Why Trump’s Afghanistan drawdown decision shocked many

By: Asif Durrani

Many were shocked when US President Trump announced to cut down the strength of the US troops in Afghanistan to half. The reason this decision shocked many was because Trump’s Special Envoy on Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad was in the middle of holding preliminary talks with the regional countries and planning on future talks with the Taliban. Still, there is opposition in the US Defence Department for an abrupt withdrawal as its officials would plead for a gradualist approach in order to seek a negotiated settlement between Afghan stakeholders. It is not clear whether drawdown is a confidence building measure aimed at the Taliban or an impulsive decision of President Trump. Nevertheless, the decision would have sent a wave of jubilation among the Taliban ranks who are now “acknowledged” by the US as important stakeholders in the peace process.

A drawdown from Afghanistan would roughly save the US around US$ 20 billion, while a complete withdrawal is likely to save an average of US$ 45 billion per annum. However, if cutting cost is the only or prime motive of drawdown then Afghanistan and the region should brace for hard days ahead. However, the issue at hand is not that of costs, rather the future of a country that the US invaded in 2001 and argued that its intervention was for the “greater good” of not only Afghanistan, but also the rest of the world.

Trump’s decision carries different dimensions for different stakeholders involved in the conflict.

In both short and long term, the Taliban would emerge as immediate beneficiaries and arbiters of the country’s affairs. Such a situation would also irk Ashraf Ghani led National Unity Government (NUG), which is not happy with Trump’s decision.  This is why, sudden appointment of Asadullah Khalid and Amrullah Saleh as Defence and Interior ministers, respectively, is also an expression of annoyance by President Ghani.

It is widely known that both, Saleh and Khalid hold anti-Pakistan bias and have been receiving financial support from India for long. Politically, both gentlemen are light-weights and would be ineffective to influence the outcome of the future dialogue between the Americans and Taliban although being loud mouths they may try to play spoilers’ role. These appointments also somewhat indicate the line that President Ghani might take regarding Pakistan in the near future.

In terms of the US responsibility, it would be naïve on the part of any American President or officials to infer that their disengagement from Afghanistan would a “smooth affair”.  Let’s hope that the US does not repeat the mistakes of early nineties, when it abruptly left Afghanistan soon after the Soviet withdrawal from the country. Hence, the resultant chaos in Afghanistan culminated into 9/11. Moreover, the US withdrawal is a scenario which may spell disaster for Afghanistan if not handled with utmost care. Hence, it is the utmost duty of all stakeholders involved to ensure a productive intra-Afghan peace dialogue progresses smoothly.  

Pakistan has maintained a cautious approach while facilitating the dialogue between the US and Taliban. Moreover, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood’s visits to Iran, China and Russia soon after President Trump’s announcement of drawdown, also suggests a shift in Pakistan’s foreign policy. This shows Pakistan placing importance on neighbors of Afghanistan to ensure a sustainable solution of the Afghan war.  

On the other hand, Afghanistan’s NUG must realise that they are not a monolith to attract the people or effectively counter the Taliban. Secondly, so far, they have enjoyed the protection of the Americans which baptized them as “moderates, progressives and democrats”. Afghanistan even had presidential and parliamentary elections under the American protection. However, it is also a ground reality that Afghanistan, being a tribal society, is far from achieving the status of a “modern democracy”. In terms of conservative credentials there is hardly a difference between the Taliban and NUG affiliates; the only difference that distinguishes NUG with Taliban is that the former enjoys the ears of the Americans while the latter are on the other side of the fence. After all, before the 9/11 attacks, USA was negotiating gas supply to India and Pakistan, through Turkmenistan, with the Taliban.

Trump’s decision of drawdown from Afghanistan raises many concerns. The question is whether the Taliban would give assurances to the Americans and the world that Afghanistan would not be allowed to become a sanctuary for Al-Qaida or Daesh/ISIS. It is obvious that Ghani led NUG lacks capacity or motivation to offer such assurances. On the other hand, Taliban control 50% of the country and contest another 20%, and are in a better position to counter Al-Qaida and Deash/ISIS threat. Recently, Taliban have been clashing with Daesh cells in eastern Afghanistan. Taliban have also indicated in the Moscow Conference, on 9th November, that they did not wish to interfere in internal matters of other states.  

However, for the neighbors of Afghanistan the crucial question would be the establishment of peace and stability in the war-torn country, for a chaotic Afghanistan would continue to be a source of instability and tensions for the entire region. Therefore, all stakeholders whether Afghans or neighbors of Afghanistan should collectively contribute for peace in a country which has witnessed never ending chaos.

The writer is a former ambassador

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