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Afghans stunned, worried by Trump tweet to bring home US troops early

President Trump speaks during a coronavirus briefing at the White House.

JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASHINGTON POST

By PAMELA CONSTABLE AND SHARIF HASSAN | The Washington Post | Published: October 12, 2020

KABUL — After months of tortuous negotiations and diplomatic efforts to settle the 19-year-old conflict in Afghanistan, President Donald Trump’s tweet last week saying he intends to bring all U.S. troops home by Christmas has landed here like a bomb from nowhere, leaving Afghan hopes for nascent peace talks scattered like shrapnel.

Taliban leaders have reacted with open delight, welcoming Trump’s Oct. 7 statement and reportedly telling CBS News that they hoped he will win reelection in November. The group’s top spokesman later said his comment to that effect had been “incorrectly” interpreted, after it set off a frenzy of controversy and was rejected by the White House.

But many Afghans and analysts say they fear that if Trump follows through, abruptly dropping the U.S.-Taliban agreement for a conditions-based and gradual pullout of the about 4,500 remaining U.S. troops by May, the country might plunge again into full-scale war and political mayhem.

“If the withdrawal takes place according to the tweet, it will create chaos. The peace process will collapse, and we will go back to square one,” said Ehsanullah Zia, a former senior Afghan official who heads the Kabul office of the U.S. Institute of Peace. “This is the only thing the Taliban really wanted. People were becoming hopeful, but this sudden tweet has changed the scenario. Now all that investment, all that sacrifice, could go down the drain.”

Fazel Mohammed, 60, a taxi driver who once served as a soldier in the Soviet-backed Afghan government of the 1980s, predicted that a quick withdrawal of U.S. troops could “plunge the country into a civil war, exactly like what happened after the Soviet forces left.”

Afghan officials are playing down the impact of any early U.S. troop pullout, insisting that their forces are prepared to take on the Taliban alone and noting that they have fought largely without U.S. military help in recent months. Shah Mahmood Miakhel, a deputy defense minister, said that today, “99% of all military operations are planned and executed by Afghans.”

On Sunday, Taliban fighters stormed two districts around Lashkar Gah, the capital of southern Helmand province, which they have tried to capture for years. They cut off the regional highway and the power supply. But Afghan special operations forces were sent in, backed up by airstrikes. Officials said the government forces quickly prevailed, killing 71 insurgents and arresting the group’s “shadow” provincial governor.

Several officials said that even if the ongoing Afghan-Taliban talks in Qatar break off and the war continues, the insurgents never will be able to win power through violence because they lack the skills to govern, enjoy little popular support and would be shunned by both regional powers and the international community, which has propped up Afghanistan’s flawed democracy for years.

“Whatever the Taliban claims, they are not winning hearts and minds. Nobody wants them back, including people who are unhappy with the current government,” Miakhel said. “Even in the worst-case scenario, if the war continues with zero foreign troops or support, we will face difficult days, but they cannot gain the upper hand.” The Taliban ruled most of the country from 1996 to 2001.

Other officials said the government of President Ashraf Ghani has long become accustomed to mercurial outbursts by Trump and does not take them as seriously as it once did. Some suggested that the U.S. leader might change his mind again or be talked out of the early troop departure, which is widely seen here as motivated by domestic campaign concerns ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

“This is a big blow, and it has dampened the national mood, but Afghans have already lost trust in the Americans. After November 3, there could be another tweet,” said one senior national security aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “The Taliban would be happy if Trump is reelected, but they, too, know that another tweet could change everything, and that even if the American troops leave, other regional powers are watching.”

Many Afghans were angered and disillusioned by the outcome of a U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in February after a year of negotiations. They felt the Trump administration had made too many concessions in its haste to clinch the deal and to jump-start peace talks between Afghan and Taliban leaders. The talks have made virtually no progress since opening a month ago in Qatar, where the Taliban has an office.

Now, critics here say, Trump’s tweet unexpectedly has handed the Taliban the biggest concession of all, instantly undercutting months of effort by U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad to tie gradual U.S. troop withdrawals to conditions, including pledges by the Taliban to reduce violence, to attack no American forces and to renounce links to al-Qaida and other extremist groups.

In the months since the pact was signed, the insurgents have unleashed a wave of violence, killing thousands of civilians in bombings, assassinating high-profile leaders, and assaulting Afghan security forces. On Oct. 3, for example, a car bombing at a government center in eastern Nangahar province killed 14 civilians and wounded 40.

“The U.S. agreement did no good for the country except to start the talks that have been stalled for a month now,” Zia said. “It did not reduce the fighting, and it was all in the Taliban’s favor.”

The U.S. military presence in Afghanistan today is minuscule compared with a decade ago, when a “surge” ordered by President Barack Obama eventually led to having more than 100,000 American troops on the ground. But the psychological boost of U.S. commitment and the leveraging of Afghan combat strength through U.S. airstrikes have been crucial in maintaining the Afghan military’s morale.

“If the United States leaves now, the Taliban will storm Kabul and do to President Ghani what they did to Najib,” said Zakiullah Amini, 21, a grocery stall owner, referring to former president Najibullah, who was tortured and lynched by Taliban forces when they entered the capital on Sept. 27, 1996.

“The Taliban know that if foreigners leave they can overthrow the government,” Amini said. “Why bother to negotiate?”