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Troop Withdrawal from Afghanistan remains an Uphill Battle

Mar 07, 2019
  • Wu Zhenglong

    Senior Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

The Taliban announced on February 13th that the latest round of talks with US delegates would take place in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, on February 18th, instead of in Kabul on the 25th as previously scheduled.

A month ago, the two sides held talks in Doha covering the whole spectrum of the agenda, such as US troop withdrawal, internal dialogues, and cease-fire agreement. US Special Envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad said substantial progress had been made in the talks and “agreements in principle” had been reached.

According to people with knowledge of the matter, the interlocutors had reached agreement on troop withdrawal 18 months after the completion of the peace agreement. President Trump said that “For the first time, they're talking about settling, they're talking about making an agreement, and we bring our people back home if that happens.”

It was 18 years ago that the US launched the war in Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The war has become the longest running and most costly war in US history. For President Trump, it is high on his agenda to fulfill his election promise of early troop withdrawal from the country by directly engaging with the Taliban. As a result, he is paving the way for his reelection campaign.

Though neither side has unveiled the terms of the framework agreement, telltale signals indicate that the outcome is not yet foregone conclusion.

Both sides stand their ground. The Taliban insists that troop withdrawal must precede an arrangement to talk with the Afghanistan government, while the US suggests that internal dialogue and ceasefire must happen before troop withdrawal. The points of contention include whether troop should leave first, or if internal dialogues should be held first. Another point is whether a ceasefire between the Taliban and the Afghani government should take place before a ceasefire happens between the Taliban and the US. Years of negotiations have yielded no conclusion.

This round of talks saw no breakthrough. One new development is that the Taliban pledged that Afghanistan territory would not be used as a launching pad for terrorist attacks. The “America First” policy dictates that the US would also tie this issue with troop withdrawal. Internal dialogue and ceasefire only come second.

On the part of Taliban, it may capitalize on US penchant for early troop withdrawal to its own advantage. US media reports that as long as the Taliban agrees to a ceasefire and communicates directly with the Afghani government, US troops would completely withdraw from the area.

In the event of a complete withdrawal of US troops, it is likely that Taliban could stage a comeback. On the battleground, the Taliban is on the offensive, while the government force is on the defensive. The Taliban continues to stand strong in spite of US military offensives and mount attacks against Afghani government forces. The possibility of full-blown civil war, or even a power grab, remains high when considering a withdrawal of US troops.

Nevertheless, NATO and the wider network of US allies are not supportive of the President Trump’s plan, and some have even made an outright stand against troop withdrawal. The Afghan President’s office said that the US envoy didn’t touch on a transitional government arrangement, as that his focus is on brokering internal dialogues.

The US Senate passed an amendment opposing President Donald Trump’s plans for a quick withdrawal of forces, on the grounds that the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda remain a severe security threat. The void left behind would enable the reassembling of terrorist and militant forces, derailing and disrupting plans for regional peace and security. That view was born out by testimonies given by US intelligence officials, which stood in stark contrast to President Trump’s own assertions.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg made it clear that NATO would not stay one minute more than it was necessary, but so far, peaceful settlement calls for multinational military presence. Talks between the US and the Taliban ended in business-as-usual due to long standing constraints. The issue simply defies a breakthrough occurring at one fell swoop. It takes patient efforts throughout the course toward peace.

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