Is the US finally leaving Afghanistan?


By Yasmeen Aftab Ali

The recent continuation of the Afghan peace talks between the US and Taliban, aimed at US/coalition forces’ withdrawal from the war-torn country, came as welcome news. For many, the peace talks have brought hope that decades of chaos in Afghanistan might finally end, however, for a select few, this development is also rife with skepticism. 

The US and its allied forces have finally realised that they cannot continue in Afghanistan ad-infinitum. However, the fear that a civil war will erupt between different groups in Afghanistan ,upon the exit of the coalition forces, will probably happen irrespective of when the US withdrawal takes place. The reason is simple.

There has been little, if any, institution-building in the last 17 years of US “boots on ground” in Afghanistan. Weak institutions create governance vacuum, which ultimately gives space to different miscreant elements to fill that vacuum. 

Added to this is another fact. The fact of the “weak legs” Ashraf Ghani’s government is currently standing on. Taliban view the current Afghan political setup as a “US puppet”. Upon departure of the US forces, it will not be long that the entire structure will come crashing down.

Therefore, current situation needs a closer examination for a number of reasons:

One, the Taliban are dealing from a “position of strength”, and both the US and the Taliban know that. Moreover, President Ghani and the world also know that.

Hence, not many expect that the US can broker a power-sharing deal between the Taliban and Ghani post US exit. Even if the Taliban agree, there is nothing to bind them to deliver on their word.

Two, there are roughly 14000 American troops in Afghanistan, out of which President Trump wants half of them back home, with  the other half leaving in case of a negotiated settled. Interestingly, so far, the presence of American bases in Afghanistan and their working [or not] post-exit has not been touched upon. These bases include the Shindand Airbase, FOB Delaram, Bagram Air Base, Camp Dwyer, Camp Leatherneck and the Kandahar International Airport. These bases have played a major role in the US War on Terror in Afghanistan, and therefore very little is known of their future when the US and coalition troops leave the country.

Three, the US wants a firm commitment from the Taliban that in return for the exit, the militant group will not allow terrorist groups like Al Qaeda to use the Afghan soil to attack the West, including the USA. The Taliban have been quick to give their word on this. However, there is no clue as to how exactly will the Taliban achieve this. Interestingly, a story in Politico stated, “While most senior al-Qaeda personnel “are trying to hide,” General John Nicholson, the outgoing top commander in Kabul, said last year, the subgroup members are “more active” but are focused on training Taliban members who are fighting the Afghan government.”  The official assessment of the intelligence committee thinks the core objective of Al-Qaeda and their affiliates has not changed- though most [as per a UN report] have migrated to Syria.

Four, the withdrawal, hurried and unceremonious without putting in place a workable settlement, will close doors to a joint expedition with the allies in future if faced with a similar threat.

Five, the impression created is to simply get the American troops out and let “Rome burn”. Without effectively negotiating a lasting peace settlement and focusing on an exit alone, will the US not be doing exactly what it has done in the past; moving in and out of the region, without taking any further responsibility, as once famously admitted by Hillary Clinton in her congressional address?  

Six, at this point in time, the Taliban are not in a political driving seat; which they want to be in by any means. Allied forces’ exit means an inevitable struggle for power; wrenching it away from Ghani. This will lead to bloodshed, civil war and an Afghanistan more vulnerable to be used by extremist elements.

Seven, how exactly will Pakistan handle the negative cascading effect owing to the porous border situation? Pakistan is already fencing the 2,430-kilometre international border with Afghanistan, which seems to be a top priority for both the civil military leadership. However, little progress has been made on clearing the landmines or increasing the patrolling of the border. Pakistan must not be passive on this score. It needs to stop behaving like an ostrich and deal with the Afghan Refugee situation. With the US exit next door, the Afghan debris in Pakistan would likely lead to misuse of home soil by extremists. This must be avoided at all costs. Therefore, Pakistan must develop strategies that are in place to deal with multifaceted situations when the time comes. Knee-jerk reactions do not deliver.

Trump is currently on the right track in terms of planning an exit of his troops from Afghanistan. That is laudable. However, only time will tell “how” he succeeds in implementing this plan effectively. This implementation will determine how history remembers him.