Afghanistan

Withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan is turning out to be a complicated affair

Print edition : June 04, 2021

Outside a U.S. Marine Corps base in southern Afghanistan on December 1, 2001, a sign reminding everyone that Taliban forces could be anywhere and everywhere. The Taliban leadership has expressed its displeasure at the delay in withdrawing troops and has said that it is keeping its military option open. Photo: JIM HOLLANDER/REUTERS

U.S. marines clearing improvised explosive devices from a main route in Trikh Nawar on the outskirts of Marjah in Afghanistan, a February 2010 picture. Photo: PATRICK BAZ/AFP

The complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan before September 11 is turning out to be a complicated affair amid fears of Taliban supremacy and concerns among neighbouring countries.

In the second week of April, United States President Joseph Biden officially announced the much-awaited decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan after more than two decades of occupation and mayhem. He said all U.S. troops would be out of the country before September 11 this year, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the American mainland. Under an agreement signed with the Taliban in Doha, the Donald Trump administration had pledged to complete the withdrawal of all U.S. and allied troops from the country by May 1. The bulk of the U.S. troops had already withdrawn before that, but around 2,500 U.S. soldiers remained in the country along with a similar number of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) troops.

Biden clarified that there were no conditions attached to the U.S. withdrawal, indicating that the Afghan government it had been backing for the past 20 years was now basically on its own. Withdrawing the troops from the country is turning out to be a complicated affair for the U.S. The Russians, in comparison, had an easier time retreating from Afghanistan as they could leave in an orderly and disciplined way through Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, all of which were part of the Soviet Union. U.S. troops now only have the option of flying out directly from the three important bases, Bagram, Jalalabad and Kandahar, they currently occupy in the country.

Top U.S. military officials had tried to persuade Biden to keep at least a counterterrorism force in the country. There are, however, reports that U.S. military contractors numbering around 7,000 will continue to remain on the ground in Afghanistan for some more time. U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd J. Austin and other top military officials recommended that around 4,500 troops should remain deployed in Afghanistan. An earlier study by the bipartisan Afghan Study Group had cautioned the Biden administration against adhering to a strict timeline for withdrawal.

Also read: U.S. troops withdrawal in Afghanistan: A long drawn-out endgame

William Burns, director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), told the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee in April that there was “a significant risk” attached to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. He said Washington’s ability to collect and act on threats would diminish considerably. But Biden could not be convinced. When he was Barack Obama’s Vice President, Biden had been critical of the never-ending war in Afghanistan. During the 2020 election, he pledged to bring all the U.S. soldiers back home. Besides, Avril Haines, Director of the U.S. National Intelligence, conveyed to the President that the main terror threat to the U.S. today emanated from the African continent, not from Afghanistan and itssurrounding areas.

Wasted effort

The troops are leaving without achieving any of their goals after having expended two trillion dollars in a wasted war effort. As many as 2,500 U.S. soldiers lost their lives and 20,000 were seriously injured. Hundreds of thousands of innocent Afghan civilians and combatants were killed in the thoughtless bombings and drone attacks by the Americans, especially during the first decade of the war. In 2017, the U.S. dropped the most powerful non-nuclear bomb on Afghanistan.

The Taliban leadership has expressed its displeasure at the delay in withdrawing troops and has said that it is keeping its military option open. Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, said that “this violation in principle has opened the way” for his group “to take every counter-action it deems appropriate against the occupying forces”. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement criticising the September 11 deadline for the withdrawal of the forces, saying that it violated the earlier agreement for the exit of all U.S. forces by May 1.

But reports from the ground say that the Taliban forces are scrupulously avoiding targeting the withdrawing U.S. forces. The Taliban is, however, unhappy that the central government has not yet released 7,500 of its fighters and activists languishing in Afghan jails. The release of the prisoners was part of the deal signed in Doha between the three sides.

Also read: Intra-Afghan peace dialogue: A reluctant handshake

One of the first locations the U.S. Army is quitting is its massive military base in Kandahar. Much of the equipment, such as sports utility vehicles, that they are not able to airlift back have been destroyed.

Casualties among Afghan forces

The Afghan forces have already started feeling that they are now on their own. Despite the huge U.S. military presence in Kandahar, the area has always remained a Taliban stronghold. Now it is a matter of time before the Taliban regains full control of the Pashtun-dominated area.

In the second week of May, the Taliban captured Dahla dam in the province supplying water for irrigation and drinking. It is Afghanistan’s second biggest dam. An intelligence assessment submitted to the U.S. Congress in April suggested that the Afghan government would find survival difficult without U.S. military support.

According to reports, Afghan security forces are suffering an unsustainable casualty rate of 3,000 soldiers a month. The U.S. is currently giving $4 billion in funding to the Afghan army. It is to be seen whether this kind of massive financial outlay will continue after the final withdrawal. Training and weaponising the 300,000 strong Afghan army cost the U.S. $87 billion in the past two decades.

Heavy fighting

The agreement hammered out by the previous U.S. administration talked about a ceasefire coming into force after the troops withdrawal started and the sharing of power between the government in Kabul and the Taliban. The Taliban has so far refused to play ball and has instead gone on the offensive against the government forces. It believes that taking Kabul would be a cakewalk after it has militarily defeated the Americans. The Taliban leadership has demanded the resignation of the Ashraf Ghani government and the installation of a Taliban-led government. Heavy fighting has been reported with a large number of casualties on both sides.

