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CWA # 469, 9 May 2021

Afghanistan 
The US decision to withdraw is a call made too early. Three reasons why

  Abigail Miriam Fernandez

Although continuing the US deployment will not alter the realities in Afghanistan, the decision was made too early

On 14 April, President Joe Biden announced that "it is time to end the forever war", saying that he would withdraw the remaining US troops in Afghanistan by 11 September as it has accomplished its main mission of denying terrorists a haven in the country. He said, "War in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multigenerational undertaking," adding, "We were attacked. We went to war with clear goals. We achieved those objectives," adding, "So, in keeping with that agreement and with our national interests, the United States will begin our final withdrawal – begin it on 1 May of this year." Biden suggested that other objectives of their mission in Afghanistan, included building a stable democracy, eradicating corruption and the drug trade, assuring an education for girls and opportunity for women, and, in the end, creating leverage to force the Taliban into peace negotiations were all noble. However, he said, "We delivered justice to bin Laden a decade ago," he said "And we've stayed in Afghanistan for a decade since. Since then, our reasons for remaining Afghanistan have become increasingly unclear."

Biden stated that the withdrawal would be made responsibly and in full coordination with the country's allies, assuring that their diplomatic and humanitarian work continues. However, Biden is the first president to have rejected the Pentagon's recommendations of a "conditions based' withdrawal, which meant that security would have to be assured on the ground before Americans pulled back. Meanwhile, in response, President Ashraf Ghani, after holding a telephone call with Biden, said that Afghanistan respects the US decision to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan.

On 15 April, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Afghan leaders in Kabul to discuss the troop withdrawal. He said, "We never intended to have a permanent military presence here. Threat from Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is significantly degraded," adding, "The United States will honour its commitments to the government and people of Afghanistan." In response, Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah said, "Thank you...you have been with us--in the past 20 years especially--you have made tremendous contributions and sacrifices alongside our own people, and we are grateful and thank you for your support of peace."

After Biden's announcement, North Atlantic Treaty Organization chief Jens Stoltenberg announced that the full withdrawal would be completed "within a few months" to match Biden's announcement. He said, "We went into Afghanistan together, we have adjusted our posture together, and we are united in leaving together." Further, he stated that "This is not an easy decision, and this is a decision that contains risks and a decision that requires that we continue to stay focused on Afghanistan," adding, "This is not an end, but the beginning of a new way of dealing with Afghanistan." Presently, there are around 7,000 non-US NATO troops currently in Afghanistan.

Three reasons why the withdrawal announcement is too early
Over the past few years, successive administrations have contemplated and worked towards withdrawing their forces from Afghanistan. The culmination was the signing of the US-Taliban agreement in 2020, in which the conditions aimed at bringing peace in Afghanistan and the withdrawal of troops by 1 May 2021 was laid down. However, an unconditional US troop withdrawal goes against this agreement where the US promised a withdrawal only after several conditions were met. Yet these have not been met. The Taliban, according to the UN and US government, has not cut ties to al Qaeda, has not engaged seriously in the intra-Afghan peace process, and has not reduced violence against Afghan forces. Thus, deferring from the agreement. Thus, the Biden administration's decision for troop withdrawal is a call made too early. Here are three reasons why.

First, the nascent stage of the Afghan negotiations. Both the ongoing intra- Afghan negotiations and the new initiative for negotiations have been stalled due to the Taliban's absence and participation. As agreed, the Taliban was to engage proactively in these negotiations; however, they have been using stalling tactics rather than cooperating. With the announcement of withdrawal, diplomatic efforts without the leverage of troop presence are unlikely to result in success because the Taliban will believe they hold all the cards in talks with the Afghan government. This is detrimental to the ongoing negotiations that are far from attaining any positive breakthroughs.

Second, the continuing surge in violence. Over the last year, violence continues to go unabated, hinting that the call for withdrawal might be early. In the six months between October 2020 and March 2021, United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) recorded a 38 per cent increase in civilian casualties compared with the same period in 2020. It attributed the surge in violence to both the Afghan army and the Taliban, with the Taliban responsible for 43.5 per cent of all civilian casualties and the Afghan national army responsible for 17 per cent. Further, the Taliban's commitment to reducing violence is a promise made solely to the US itself, not to the Afghan government, with the troop leaving, the leave the Taliban obligated to no one. Additionally, the argument that the Taliban has cut ties to al Qaeda remains debatable. According to UN and Afghan officials and former Taliban members, there is active coordination between the two groups, despite the Taliban's commitment to sever ties with the group.

Third, the ability of the Afghan defence forces. Ghani claims that the Afghan commandos, special forces and air force "have trained among the best, they are among the best in the region, as long as this force stays, there is no risk of state collapse," however, with the support of all foreign troops coming to an end, it is likely that the Afghan forces alone with not be able to counter the fallouts of withdrawal even though the government claims otherwise. Reiterating the same, Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, head of US Central Command said, "My concern is the ability of the Afghan military to hold the ground that they're on now without the support that they've been used to for many years." Although Afghanistan's security and defence were passed on to the Afghan National Security Forces in 2015, the US military presence acted as a safety net and served as a deterrent against the Taliban. Thus, although Biden promised to maintain the financial support and consultancy services, it will not be sufficient for the security and defence of Afghanistan. Further, CIA Director William Burns warned the Senate Intelligence Committee that the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan would weaken the US's ability to gather intelligence and take action against fundamentalist threats. 
In conclusions, the issue here is not about the troop withdrawal but the question of timing. With US and NATO troops moving out together, the Taliban have no incentive to compromise. Further, the probability of instability being retriggered in the country with the foreign troops' withdrawal remains high and if there we such an untoward situation, over-the-horizon counterterrorism is unlikely to be of any use. Thus, it is how the US is leaving that enhances the prospects for instability in Afghanistan.

Further, the Taliban will continue to remain aloof to the negotiations unless there's substantial international pressure, one of which came through the presence of troops in Afghanistan. Efforts without the leverage of troop presence are highly unlikely to result in success, because the Taliban will believe they hold all the cards in talks with the Afghan government, highlighting that while other actors are being flexible, the Taliban choose not to take the high road.  

This commentary is an expanded version of a TWTW note on "Afghanistan: The US and NATO decide to withdraw; Ghani accepts it, " 18 April 2021.  


About the author
Abigail Miriam Fernandez Research Associate at the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. Her areas of interest include peace and conflict in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Caucasus. As a part of her research focus at 'Pakistan Reader' she looks at issues relating to gender, minorities and ethnic movements.

 

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