Image: iStock
Image: iStock

Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw about 7,000 troops from Afghanistan – half of the US forces deployed in the country – has been met with mixed reactions, with many American military officials claiming that the move will plunge the country further into chaos. The reduction is more likely to affect those engaged in training Afghan forces; however, a counterterrorism mission targeting ISIS, Al-Qaeda and other groups is expected to be downsized as well.

Opponents of the troop withdrawal cite statistics illustrating the Taliban’s increasing activity. Indeed, the United States has had a military presence in Afghanistan for 17 years, something that turned into one of the longest wars in American history. And now, the Taliban is gaining momentum while fatalities among Afghan soldiers are growing, amounting to about 50 per day. And this comes at a time when the US military has launched a record number of airstrikes in Afghanistan.

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All these facts prompt us to find a new way of looking at the conflict. Seventeen years of war without any positive change looming on the horizon indicate that there is something wrong with the strategy itself. No matter how many troops are deployed in Afghanistan or how long the US military stays there, fundamental changes and a different approach are needed.

Actually, outgoing Secretary of Defense James Mattis seemed to understand the power of diplomacy as he called the international community to help the United States end the protracted war. To break the deadlock, it is crucial to accept the fact that negotiations with the Taliban are a primary goal. The real work will begin only when the Taliban’s key demand – the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan – is taken into account.

Pakistan takes lead role in peace talks

Hopes have been raised by peace talks held in mid-December in the United Arab Emirates with the participation of the Taliban and the US, as well as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia acting as facilitators. And yet, it is all about whether the withdrawal of US troops will be brought to the negotiation table.

Kh Khalid Farooq, former head of the National Counter-Terrorism Authority of Pakistan, said that the troop withdrawal is the Taliban’s basic condition. However, in his opinion, a token presence may be negotiable temporarily.

“For maintenance of peace after American withdrawal, a contingent by UN peace force can be the answer for 5-10 years,” Farooq told Asia Times.

Pakistan is one of the countries that can play a key role in a peace settlement in Afghanistan as Islamabad has strong leverage with the Taliban. According to Farooq, there are a number of factors contributing to that:

“Pakistan has long-standing relations with Talibans, especially after invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by Soviets, notwithstanding ethnic relations, as almost 40-60% of Pashtuns live in Afghanistan. In Pakistan, at least 20% of its population are Pashtuns. All Talibans are Pashtuns, which is a strong ethnic connection. Being tribal group they give a lot of respect to each other.”

Farooq continued, “Other important factors are that Pakistan, with active support from the USA, gave training, equipment, and financial resources to Talibans during their struggle against the Soviet Union. Resultantly, Talibans took power in Afghanistan after Soviet withdrawal and ruled there from 1996 till 2001 when the US invaded Afghanistan and ousted their rule. Pakistan was the first country to acknowledge their government followed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In this historical perspective, one can understand the influence of Pakistan over Talibans.”

He added that after the US intervention in 2001, some 3 million people migrated to Pakistan. And now, over two million refugees are staying in camps there. According to Farooq, this indicates that Pakistan has sway over the Taliban. However, he has emphasized that the influence is not limitless as the Taliban would not compromise their basic and strategic interests.

“Presently, when Talibans are ruling more than 50% of Afghanistan, their morale is quite high as they have time to their side. They can wait while the US is already wary of this prolonged war. Some thorny issues are there to be sorted out. In this situation, Pakistan can facilitate their dialogue with the US and suggest some of them to show some flexibility. The US has to show more magnanimity towards Pakistan,” Farooq said.

Up to now, the Taliban has been unwilling to hold direct negotiations with the Afghan authorities, labeling them a US puppet and insisting on talks with the American side only

It is worth noting that no official from Kabul attended the Taliban-US talks in the UAE. Up to now, the Taliban has been unwilling to hold direct negotiations with the Afghan authorities, labeling them a US puppet and insisting on talks with the American side only. This has raised concerns in Kabul that the Afghan government could be sidelined in the future peace settlement process.

Kabul’s growing frustration seems to be having implications right now. On December 23, Aghan President Ashraf Ghani appointed new caretakers for the ministries of defense and interior – the former spymaster Assadullah Khaled and former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh. Both of them are viewed as ardent foes of Pakistan and the Taliban. Tellingly, the move came against the backdrop of Islamabad taking a lead role in Abu Dhabi talks. Some experts consider it an attempt to exert pressure on Islamabad. A sort of a last-ditch attempt by the failed Afghan government to retain power.

Commenting on the talks, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted: “Pakistan has helped in the dialogue between the Taliban and the US in Abu Dhabi. Let us pray that this leads to peace and ends almost three decades of suffering of the brave Afghan people.”

Much now depends on the parties to the negotiations. And in that sense, the withdrawal of half of the US troops from Afghanistan will definitely facilitate the peaceful resolution of the conflict, providing a real breakthrough.

Russian journalist Tatiana Kanunnikova is a graduate of the Moscow State Institute of International Affairs.

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