Afghanistan ponders a post-U.S. pull-out

Trump policy confuses; no time-table set for withdrawal

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Afghanistan- As President Donald Trump delivered his State of the Union address in Washington, interest was as keen among those listening in the Middle East as it was among those watching from America’s Midwest. Beyond the usual considerations of foreign policy and the nation’s role in world affairs, the weeks leading up to the annual speech were heavy on the region capped by the debate over the announced US withdrawal of troops from eastern Syria, plans for turning over the fight to the local armies, and a robust debate over the efficacy of abandoning American allies. The armed conflict had run its course, he suggested, and it was time to explore a political solution to a long and bloody conflict.
After all, he opined, “Great nations do not fight endless wars.”
Hardly speaking metaphorically, the tone of the entire discussion was tempered by news of the U.S.
being engaged in peace talks with the Taliban –a revelation whose repercussions are both multi-faceted and impacting. Most disturbed by the development are those who see any alliance such as the tentative rapprochement between the US and Taliban as being a prescription for terror and a breach of long- term assurances from Washington.
Most shaken by the revelation is Afghani President Ashraf Ghani, who sees the Americans negotiating with the Taliban with no room for the Afghanistan government but more trouble for the unpopular leader whose tenure is already tenuous. Many believe he will not be able to maintain his position for long.
Tenuous, too, is the impact withdrawing the 14,000 American military personnel the United States sent as part of a NATO mandate. Usman Danish Yar, a former senior Afghan Intelligence official living in exile, told The Media Line that no doubt the Taliban has strengthened its grip over the past three years, the Kabul government now controlling just 45 percent of Afghanistan, down from 72 percent in 2015.
Afghan forces have been suffering unsustainable casualties since NATO pulled its combat forces from the country in 2014, President Ghani placing the security forces’ casualty rate at 28,000 killed since that time.
The Taliban’s first significant direct contact with Afghan political leadership came after eighteen years of war.
Michael Kugelman, the Asia Program Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center Washington, told The Media Line in an exclusive interview that President Trump's comments about Afghanistan and the Taliban were quite conciliatory and indicated his strong desire to seek a peace deal.
Kugelman said that Russia's involvement in the peace process may be helpful if it can truly spark an intra-Afghan reconciliation process. The problem is that so far it has led more of a parallel process than a helpful process because the Afghan government has not been at these Moscow-led talks.
The major challenge to the United States is to broker a deal. Pundits like Kugelman fear that a semblance of an agreement with the Taliban will be announced but the Taliban will begin to renege on its commitments once the US begins to withdraw its forces. Some believe the chances the U.S. would reverse direction and return to Afghanistan are unlikely at best.
Nevertheless, the declaration that came out of the Moscow talks with a mandate for all parties to work for peace included an expression of full support for the United States-Taliban peace talks in Doha. The declaration mainly focuses on withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan and removal of the names of Taliban leaders from the UN-US sanctions lists.
The final statement proposed no timeline for the withdrawal of American forces, but the Taliban to protect citizens’ fundamental rights including women’s rights in the areas of education, work, and health in accordance with the Islamic principles.
A report by the Russian news agency Sputnik that the United States had promised to withdraw half of its troops from Afghanistan by the end of April was denied by an American spokesman. The denial was confirmed to The Media Line by Taliban spokesman in Doha Suhail Shaheen.
US diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad also confirmed the absence of a time table.
Fazil Fazli, the adviser-in-chief to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, told The Media Line that the Afghan politicians are damaging the values of the country.
On February 5, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with Ghani and reaffirmed the American commitment to a lasting peace in Afghanistan.
According to a State Department statement, Pompeo emphasized the importance of intra-Afghan dialogue and the role of a cease fire in ending the violence and creating the conditions for the Afghan government, other Afghan leaders and the Taliban to sit together and negotiate a political settlement.
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