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

The U.S. is supposed to withdraw its troops in Afghanistan by May 1, but the Biden administration is keen to involve neighbouring countries in a diplomatic push to find a peaceful solution in the country.

Published : Mar 31, 2021 06:00 IST

U.S. soldiers   at an Afghan National Army base in Logar province in August 2018.

U.S. soldiers at an Afghan National Army base in Logar province in August 2018.

I n accordance with the Afghan peace agreement signed in 2020, the United States occupation forces are supposed to be exiting that country by the beginning of May this year. On the campaign trail, President Joseph Biden had committed to ending the U.S.’ longest running war. As Vice President, he had advised against the U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan that President Barack Obama ordered. Obama had described the war in Afghanistan as the “good war” as opposed to the war in Iraq. However, at the end of the Obama presidency, the U.S. had withdrawn most of its troops from Afghanistan. The Biden administration seems to be committed to withdrawing the remaining troops from the country, but it is to be seen whether Washington will be able to stick to the May 1 deadline the Trump administration had announced.

The Afghan Study Group, a bipartisan panel appointed by the U.S. Congress, recommended in the first week of February that the withdrawal date for the U.S. troops from Afghanistan should be reconsidered. “It is not in anyone’s best interests right now for precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan,” said Gen. Robert Dunford, who leads the panel. Dunford is former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. The panel recommended that Washington should involve Afghanistan’s neighbours in the new diplomatic push to find a peaceful solution. The report, however, acknowledged that none of Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours wanted a long-term continuation of the U.S. military presence in the region. At the same time, Afghanistan’s neighbours believe that a hasty U.S. troops withdrawal would lead to chaos and wider regional instability.

With the intra-Afghan peace talks in Doha between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban going nowhere, the Biden administration is seeking to internationalise the Afghan peace process. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has proposed a series of conferences on Afghanistan in the coming two months. The first two will be held in Russia and Turkey. A separate meeting on Afghanistan will be convened by the United Nations in which, besides the U.S., the invitees would be Pakistan, Iran, India, China and Russia. Except India, all other countries invited for the meeting have established contacts with the Taliban.

Also read: The forgotten war of Afghanistan

Russia and Pakistan have also hosted meetings attended by representatives of both the Afghan government and the Taliban in the past. India is conspicuously not among the invitees, which include the U.S., Pakistan, Iran and China, at the meeting to be convened in Moscow.

The Biden administration has said that it wants “a unified approach to supporting peace in Afghanistan” and wants an interim government to be formed in the country within the next three months. At the 2020 Doha conference the Taliban tentatively agreed to the formation of an interim government but now seems to have second thoughts as it has made big military and political gains in the last one year. Also on the table is the proposal for the drafting of a new Constitution acceptable to all sides and for doing the spadework for a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire in the war-torn country. It will be a difficult goal to achieve within the short period proposed by the Americans in a war-torn country like Afghanistan.

Biden has retained Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S.’ point man in Afghanistan, who was first appointed by Trump, as the “peace envoy”. He has been busy meeting Afghan government officials and the Taliban in recent weeks to outline Washington’s policy options as U.S. troops prepare to leave. Khalilzad has kept the Indian and Pakistani leadership in the loop about his discussions with the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Blinken’s letter

Blinken, in a letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in early March, strongly signalled that the Biden administration was losing patience with the government in Kabul. Blinken’s letter, notable for its hectoring tone, requested “urgent leadership” from Ghani with regard to the situation in Afghanistan.

The Afghan President had reservations about the 2020 Doha agreement. At Doha, Washington conceded the Taliban’s key demands, including the release of 7,000 of its fighters from prison, in order to fulfil one of the major campaign promises Donald Trump had made in 2016—to bring closure to U.S.’ “never ending” wars in the region. Ghani had made his opposition to power sharing with the Taliban also abundantly clear, fully realising that it would be the end of the road for him politically as he starts his second five-year term in office. The Taliban, too, is not too keen on that.

Also read: A war that never ends

“We are considering the full withdrawal of our forces by May 1 as we consider other options,” Blinken wrote in his letter to Ghani. “Even with the continuation of financial assistance from the United States to your forces after the American military withdrawal, I am concerned that the security situation will worsen and that the Taliban could make rapid territorial gains.”

Despite the letter’s threatening tone, the Biden administration was only “considering” the withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Among Blinken’s other important proposals is the holding of elections after the formation of a transitional government. The Taliban has not been supportive of the very concept of election, describing it as a divisive exercise being forced on the country by the West. The U.S. proposals also talk of constitutionally ensuring the rights of women and religious minorities in the country.

