Sumera B. Reshi Afghanistan
President Donald Trump is a box of surprises. He, being the president of the world’s second largest democracy is a surprise. His birth on this beautiful planet among Homo sapiens is a big surprise and now his announcement to withdraw from Syria and then Afghanistan is a surprise of the millennium.
He is an America, thus eats, sleeps and thinks America. And since his election campaign for the presidency, he vowed to call back the US troops from Syria and Afghanistan once the destruction of these two countries is over. A la Marry in the poem Marry calls the cattle at home; he is resolute to call the US troops back, no matter what.
The tremors of his announcement jolted everyone in the US – his close cohorts in his administration; his loyal’s in Afghanistan and the allies alike. Back home, Trump’s decision forced Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis to resign citing policy differences. With his head high and chin upright as is President Trump’s signature style, he declared, “After historic victories against ISIS, it’s time to bring our great young people home!” This announcement exposed the American political divide as many politicians supported President Trump to withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan. Republican Senator, Lindsey Graham, said he had been ‘blindsided’ by the sudden announcement. Additionally, Graham said that ‘according to our military commanders and everybody I know, we want to draw down from Afghanistan with honor and do it based on conditions on the ground.’ “Based on my assessment in Afghanistan, if we withdrew anytime soon, you would be paving the way for a second 9/11,” Graham said.
Further, Democrat Nancy Pelosi said that the decision was based on ‘personal or political objectives’ as opposed to ‘genuine national security interests.’
Regardless of the criticism from various quarters, Trump has support from Democrats and Republicans as well. Democrat Senator, Ted Lieu said, “none of those war actions were authorized by Congress”, and asking opponents “wow much endless war is enough?” Ro Khanna, an American academic, lawyer and a politician in a statement said, “Trump’s instincts to withdraw are correct, but the tactical implementation matters”. Mattis and other top advisers suspect that withdrawal from Syria will deliver a win to Russia, Iran and Syrian leader Bashar ¬al-Assad while risking a resurgence of the Islamic State.
As of now, there are some 2,000 troops in Syria, including special forces and in Afghanistan, there are about 14,000 US troops with half of them logistic troops and trainers. As per media reports, 18 American soldiers died in combat this year, with top US commander Gen. Austin Miller narrowly survives an attack on his life in October.
As said by the US Department of Defense, 2,216 US troops have been killed in action in Afghanistan and more than 20,000 wounded since 2001. Add to this 28,529 Afghan security personnel killed in Taliban attacks, cross-fights and “collateral damage” since 2015. An estimated 2,798 civilians killed, and 5,252 others wounded in countrywide attacks this year, according to the UN. Reports suggest Taliban control more territory than at any point since the removal of their regime 17 years ago. And past 17 years, the US is engaged in the long-running war, the Afghanistan invasion.
The Afghan war has proven worse than the Vietnam War. It’s going on endlessly with no respite in sight. Then why the US has decided to withdraw when its boundaries are more insecure than it was prior to 2001?
“The US doesn’t lose Wars; it only loses interest,” said Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US. He further said that ‘poor backwater’ Afghanistan turns ‘strategically significant’ only when a hostile power tries to control it.
There was a time when the Taliban was America’s darling, and since their birth in 1994, the Taliban has engaged with US government, which urged it to shut down Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. California-based Unocal Corporation also flew core Taliban members to Texas to negotiate two oil and gas pipeline projects. Nonetheless, the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, claimed by Al Qaeda, brought an end to all US-Taliban contacts. The relations soured to an extent that since past 17 years they have been fighting with all the might and resources to overpower each other.
However, 9/11 irked the US and therefore, the US and its allies declared war on the Taliban in 2001. The subsequent US-led occupation since 2001 resulted in the deaths of about 104, 000 people as per an Afghan civilians’ casualty report. Undeniably, the US-led coalition swept out the Taliban within weeks, nevertheless, the peace didn’t return to Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Bush focused on Saddam Hussein and invaded Iraq while US military commanders relied on notorious warlords, including corrupt local thugs. This approach alienated ordinary Afghans and brought more atrocities and hardships.
So what next? Will the troop’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and Syria have any serious implications? As mentioned earlier, the announcement of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has surprised one and all but mostly President Ashraf Gani. The next morning, he woke up with a shock which he was never expected from a blonde buddy called Trump. Aides to Ghani in a face-facing response said that a potential massive reversal of the US military policy as no big deal, even as many observers in Afghanistan and elsewhere expressed growing alarm.
It is widely viewed that the Taliban will come if the US troops withdraw. According to a senior official at the Foreign Ministry, Pakistan could face an additional burden if political turmoil or insecurity were to send a new wave of Afghans fleeing across the border.
“The US troop drawdown would be an ‘admission of defeat in America’s longest war’ and ‘the biggest military setback for the US’, since the fall of Saigon in 1975,” said Mushahid Hussain, chairman, Pakistan’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “The troop withdrawal would increase Washington’s dependence on Pakistan as a force for peace in Afghanistan and could lead to a postponement of Afghan elections ‘to pave the way’ for a broad unity government including the Taliban,” added Hussain.