Also read: The Biden administration will follow the same beaten track of traditional U.S. foreign policy

Three days before the troops withdrawal began, the Taliban attacked a guest house in the south of capital Kabul, killing 27 people. Before that the Taliban was selectively carrying out assassinations of journalists, intellectuals and officials. In the second week of May, a roadside bomb hit a passenger bus in Zabul province, killing more than 10 people. Prior to the Eid festival, the Taliban announced a three-day ceasefire.

In the same week there was a suicide attack in Logar province by the Taliban. Those targeted were students from rural areas, studying for their university entrance examinations. To add to the Ghani government’s problems, militia groups controlled by local warlords have started attacking government forces. When the Taliban was last in power in Kabul, powerful warlords banding under the banner of the Northern Alliance held control over 15 per cent of the country’s territory. Of course, at the time, they had the support of outside powers, including the U.S., Iran and India.

The influence of Daesh

The Daesh remains a force in a few pockets, regularly launching suicide attacks against minority groups. The latest horrific incident allegedly perpetrated by the Daesh occurred at a girls’ school attended by the country’s Shia Hazara minority. Sixty people were killed, the majority of them schoolgirls. The Taliban, however, seems to have ensured that the Daesh does not attack the U.S. forces during their withdrawal stage.

The beleaguered Afghan President, who has not yet reconciled to the fast-paced events taking place in his country, blamed the Taliban “for this massive killing of the people of Afghanistan”. But some top U.S. officials seem to be keen to give the Taliban the benefit of the doubt. They say that once in power the Taliban will have to cooperate with the international community if it wants the country’s war-ravaged economy to be revived. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the media in Washington that the Taliban should come to power only through a legal and political process and not through force of arms “if it wants to be internationally recognised”.

Also read: Afghanistan: Relief for now

Under an agreement the Trump administration signed with the Taliban on February 2020, Washington had committed to progressively remove the international sanctions that were imposed on the Taliban. Washington had also given an undertaking that “it will seek economic cooperation for reconstruction with the new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government”.

The Taliban’s priority

The Taliban leadership has been openly dismissive about coming to power through the ballot box. They describe Western-style democracy as alien to Islamic beliefs and the concept of the emirate. The Taliban has been repeating that its first priority is the re-establishment of the Islamic emirate in Afghanistan. Though the Taliban keeps on insisting that its views about women’s role in Afghan society have evolved, recent statements by some of its top leaders leave room for scepticism.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the group’s deputy chief, said last year that “the only work done under the shadow of occupation, in the name of woman’s rights, is the promotion of immorality and anti-Islamic culture”. Girls constitute 40 per cent of the student population in the country today. Most observers are pessimistic whether such a high rate of enrolment will be possible if the Taliban comes back to power. The Taliban has allowed schools for girls to function in areas under its control on the condition that social sciences and English should not be taught and should be substituted with religious subjects.

Afghanistan’s Eurasian neighbours are cautiously watching the unfolding situation. Their main priority is to ensure that the “jehadi virus” and the drug menace do not explode across their borders. The porous Afghanistan-Tajikistan border has already been fortified. As many as 50,000 Tajik and Russian forces carried out a joint exercise along the border with Afghanistan in April.

In the last week of April, the “extended troika” consisting of the U.S., Russia, China and Pakistan issued a joint statement on the developments in Afghanistan. The statement issued after consultations with the Afghan government and the Taliban emphasised that there should “be no military solution” to end the conflict. The extended troika has said that it is in favour of “an independent, sovereign, unified, peaceful, democratic, neutral and self-sufficient Afghanistan”.

Also read: The U.S. and the Taliban: Collapse of a deal

The Pakistani political and military establishment is no doubt happy with the regaining of its “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. Blinken issued a veiled warning to Islamabad in early May that it should forsake its role as “a free rider” in Afghanistan and start cooperating with the Washington and NATO to ensure an orderly transition of power in that country. “I don’t think that a single neighbour of Afghanistan, including Pakistan, has an interest in the country ending up in a civil war, because that would produce a massive refugee flow to Pakistan,” Blinken told the media. Pakistan has a 1,600-km-long porous border with Afghanistan.

However, Russia and China are deeply suspicious of the U.S. game plan in the region. They fear that radicalised elements such as the Uyghur fighters, currently affiliated with Al Qaeda, will be used to destabilise the region. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has been coming under attack from militant groups for quite some time now. Washington is not happy at the extremely close ties Islamabad has forged with China and now increasingly with Russia. China faces a threat to Xinjiang from the 90-km border it shares with Afghanistan.

In the last month of the Trump presidency, Washington removed the “terrorist” designation against the East Turkestan Islamic Party (ETIP). The U.S. State Department claimed that the group no longer promoted terrorism. Two years ago, the U.S. was actively at war with the ETIP. The goal of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement is to set up a fundamentalist Islamic state in Xinjiang. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson has said that the U.S. action reveals its double standards on counterterrorism and its “repulsive practice of condoning terrorist activities as it sees fit”.

The Indian government is worried that the developments in Afghanistan will put Islamabad in the driving seat in Kabul. It also fears that the Taliban coming back to power will give a fillip to the insurgency in Kashmir. The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s was coterminus with the heightened militancy in the Valley.

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