The Taliban continues to swear by the Sharia, which, it says, protects the rights of women and minorities. Its spokesmen has been saying that the bad old days when girls were not allowed to go to school and when religious and ethnic minorities were discriminated against will never return. But most Afghans and the international community are sceptical of the Taliban’s promises and its protestations that it has turned over a new leaf.

All the same, the Americans have themselves proposed the setting up of a High Council of Islamic Jurisprudence that would help an independent judiciary to resolve issues relating to the interpretation of Sharia law. In the latest plan proposed by Khalilzad to the Afghan government and the Taliban, the U.S. has acknowledged the importance of “Islamic values” in Afghan society.

Also read: U.S. troops' about-turn

In the power-sharing formula the U.S. has proposed, the Kabul government and the Taliban will have seven members each on the 15-member “High Council”. The Afghan President will have the power to nominate the fifteenth member. A similar formula has been suggested for the drafting of a new Constitution and drawing up the terms for a permanent ceasefire.

The U.S. wants the Taliban to remove “their military structures and personnel from neighbouring countries”. The only country that has provided sanctuary to Taliban fighters and its leadership is Pakistan. Most observers of the region are of the opinion that the Taliban and the military establishment in Pakistan will not agree to all of the U.S. proposals.

The Biden administration has already criticised the Taliban for not living up to its commitments in Doha about scaling down its violent campaign and has accused the group of continuing to have ties with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (Daesh). The Taliban may still have a soft spot for Al Qaeda, but it has pledged that Afghan territory will not be allowed to be used for either the planning or staging of attacks on third countries. It is evident that the Daesh and the Taliban are at daggers drawn. In some instances, the Taliban and the Americans have cooperated in the fight against the Daesh. The Daesh has established a presence in some parts of the country and has been responsible for the spate of terror attacks on Afghan civilians.

Also read: Escalating the Afghan war

Since the Doha peace accord in February last year, the Taliban has made even more gains on the ground, and the fighting rages on. Ghani has blamed the Taliban for a series of targeted assassinations of senior government and army officials and their families. The talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government have faltered, with both sides reluctant to seriously engage with each other. In his letter to Ghani, Blinken said that the U.S., despite the lack of progress in the negotiations between the Kabul government and the Taliban, proposed to “move matters more fundamentally and quickly towards a settlement and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire” in Afghanistan.

The Biden administration has given Ghani a virtual ultimatum either to follow Washington’s diktat or get out of the way. As it is, the Afghan army is on the defensive, having ceded further ground to the Taliban. The Taliban has encircled key cities such as Kunduz and Kandahar and is poised to pounce as soon as the U.S. occupation forces leave the country. Even as the Afghan soldiers are dying and Ghani’s supporters are being targeted with virtual impunity by the Taliban, the Americans are insisting that he immediately start sharing power with it.

The Taliban has carefully desisted from targeting American and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) troops after the Doha agreement. The annual report of the U.N. Mission to Afghanistan, released in February, revealed a sharp rise in casualties in the last three months of 2020. Most of the blame for the casualties was ascribed to the Taliban. If the Americans do not leave by the middle of the year and a transitional government is not set up by then, the Taliban will launch its annual “spring offensive”. This time it could go for the jugular given the weakened state of the Afghan army and the increasing reluctance of the U.S. to stay on and fight in Afghanistan.

International mediation

An internationally mediated agreement involving the countries of the region may have a more successful outcome than the Doha process, which has been going on for more than two and a half years. Only three parties have been involved in Doha—the U.S., the Afghan government and the Taliban; the U.S. has basically been acting as the via media between the Taliban and the Kabul government. Both the Afghan government and the Taliban seem to prefer an internationally mediated peace agreement than one imposed on them by Washington. The Taliban, too, has said that the U.S. has not kept many of the commitments made in Doha, including the delay in withdrawing troops from the country. In February, the Taliban released a letter demanding the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

Also read: Military quagmire in Afghanistan

The Afghan government is preparing to send a high-profile delegation to Turkey for the peace conference scheduled for April. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is expected to attend the conference, has said that the latest proposals by the U.S. provide the best chance “to accelerate the peace process”. Karzai said that the Afghans themselves were “in a hurry for peace”.

Before the Turkey conference, there will be the two other scheduled meetings related to Afghanistan. The U.N. will convene a meeting of Foreign Ministers from the U.S., Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran and India to kick-start the international efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Afghan conflict. This will be followed by a conference in Moscow convened by Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov. The “enlarged Troika” group consisting of Russia, China, the U.S. and Pakistan will attend this meeting. Moscow has said that it is in favour of the Taliban being included in an “interim” government. Moscow and Washington seem to be on the same page at least as far as Afghanistan is concerned at the present juncture.

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