US faces withdrawal dilemma in Afghanistan

In a photo taken on Aug 27, 2017, US Marines keep watch as unseen Afghan National Army soldiers participate in an improvised explosive device training exercise at the Shorab Military Camp in Lashkar Gah, in the Afghan province of Helmand.
In a photo taken on Aug 27, 2017, US Marines keep watch as unseen Afghan National Army soldiers participate in an improvised explosive device training exercise at the Shorab Military Camp in Lashkar Gah, in the Afghan province of Helmand.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - America's longest war may officially end soon, or will it? An imminent peace deal between the United States and the Taleban may turn out to be the easy part but leave Afghanistan with an uncertain and highly volatile future.

More complicated will be intra-Afghanistan negotiations between the Taleban and the Afghan government on power sharing, which are likely to take place in Oslo within weeks of a deal with the Taleban. One potential complication is Afghanistan's Sep 28 presidential election.

US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has been working on the deal with Taleban delegates in Doha, and is due this week to brief the Afghan government on the details, which it must agree to go into talks in Oslo.

Meanwhile, the United States is trying not to sound too eager to get out of the Afghanistan quagmire; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford on Wednesday (Aug 28) said it was premature to use the word "withdrawal", but a peace deal with the Taleban was worth trying.

"I believe that what is needed is some type of disruption to the status quo," he said.

President Donald Trump said on Thursday said that 8,600 US troops would remain in the country if a peace deal is reached with the Taliban and that the US would maintain a permanent presence.

The Taleban is in control of roughly 15 per cent of Afghanistan, with the government controlling about 60 per cent, and the rest contested. The Taleban has not let up in its military operations including attacks on civilians. They have rejected a ceasefire, believing that would lose them leverage; the language in the peace talks is of a "reduction of violence".

General Dunford in Wednesday's press conference - the first in a year at the Pentagon - alongside Defence Secretary Mark Esper, tried to nuance the perception that the United States' goal is withdrawal of its 14,000-odd troops.

Mr Khalilzad has also insisted in public statements that the US is aiming at a peace deal, not a withdrawal deal, with the Taleban, whom it drove out of office in 2001 when they continued to give safe harbour to Osama bin Laden, who masterminded the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US.

 
 
 
 

On Monday, Mr Khalilzad tweeted: "Let me be clear: We will defend Afghan forces now and after any agreement w/ the Talibs. All sides agree Afghanistan's future will be determined in intra-Afghan negotiations."

The vastly experienced Gen Dunford, who is due to retire in roughly a month, is seen as a realist who is respected by the President.

"He is smart, he understands the need for a deal, and the need for a draw down of US troops, but he is also reassuring the Afghan government and the critics who say this is about America's domestic politics," an Afghanistan expert told The Straits Times on condition of anonymity.

But worries remain. The US will walk away with assurances from the Taleban that Al Qaeda and the Islamic State will not be allowed safe haven in Afghanistan. The Taleban, meanwhile, knows the US wants to withdraw. But whether any agreement will be worth the paper it is written on, is questionable.

"There is no reason to trust them," said the expert who spoke to ST. "This is the same Taleban that denies that Al Qaeda did 9-11."

The Taleban views the current Afghan government as a US puppet. It can bide its time, drawing out negotiations until the international community's attention shifts.

The Afghan government wants Afghanistan to be a democratic Republic - something the international community including Russia, China and India also support. But the Taleban want an Emirate with Syariah law. On Tuesday, Taleban forces stormed a checkpoint in western Herat province, killing 14 pro-government militia members.

“America needs to be clear it  will not draw down troops below a certain level, so as to maintain some leverage and not give total freedom to the Taliban, and monitor its sincerity in implementing any deal" the analyst said. Or else, Afghanistan could lapse into a protracted civil war, and provide fertile ground for groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria - exactly what the United States does not want.