Afghanistan could suffer a Syria style troops’ withdrawal?


Iqbal Khan

PRESIDENCY and Pentagon are at odds over the issue of pulling the boys out of “Wrong Wars”. Only thing on President’s head is winning his reelection on the basis of fulfilling his 2016 campaign promises, how so ever silly those may have been. Pentagons strategy is to time out Trump and continue to hold on at all trouble spots, on one pretext or the other, hoping that they would have a new president in 2021. None of Post 9/11 troop pullout attempt has been trouble free. Each such attempt exposed poor mission execution by Pentagon with regard to post withdrawal stability. May be, at national level, Americans never planned for that end objective to give justification for perpetualising their occupations. Moreover, the US military industrial complex has a vested interest in sustaining the ongoing conflicts.
The Pentagon has recently begun drawing up plans for an abrupt withdrawal of all US troops from Afghanistan in case President Donald Trump surprises military leaders by ordering an immediate drawdown as he did in Syria. Trump has made clear to his advisers that he wants to pull all US troops out of Afghanistan by the 2020 election, NBC News reported in August. The collapse of Afghan peace talks, and the 2020 campaign, have raised concern among some administration officials of an increased likelihood that Trump would order a swift withdrawal, officials said.
Trump has since long articulated to withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan, but his repeated emphasis in recent weeks on the need to end all foreign wars has infused a new sense of urgency into the renewed Pentagon’s planning effort. The president’s abrupt policy shift on Syria also has shown he’s willing to follow through on his threats of troop withdrawals, though his advisers have been able to talk him out of such moves in the past. And it coincides with an increasing focus on the 2020 election. “I got elected on bringing our soldiers back home,” Trump told reporters on October 20. To underscore the point, the president said the biggest applause he received during a campaign rally in Dallas last week was when he talked about building a wall on the US-Mexico border and bringing American troops home. “When I said, ‘We’re bringing our soldiers back home,’ the place went crazy,” Trump said.
According to General Austin Miller, Commander of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission and US Forces in Afghanistan, America is already cutting down the number of its troops deployed in Afghanistan. The New York Times has reported that around 2000 soldiers were retrieved last year. Aversion has it that the fall in numbers is not linked to formal withdrawal process, but is taking place as troops completing their tenure in Afghanistan were not replaced. Persistent violent attacks by Taliban have, so far, frustrated President Trump’s plan to withdraw more than 5,000 American troops. Defence Secretary Mark Esper informed media guys, “With regard to a withdrawal of forces, as we’ve always said, that it’ll be conditions based, but we’re confident that we can go down to 8,600”. When pressed whether the troop reduction would happen with or without a peace deal with the Taliban, Esper said he didn’t “want to get ahead of the diplomats on that front.”
Before the peace process was stalled, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad had shared a draft agreement with all stake holders. Plan focused on withdrawal of approximately 5,000 US troops from Afghanistan 135 days after signing the agreement alongside closure of some of the US bases. When Defence Secretary Mark Esper was asked during a surprise visit to Afghanistan on September 29 whether Trump could pull all US troops out of the country, Esper compared the situation to Syria, explaining they are very different missions. “Very different situations, very different adversaries if you will, very different level of commitment. Very clear policy direction on one,” Esper said. “All these things should reassure Afghan allies and others they should not misinterpret our actions in the region in the recent week or so in regard to Syria and contrast that with Afghanistan.”
President Trump’s order to withdraw roughly 1,000 US troops from northern Syria opened a Pandora’s Box. Shortly after Turkey launched a military operation to rout America’s Kurdish partner force in the region. Turkey conducted a weeklong offensive into north-eastern Syria against the Kurdish fighters before a military pause. Likewise, decision to pull out American forces has left another partner force the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) feeling betrayed. “We never agreed to protect the Kurds for the rest of their lives,” Trump said during a Cabinet meeting on October 21.American troops and the US veterans who volunteered and fought with the SDF have expressed their dismay over the decision.
Now there is a face saving a talk that US may leave some forces in Syria to secure oil fields and make sure they don’t fall into the hands of a resurgent Daesh. A ‘small handful’ of American troops (200-300) will remain at the Tanf garrison near the Syria-Iraq border. The fact that such a plan was under consideration was another sign that administration was still trying to sort out its overall strategy amid fierce criticism. It is certain that about half the troops would continue to hang on in Syria on some flimsy pretext. A US President who could mock as well as obstruct his impeachment, could issue any order, irrespective of consequences. One thing is certain, a substantial portion of the US troops would leave Afghanistan by 2020, either through a deal with Taliban or otherwise. So let’s keep our fingers crossed.
—The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.