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Reports of US withdrawal stir Afghan fears of worsening conflict

A Special Forces soldier peers through a scope while manning Observation Post Krakken, a checkpoint overlooking a key valley in Deh Bala district in Nangarhar province in July.

By J.P. LAWRENCE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 21, 2018

KABUL, Afghanistan – A pullout of American troops from Afghanistan could embolden the resurgent Taliban and worsen the deteriorated security situation, several former Afghan officials said Friday in response to reports that the U.S. would remove half of its forces in the coming weeks.

The Trump administration has ordered the U.S. military to make plans to withdraw some 7,000 troops, unnamed defense officials told several media outlets Thursday.

The remainder of the more than 14,000 troops could begin returning home over the coming months in a phased pullout to end the 17-year war, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The news came in the hours after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced that he would resign at the end of February over disagreements with the president’s approach to policy in the Middle East and followed Trump’s call for a withdrawal of U.S. forces fighting the Islamic State in Syria, after he claimed victory in that fight earlier this week.

But ISIS is hardly defeated in that country, many analysts and allies said, and the withdrawal from Afghanistan — where U.S. forces are helping fight insurgents and terrorists — would similarly be premature, they said.

“The reality of an urgent and hasty withdrawal will be seen as a defeat and as a retreat,” said Amrullah Saleh, the country’s former spy chief. “Maybe it will be the end for the U.S., but a bitter beginning for us.”

A U.S. withdrawal now will lead to the emergence of al-Qaida “version 2.0,” said Saleh, who is viewed as a hardliner against the Taliban and Pakistan, which has long been accused of supporting the militants.

The government in Kabul sought to downplay the news, saying the withdrawal won’t affect the country’s security situation, despite the Taliban’s resurgence since the bulk of U.S. forces left four years ago. Afghan security forces can defend the country, Haroon Chakhansuri, President Ashraf Ghani’s spokesman, told local media.

Reminders of previous exits

Afghans have vivid memories of their country fragmenting into civil war in the 1990s after a decadelong war with the Soviets in the 1980s, he said, and some blame America for not helping rebuild. They believe the U.S. abandoned the country after using it as a battleground to defeat its Cold War enemy in a proxy fight, he said.

The conflict in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal led to the rise of the hard-line Taliban group, which harbored al-Qaida in the years leading up to the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. has long said its mission in Afghanistan is to stabilize the country to prevent another such attack.

The withdrawal of U.S. troops now would be a reversal of an increase Trump ordered last year under a new strategy for the region that he said would involve an enduring commitment here.

Trump touted his plan as doing away with the Obama administration’s time-based withdrawal, in favor of holding fast until conditions improved.

The administration sent several thousand troops to the country last spring and built up bases closed during the withdrawal of most combat forces from the country in 2014.

American troops began advising at lower echelons of the security forces to try to bolster them against a resurgent Taliban that has gained ground since early 2015, while diplomats have sought to negotiate peace with the insurgents.

Despite those changes, the war has been viewed skeptically at best by the U.S. public. In an October Pew Research Center poll, 49 percent of respondents said the U.S. has “mostly failed” in Afghanistan, while 16 percent said they weren’t sure.

Peace talk effects

The sudden announcement of plans to reduce American forces comes just days after the United Arab Emirates hosted talks between the United States and the Taliban. The militants have long sought the removal of foreign troops from the country as a condition for beginning peace negotiations.

For some Afghans, Trump’s move evokes memories of President Barack Obama’s 2014 drawdown, which cost billions to move troops and equipment.

That was the wrong move at the wrong time, said Jawed Ludin, deputy foreign minister for political affairs under former President Hamid Karzai.

The Obama-era drawdown was based on political considerations back home instead of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, Ludin said.

If Trump’s decision had been based on a settlement with the Taliban, that would be understandable, Ludin said, but he feared it was based on American politics again and would embolden the militants.

“This will be seen as a serious sign of weakness,” he said. “The Taliban haven’t even started negotiating properly about what they want in Afghanistan. If we start giving concessions like this, it’s not going to help.”

The Taliban capitalized on drawdowns from 2011 to 2016, but the influx of advisers last year slowed their momentum, Pentagon officials said in the latest semiannual report to Congress on the status of the war, released Thursday amid the news of Trump’s decision.

Still, the war is at a stalemate, the report said, with the intensity of fighting and the level of bloodshed rising on both sides as they each bid for leverage in peace talks. The Taliban has consolidated control in much of the country’s rural areas while the Kabul government controls the cities.

The government faces continued threats from the highest regional concentration of terrorist groups in the world, the report said, and while its air force has improved considerably under guidance from foreign forces, its army struggles to meet recruiting, quality and leadership standards.

The Afghan military will dissolve without American support, Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., incoming Central Command chief, told lawmakers during a confirmation hearing earlier this month.

Foreign funding, largely from the U.S., will be critical to prop up security forces until they can stand on their own for many more years, as “full self-sufficiency by 2024 does not appear realistic.”

The U.S. pays the bulk of the country’s $6 billion annual defense budget and has poured $77 billion into the security forces here since 2005.

The Afghans won’t be able to defend their country on their own, McKenzie said, and he said he wasn’t sure how long it would take until they could. He added that one of the most damaging things to the security forces here would be to put a timeline on U.S. support and announce a withdrawal based on it.

But a withdrawal could be good if it ultimately results in the Taliban entering productive peace talks, said Shahla Farid, a law and political science professor at Kabul University.

“For right now, I don’t think pulling out 7,000 troops is a bad idea,” Farid said.

On the other hand, she said, if they see it as a victory over the foreigners, the war will likely intensify, which could spur the U.S. to send in more troops again.

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this story.

lawrence.jp@stripes.com
Twitter: @jplawrence3

 

Soldiers at Camp Dahlke West in Afghanistan lift weights Dec. 16, 2018, in a new gym on base. President Donald Trump has directed the Pentagon to come up with a plan to withdraw nearly half of the more than 14,000 troops deployed to Afghanistan.
J.P. LAWRENCE/STARS AND STRIPES

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