An American gift to the Afghan Taliban that portends more war and less peace?
That is how President Donald Trump’s sudden decision this week to accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan is seen by Afghan government negotiators at stalled peace talks in Doha, Qatar – even as Taliban insurgents talk peace but continue the fight.
Prior to the presidential election Nov. 3, Mr. Trump tweeted that all American troops, including those in Afghanistan, who are serving as part of a NATO force, should be “home by Christmas!”
Then, a week after the president fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who opposed the drawdown, the Pentagon announced Nov. 17 that the remaining 4,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan would be cut to 2,500 by Jan. 15 – five days before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.
For Afghans, it’s the latest example of how American political timelines can affect their own battlespace – sometimes with deleterious effects – as the war has ground on since the U.S. toppled the Taliban and its Al Qaeda “guests” in late 2001, after the Sept. 11 attacks.
For some at the Doha talks, the decision is a rushed bid to conclude America’s longest-ever war, with potentially grave consequences for the future of Afghanistan.
“When you see in the middle of this that there is a hurry from the American side which will not help the process, it is worrisome,” says Fawzia Koofi, a member of the government negotiating team who was wounded in an assassination attempt in Kabul, four weeks before intra-Afghan talks began on Sept. 12.
“The Americans will not stay forever, but I know in the meantime [withdrawal] has to be done properly, it has to be in a way that will help reduce violence,” says Ms. Koofi, contacted in Doha.
A NATO warning
Deep concerns were voiced quickly by NATO, as well.
“We now face a difficult decision. We have been in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, and no NATO ally wants to stay any longer than necessary,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement the day the withdrawal was announced. “But at the same time, the price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high.”
“Afghanistan risks becoming once again a platform for international terrorists to plan and organize attacks on our homelands,” he said.
Ms. Koofi, a former lawmaker and women’s rights activist who has participated in talks with the Taliban since last year, says the new U.S. emphasis on pulling out speedily has led to a “wrong perception” among the Taliban that they are in a win-win situation.
“It will give the Taliban a position that, ‘No matter if we don’t win at the negotiating table, we will win on the battlefield,’” she says. “So they will try to even further delay achieving something concrete on the negotiation table.”
The U.S.-Taliban deal
Last February, after a year of negotiations between the U.S. and Taliban insurgents – who today control or have influence in more than half of the country – the U.S. and Taliban signed a deal.
The text of the agreement trades a complete U.S. and NATO pullout by the end of next April – plus 5,000 Taliban political prisoners released up front – for Taliban promises to prevent Afghan soil from being used for militant attacks abroad, as well as participation in intra-Afghan talks, where a cease-fire is only “an item on the agenda.”
Americans have spoken of a conditions-based withdrawal, and say the Taliban privately committed to an 80% reduction of violence. While the U.S. stuck to its incremental pullout schedule – which has now been sped up – the Taliban has escalated violence across the country, in attacks that have left thousands more Afghans dead and tens of thousands displaced.
U.S. officials have chastised the Taliban for “car bombs, IEDs and targeted killings” against civilians, but not slowed the withdrawal. And, after an especially heavy Taliban offensive last month to seize Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province – which required U.S. airstrikes to push insurgents back – they claimed to have worked out a “re-set” and “strict adherence” of terms with the jihadists.
Nevertheless, another offensive aimed at Kandahar earlier this month involved 3,500 Taliban attackers and required U.S. airpower to defeat, the Washington Post reported. It quoted an Afghan national police commander as saying the Taliban would not have been stopped were it not for U.S. airstrikes.
Taliban “all like Trump”
“The Taliban were very worried when Trump lost [the election], because they knew Trump just wanted to get out and didn’t care,” says a Western official in Kabul who asked not to be identified further.
“They all like Trump [because] they also felt like they had Trump in their pocket, because he’s so desperate to get out. He didn’t understand the conflict and didn’t bother understanding it,” says the official.
The feeling in Kabul is that 2,500 U.S. troops is “really bare bones.”
“The bottom line is: The more you drill down the numbers, the more you get to people who are not just logistics support, but people who actually have a day job,” says the official. “It will be very difficult for somebody to be a full-time mentor to the [Afghan] Special Forces, at the same time in the evening packing up his equipment.”
Indeed, the sense that the White House drafted a lopsided deal with the Taliban and is speeding the U.S. withdrawal at the expense of the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani – which has little leverage at the negotiating table without U.S. military force backing him up – is causing pushback in Washington.
One reason former Secretary Esper was fired by Mr. Trump was reportedly a classified memo he wrote arguing against a further pullout, given stepped-up Taliban attacks.
“I believe it was political. There was no tactical, operational or strategic merit to doing this,” retired Gen. John Allen, the former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan until 2013, said at an online security event this week run by the Soufan Center.
Debate inside the Taliban
In Doha, Taliban leaders have routinely expressed their desire for an inclusive, negotiated solution to end the war. They have also publicly claimed that their views have evolved since the late 1990s, when they ruled Afghanistan with an uncompromising, hardline fervor, which forced women indoors and banned girls’ education.
And yet, along the front lines and among insurgent commanders and fighters, the Taliban message has been consistent: that the Doha deal means they achieved “victory” in war.
“The jury is still out,” says Michael Semple, an Afghanistan expert at Queen’s University Belfast who lived and worked for years in the country.
“But as far as the evidence that is readily available – like what’s happening on the battlefield – the Taliban seem prepared to have a go at grabbing [military victory]. They certainly haven’t done anything to prepare their base for political compromise inherent in a deal,” says Mr. Semple.
News of an accelerated U.S. drawdown to 2,500 – and fewer American military capabilities when the next fighting season rolls around – “strengthens the hand and the resolution of those inside the [Taliban] movement who would like to pursue military victory rather than a negotiated settlement,” he says.
One benefit of doing a peace deal is that any interim and new government will include the Taliban, and crucially have support – and sizable funding – from the U.S. and key donors. By contrast, “winning” on the battlefield means the Taliban standing alone, ruling over a population that widely rejects them, and almost certainly sparking another civil war.
“We shouldn’t dismiss this point that there will be counsel within the Taliban saying, ‘Don’t do it! Don’t do it!’” says Mr. Semple. “But those who say, ‘Look, we can wind this up now, we can sweep the board,’ they are going to be louder and more confident.”
So far, he adds, the Taliban have tried to “calibrate their violence, rather than reduce it,” to score gains while avoiding being declared in breach of the deal.
“If the U.S. accelerates its withdrawal, goes beyond that which it is committed to with the Taliban – it is essentially rewarding a breach of conditions, rather than punishing,” says Mr. Semple. “Back in the real world of hardball war and peace diplomacy, if you reward bad behavior, you are encouraging more of it. And hence, it is less likely that you can marshal the Taliban towards a negotiated agreement.”
That result adds to the exasperation in Doha, where peace negotiators like Ms. Koofi watch every day as the death toll climbs and the fighting continues. She recalls the maxim, often repeated in Afghanistan, that the Americans may have the watch, but the Taliban have the time.
“It is frustrating…. People from both sides are being killed for something that we could actually prevent,” says Ms. Koofi. “It’s just the people of Afghanistan who do not have enough time to be a continuous victim, and it’s the Americans who should have time enough to avoid a complete collapse, once again.”