, on condition of anonymity, told a reporter that the anticipated US withdrawal could "lead to trust building that the US wants a political solution" and thus help foster a political agreement. The Taliban may herald the prospect of peace talks amid a limited US troop presence as they could manipulate the current socio-political landscape to their advantage.

They may now decide to stall peace talks and wait until US forces have either a diluted presence or leave altogether, the latter a situation that an unpredictable Trump may still opt for.

In any event, far from agreeing any ceasefire that US yearned for, an emboldened Taliban is likely to step up its attacks in an attempt to wrest as much control of Afghan territory as possible, and at the same time, destabilise the political structures of the US-backed regime.

Far from agreeing any ceasefire that US yearned for, an emboldened Taliban is likely to step up its attacks in an attempt to wrest as much control of Afghan territory as possible, and at the same time, destabilise the political structures of the US-backed regime

This ensures that if, and when the Taliban opt to sit more seriously at the negotiating table, it will able to exert a much tougher bargaining position.

The Afghan presidency tried to strike an upbeat tone at the prospect of any US withdrawal by stressing that state forces were already largely in control of their own security. However, in private, it's well aware of the perils ahead. The government needs to maintain Afghan security forces as a cohesive unit at all costs.

Any collapse, could see these forces splintering back to the days of warlords and military factions.

Ominously, the security threat in Afghanistan is not confined to Taliban alone. IS as well as al-Qaeda are waiting the wings to expand their own footholds and threats.

Which takes US war in Afghanistan full circle. Has the US really won against the same extremism that prompted the invasion in first place, and is the US itself a much safer place than 2001?

Unfortunately, the Afghanistan they will ultimately leave behind is not a far cry from the Afghanistan they entered.

US defence officials will be working hard to dissuade Trump on any withdrawal, but as witnessed over the Syrian withdrawal which lead to the high profile resignation of US Secretary of Defence James Mattis in protest, Trump has proved a stubborn and unpredictable figure who is willing to risk repercussions abroad if he can safeguard support at home.



Bashdar Ismaeel is a writer and geopolitical, energy and security analyst.

Follow him on Twitter: @BashdarIsmaeel

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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