As US President Donald Trump chalks up his measly legacy in the White House, he is bound to scrape the bottom of the barrel. He still has a legacy readily available through an executive decision by withdrawing the US troops in Afghanistan.
The recent shuffle of the Pentagon top brass was indicative of Trump’s determination to force his will on reluctant military commanders to comply with his order to withdraw troops before Christmas.
National Public Radio (NPR) has reported, quoting US officials, that Trump’s drawdown order reduces the American presence in Afghanistan by about one third, from 4,500 troops to 2,500.
The Pentagon has already issued a notice to commanders, known as a “warning order,” to begin planning to draw down the number of troops in that country.
Former defense secretary Mark Esper had sent a classified memo this month to the White House asserting that it was the unanimous recommendation of the “chain of command” – Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, US Central Command leader Marine General Kenneth McKenzie and the commander of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, General Austin Miller – that it would be injudicious to withdraw troops from Afghanistan at this point.
Esper reportedly argued that the peace talks at Doha had stalled, the Taliban had stepped up attacks and there was no clarity yet about the Taliban’s willingness to delink from al-Qaeda.
But an irate Trump fired him and put in place his loyalists at the Pentagon.
However, the drawdown does not mean the “endless war” in Afghanistan is really ending. The US military commanders, in cohort with politicians, are playing a game whereby they will carry out the commander-in-chief’s order like any disciplined army, but with a Plan B that will unfold shortly.
Fundamentally, the contradiction lies here: Pentagon top brass are far from through with the 19-year-old Afghan war. They never saw it quite the way Trump sees it – an “endless war” – because they still think they can win it and realize their key objectives.
In fact, some among them likely still think they could have won the Vietnam War if only the Pentagon had had a free hand.
When the presidency of George W Bush ended and Barack Obama took over in 2009, the war in Afghanistan could have ended. Candidate Obama was vociferous about the futility of the war.
But the military commanders could anticipate that America’s first black president was a babe in the woods in the Beltway, as his invitation to Robert Gates to continue as his defense secretary loudly proclaimed.
They sized up Obama as indecisive and weak and believed they could change his mind. And they were proved right. They actually got him to approve the “Afghan surge,” which of course was projected persuasively as one last good push to defeat the Taliban conclusively.
That push continued for the next seven years under Obama. As luck would have it, in his second term, Obama also picked Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state, who was of course the darling of the military-industrial complex.
To cut a long story short, Obama finally handed over the war intact to his successor Donald Trump.
The military commanders again were lucky, as Trump, although a white American, was a rank outsider to the US establishment. From day 1, he was at loggerheads with the Deep State, the political class, the entire Washington establishment and the media.
Besides, his limited attention span and plain laziness, his preoccupations with the “Russia collusion” inquiry, impeachment, entanglement with China and, finally, the Covid-19 – it became a presidency on a roller-coaster.
Trump didn’t persevere – he was never “hands-on” – when it came to the Afghan war. He never once phoned Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, let alone received him in the Oval Office.
The military commanders could brilliantly string along Trump. They simply exhausted him in a waiting game right up to the home stretch of his four-year term.
Now the military commanders are getting ready for a new president who is probably as close to their heart, as good as George W Bush.
As vice-president, Biden was a regular visitor to Afghanistan. He once said in the presence of then-president Hamid Karzai: “We are not leaving in 2014. Hopefully, we will have totally turned over [security responsibilities] to the Afghan security forces to maintain security in the country.
“But we are not leaving, if you don’t want us to leave. And we plan on continuing to work with you, and it’s in the mutual self-interest of both our nations.”
To be sure, Biden too has spoken out against “forever wars.” He wrote in Foreign Affairs this year: “It is past time to end the forever wars, which have cost the US untold blood and treasure. As I have long argued, we should bring the vast majority of our troops home from the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East and narrowly define our mission as defeating al-Qaeda and Daesh.”
But then, Obama was far more passionate than Biden. The point is, while Trump wants all troops to return home by Christmas, Biden has said he would consider keeping a small counter-terrorism force there.
“I support drawing down the troops. But here’s the problem, we still have to worry about terrorism and [Islamic State],” Biden told Stars and Stripes in an interview in September.
This is all that the Pentagon commanders want for the present. They are aware that Biden will have little time for foreign policy, as his focus will be on the Covid-19 pandemic, economic recovery and climate change, apart from the countless issues tearing apart American society ranging from race to gun control to policing and health care.
Importantly, the military commanders are confident they can count on the Republican Senate if push comes to shove. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reacted tactfully to Trump’s decision.
The veteran senator will not lock horns with Trump, who is by far the most popular Republican president since Ronald Reagan. So McConnell simply took a detour to warn of the potential ramifications of a rapid withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan.
In a speech from the Senate floor on Monday, McConnell said: “We’re playing a limited – limited – but important role in defending American national security and American interests against terrorists who would like nothing more than for the most powerful force for good in the world to simply pick up our ball and go home.
“There’s no American who does not wish the war in Afghanistan against terrorists and their enablers had already been conclusively won. But that does not change the actual choice before us now. A rapid withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan now would hurt our allies and delight – delight – the people who wish us harm.”
What we can expect now is that the military commanders will hunker down with the 2,500 troops in Afghanistan until Trump leaves. And then they will re-create a very good case for another “surge.” It isn’t difficult to do that.
The presence of Islamic State (ISIS) provides just the alibi needed to justify a counter-insurgency operation. Meanwhile, despite Trump’s drawdown, the US air attacks against the Taliban will continue – maybe even intensify.
That could be staged from bases within Afghanistan or from any of the numerous bases under the Central Command in the Persian Gulf region.
At some point, conceivably, the Taliban may find it hard to take the US-Afghan military onslaught any more. We may, therefore, expect a horrific cycle of violence resuming all over again.
That is why the Taliban have called on Biden to stick to the Doha pact’s timeline and withdraw US troops. “The Islamic Emirate would like to stress to the new American president-elect and future administration that implementation of the [Doha] agreement is the most reasonable and effective tool for ending the conflict between both our countries,” the Taliban said in a statement.
To be sure, the Pentagon commanders visualize the Afghan war roaring back to life. The war has been the first out-of-area operation for the North Atlantic Organization and is an irrevocable step toward projecting the alliance as a global security organization.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has voiced support for the Pentagon, saying: “The price for leaving the region too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high.”
A regional and international congruence of interests will involve many parties in the US – the Pentagon and right-wing opinion, which is still wedded to a Cold War mindset; America’s military-industrial complex; national-security strategists who see Russia and China as “revisionist powers” and place primacy on the United States’ global hegemony; NATO’s “corporate” interests, being an alliance in search of a post-Cold War raison d’être; the Afghan war lobby and war profiteers and the anti-Taliban groups – and, of course, some regional states for which Afghanistan has become a turf for the pursuit of their agenda in regional politics.
An open-ended US/NATO military presence in Afghanistan in some form for a foreseeable future is inevitable under these circumstances. The challenge on the diplomatic plane for the US lies in getting Pakistan and the Taliban to accept the Western notion of a “broad-based” government in Kabul.
Most certainly, under Biden, the prospect of a Taliban-dominated government in Afghanistan will not be acceptable to the US and its Western allies.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.