Analysts in Afghanistan and Pakistan are baffled over the announcement made by President Trump at a time when negotiations were finally beginning to gain traction. However, Taliban might be happy over Trump’s decision and they have long been demanded a total departure of US troops, but many other issues are on the table and insurgents seemed to show their seriousness by sending an unusual senior group to the UAE talks.
Observers in Afghanistan and Pakistan said they could not understand why Trump would suddenly decide to withdraw thousands of troops at a time when negotiations were finally beginning to gain traction. The Taliban has long demanded a total departure of U.S. forces, but many other issues are on the table, and the insurgents seemed to show their seriousness by sending an unusually senior group to the UAE talks.
Amrullah Saleh, a former chief of the Afghan intelligence agency, said l that ‘Trump’s plan to cut back troops shows that he sees Afghanistan as a “burden, not a strategic and necessary ally.” He said there has been “no progress” in peace talks and “no sign” of Pakistan halting support to the Taliban, and that now the country faces an added threat of diminished US military assistance.
“Maybe it will be the end for the U.S., but a bitter beginning for us,” he said.
Gen Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the Defence Staff said in an interview to the BBC that “he believed America was ‘wholeheartedly committed’ to the international coalition propping up the Afghan government against Taliban insurgency.” President Trump has reportedly ordered generals to begin withdrawing up to 7,000 of the 14,000 US troops currently helping the Afghans battle the Taliban and Islamic State group. Besides the current contingent of roughly 14,000 American troops, there are also 8,000 NATO and allied troops deployed in Afghanistan tasked primarily with training and advising the Afghan forces.
If US troop levels drop to around 7,000, they will be at their lowest since March 2002, when the largest ground assault of the war at that time began during Operation Anaconda.
At present, the US troops in Afghanistan are divided between training and advising Afghan forces and a counterterror mission against groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. Those who are part of the 7,000-troop withdrawal will be a mixture of forces from both of those missions.
Trump’s drawdown attracted mixed reactions though. There are, however, analysts who believe that Trump made the right decision in changing his mind and some do not buy his argument. Analysts believe that the costly war is at a stalemate and the US forces should come home.
Andrew Bacevich, Professor Emeritus of International Relations and History at Boston University said in an interview to BBC he thinks withdrawal is the best option. As per Professor Bacevich, “if keeping the US forces in Afghanistan could guarantee that the US would not be targeted by further terrorist attacks, I would favor making our longest war longer still.”
But the terrorist threat has evolved since 9/11 and keeping US forces in Afghanistan does not ‘make America safe’. The opposite is true. Occupying countries in the Islamic world exacerbates the threat rather than reduces it.
Political pundits believe that Afghanistan is as much the graveyard of empires as it ever was. Nevertheless, the US civilian and military leaders often claim that they are capable of winning the war there. That wishful thinking aside, the argument against withdrawing the US forces boils down to inertia. As in Vietnam, the US is trapped. It can’t win, yet it can’t leave for fear that the government in Kabul would collapse and Afghanistan could once again become an oasis for terrorists who threaten the US.
Certainly, 2018 is different from 2001. In 2001, the Taliban’s relationship with al Qaeda triggered the US military response. The risks of collapse and chaos are impossible to rule out. But there is a reason to believe that the realities on the ground—exhaustion after years of war, a more politically sophisticated Taliban and a multiplicity of competing jihadi groups—have changed and that a different outcome is now possible. And other countries, including China, could be convinced to take on a greater role in assuring Afghanistan’s future.
Today, the US faces enormous global and regional strategic challenges from China and Russia from which it cannot afford to be distracted by continuing its presence in Afghanistan. In his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump pushed for a radical rethink of this endless and unwinnable war. His instincts were right on this. A pragmatic, workable exit strategy from Afghanistan is the least dishonorable way for the United States to turn the page and step out of the graveyard that, from the time of Alexander, has buried empires, as per experts.
Syria is as vulnerable to extremist forces as was Iraq after the US withdrawal. No doubt, ISIS has lost almost all of its territory, however, the country remains under the tight grip of civil war with an ineffective, internationally-shunned government propped up by Russia, a battleground for Iran, Russia and Turkey to showcase their strength. This equation could further destabilize the region.
As a matter of fact, Islamist extremists are growing in number and capability, with Syria at the epicenter of the danger. As stated by a report on global terrorism by Jones and five other experts. After Syria, Afghanistan ranks second among countries with the highest number of Salafist jihadist fighters, according to the CSIS report. An estimated 43,650 to 70,550 fighters are based in Syria, and 27,000 to 64,060 are in Afghanistan, the report said.
The CSIS report, written before Trump’s surprise moves this week in Syria and Afghanistan, also warned that scaling back US force levels in the Middle East and Africa could give more breathing room to terrorist networks.
Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to Washington, said, “Trump’s moves in Syria and Afghanistan were sending the message globally that the US no longer considers the jihadi threat a serious threat.” “It will come back to bite the US,” Haqqani said.
In both Afghanistan and Syria, a smaller US presence also risks creating more room for Trump’s No. 1 geopolitical foe, Iran to expand its influence. Iranian-backed Hezbollah forces have become a major player in Syria and are viewed as a growing threat by neighboring Israel. Iran has also flexed its military and diplomatic muscle in Afghanistan, which shares a border with Iran, and has been frequently accused of surreptitiously aiding the Taliban there.