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December 30, 2018

After the drawdown


December 30, 2018

US President Donald Trump’s announcement to pull out 7,000 US troops from Afghanistan took both his allies and adversaries by surprise. As expected, Trump ran out of patience due to the lack of progress on his South Asia policy announced in September 2017 and the worsening security situation in Afghanistan.

The announcement came in the middle of the US-Taliban talks in the UAE to find a politically-negotiated end to the war. It prompted James Mattis, the principal architect of Trump’s South Asia policy, to resign.

Trump’s announcement will change the calculus on the ground in Afghanistan, with far-reaching consequences for regional peace and security. However, it remains to be seen if this change is for better or for worse. In any case, it is the beginning of the end of the 17-year war in Afghanistan.

Broadly, Trump’s announcement to withdraw troops from Afghanistan has generated two kinds of reactions among the strategic and diplomatic communities. Some policy experts believe that the US has lost the war in Afghanistan and there is no point wasting more blood and treasure on it. They have welcomed the announcement with cautious optimism and viewed it as part of the ongoing peace CBMs between the US and the Taliban.

A credible timeframe of US withdrawal from Afghanistan has been the longstanding demand of the Taliban for a ceasefire agreement. This school of thought believes that troops reduction would bridge the trust deficit between the US and the Taliban, and incentivise the latter’s participation in future peace talks. Furthermore, it will reduce US troops casualties and expenditures in Afghanistan.

The bulk of US troops, about 100,000, left Afghanistan in 2015. Since then, the Afghan security forces have been responsible for security maintenance in Afghanistan with training, assistance and advice from the Nato-led Resolute Support Mission (RSM). If the withdrawal of 100,000 troops did not lead to a civil war in Afghanistan, then reducing the 14,000 US troops by half will not change the situation dramatically – particularly when the Taliban are engaged in peace diplomacy with the US. As a matter of fact, the announcement constitutes a step in the direction of peace, not war.

The growing footprint of the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK), the formal franchise of the IS, has also compelled the Taliban to engage in the peace process. If the war continues and the fight escalates, then the ISK will benefit from it and dent Taliban’s credibility as a jihadist organisation.

The common criticism levelled by the ISK against the Taliban has been their Afghan-centric approach and refusal to participate in jihad elsewhere, and the exploitation of Islam to restore their toppled regime in Afghanistan. Following battlefield losses and territorial setbacks in Iraq and Syria, as many as 69 members of the IS core and between 300 and 400 fighters have relocated to Afghanistan. Given this, further conflict perpetuation in Afghanistan will not favour the Taliban.

The contending view is that the war was deadlocked. Therefore, the US has given the Taliban exactly what they wanted by announcing a unilateral drawdown. The drawdown has eroded any leverage that the US had over the Taliban in negotiations. It is naive to assume that the Taliban are genuinely interested in peace talks. The Taliban are clever as they are trying to achieve on the negotiation table what they could not gain on the battlefield.

Buoyed by their recent territorial gains, they are using peace negotiations as an opportunity to gain political legitimacy and present themselves as Afghanistan’s rightful future ruler. As such, the Taliban are not interested in power-sharing with other political groups in Afghanistan.

Operationally and structurally, the Taliban are an insurgent and jihadist organisation, and don’t have a robust political wing like the Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Palestine, which transformed into political parties and participated in elections. For the sake of argument, even if the Taliban had a political wing and were willing to enter Afghanistan’s fragile and fractious political system, they would only exacerbate the existing ethnic, political, tribal and regional faultlines.

In 2018, Afghanistan overtook Iraq as the country most affected by terrorism. With the presence of over 20 insurgent and terrorist groups, Afghanistan has the highest concentration of violent extremist organisations in the world.

The announcement of a sudden drawdown will create a triumphant jihadist narrative in the region that another superpower, after the former Soviet Union, has been defeated in Afghanistan. It will mobilise worldwide terrorist recruitment. The Taliban’s field commanders are already in a celebratory mood and treating the announcement as a victory of sorts. Trump’s announcement will harden the Taliban’s position and embolden them to stick to their maximalist positions during peace talks.

At the same time, Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is far from defeated and has grown in size in recent years in Afghanistan. The American fixation with the emergence of the IS in Iraq and Syria allowed Al-Qaeda to stay under the radar of the intelligence and quietly rebuild its organisational infrastructure and augment its operational capabilities. It has proven to be resilient, adaptive and agile, with tremendous regenerative capacity. The group is on the rebound and closely allied with the Taliban. The reduction in US troops will further ease the military pressure on Al-Qaeda and allow it to expand further in Afghanistan.

Since the war on terror began, the US has been part of the problem as well as part of the solution in Afghanistan. The paradox of the Afghan war is that conflict resolution is not possible regardless of whether we keep the US in the equation or remove it altogether. No country other than the US has the diplomatic clout, military wherewithal and economic resources to keep the myriad Afghan political groups within the existing democratic framework.

The manner in which the US withdraws from Afghanistan will directly affect the future political order in Afghanistan. A phased withdrawal coinciding with political settlement will lead to stabilisation while a sudden pullout with a premature peace deal will be the recipe for a civil war.

The war in Afghanistan is at a crossroads and requires deft handling and leadership skills. Instead of searching for a hasty withdrawal through political quick-fixes, the US and other regional powers should ensure a political termination of the conflict that ushers in a stable political order. If history is anything to go by, what happens in Afghanistan doesn’t stay in Afghanistan.

The writer is an associate research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.

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