How Washington can now support Afghanistan
The terrible impasse in Afghanistan continues to evolve into something more violent and complex. This is happening despite coordinated attempts by NATO, the EU, and the US.
Towards the end of the third week of December last year, CNN and the Wall Street Journal both reported that the US military had been ordered by the US administration to begin planning to withdraw about half their troops in Afghanistan.
It would be fit to recall here that President Trump has long been critical of the US presence in Afghanistan, which began after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Since his election, the president has made his frustration with the continued military presence clear.
Analysts in this context have noted that although the planning was initiated in this regard, it could take months to withdraw the nearly 7,000 troops. This decision was made at the same time as President Trump’s decision to withdraw the US military from Syria -- moves that precipitated Defense Secretary James Mattis’ subsequent resignation.
It would be important to note here that General John Allen, a former commander of NATO and US forces in Afghanistan, has reacted to this scenario by telling CNN that a drawdown in Afghanistan would be a mistake, and might create “chaos in the strategy.”
Any withdrawal would also be complicated by the fact that the US is part of NATO’s resolute support mission. US law-makers have echoed Allen’s concern about a hasty departure. The evolving equation searching for lasting peace in Afghanistan has moved forward, and then fallen back to square one.
It has been like a snail climbing a greased pole.
While the Taliban has been unable to take major cities or towns, the Afghan security forces, despite receiving US support, are also still unable to put an end to the insurgency. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has recently announced that about 29,000 Afghan soldiers and police had been killed or wounded since 2015. US casualties during that same period have declined sharply, as American soldiers largely shifted away from direct combat.
This sudden decision on the part of Trump will make Zalmay Khalilzad’s job as the US special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation more difficult. He has been eager to wind down the war and has facilitated several high-level meetings between senior US officials and Taliban representatives. That has included an encouraging exchange in the UAE in early December 2018.
He subsequently mentioned that the Taliban now realize that they cannot defeat the US but need to sit in a dialogue not only with the US, but also with the Afghan government and resolve the issues through political means.
This was seen as significant because the Taliban representation included the head of its political office and chief of staff to supreme leader Mullah Akhundzada.
Some other observers have pointed out that the Taliban had previously said it may be open to formal talks with the Afghan government to end the war once Washington commits to troop withdrawals. Consequently, they are asking that Trump’s decision should be seen as an opening to launch a peace process.
It may be added here that ever since US forces expelled the Taliban from power in 2001, the group has denounced Afghan governments as illegitimate and puppets of Washington. The Taliban also argues that such crude characterizations apply particularly well to the present Afghan administration -- a national unity government that is the product of a US-led negotiation and not an election.
This was achieved after Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential election which ended inconclusively and required the direct intervention US Secretary of State John Kerry. He hammered out a power-sharing deal between the two top vote-getters -- Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah -- who lead the current government.
Matters regarding reconciliation have turned for the worse since the end of December. The Taliban is now refusing to hold formal talks with the “Western-backed” Afghan government. They have instead indicated that they “will meet the US officials in Saudi Arabia in January 2019 and will start talks that remained incomplete in Abu Dhabi.” The armed group has insisted on first reaching an agreement with the US.
Observers from the print and electronic media have in the meantime noted that officials from the warring sides have already met at least three times to discuss the withdrawal of international forces and a ceasefire in 2019.
So the question that is now being asked is what Washington can do to pick up the crumbling pieces and put things together. It is being suggested that the first step should be directed towards damage control. Top US officials should assure Kabul that despite imminent troop reductions, they are not going to abandon Afghanistan.
The US should emphasize that it will continue to provide critical funding to Afghan security forces and to support efforts to expand the Afghan Special Forces, the crown jewel of Afghanistan’s army which is badly suffering from overexertion. Such measures might be able to ease Afghan concerns about US abandonment and limit the Taliban’s potential battlefield gains following US troop departures.
The US and NATO leaderships along with the EU should, if and when contacts with the Taliban resume, focus on getting the Taliban to formally renounce ties with the al-Qaeda. This step might then reassure civilians in Afghanistan who fear that Afghanistan will revert to an international terrorism sanctuary in the event of a US withdrawal.
Pakistan can be very useful in this regard. Washington should press Islamabad, which enjoys extensive influence over the insurgents, to take up the al-Qaeda issue with the Taliban, and also enlist key regional actors Russia, Iran, and China in this campaign. These four countries might not be able to get along with Washington, but they also have no interest in Afghanistan reverting to an al-Qaeda sanctuary.
Lastly, Washington should extend its full support to the forthcoming Afghan presidential elections that has now been delayed until July 20 this year. The Afghan authorities will need security, technological, and logistical support to ensure the poll is credible. That might then persuade the Taliban to sit down with an Afghan government which has been elected to office.
Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance.