Even as US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad stepped up the negotiations with the Taliban for an Afghanistan settlement, US president Donald Trump on 21 December indicated his intent to reduce 7,000 US troops in Afghanistan alongside the total withdrawal of all 2,000 servicemen from Syria. Both measures have been out of sync with the declared strategies of the Trump administration.
Trump had, in 2017, stated about Afghanistan: "(A) core pillar of our new strategy is a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions… We will not talk about number of troops or our plans for further military actions." No doubt, Barack Obama's earlier strategy of surge and then an announced set of timelines of withdrawal had come a cropper. Trump was expected to go steady with his strategy of attempted stabilisation and negotiation with presence of just a division worth of troops for basic security, training, advice and backup.
The fighting is in the hands of the local Afghan National Army (ANA) that has suffered over 28,000 killed in the past three years. If statistics matter, then the US forces in Afghanistan lost 2,372 killed till date in 17 years, with 20,320 injured; over 14 years in Vietnam, the US lost 58,320 soldiers. Apparently, the long US deployment more than the casualties, has led to an erosion of stamina and a perception that the war in Afghanistan is fruitless and unlikely to deliver what the US is looking for.
The question thus arises: What is the US looking for in Afghanistan and is any of that achievable?
With an accepted ball park expenditure of $3 trillion in 17 years and an approximate high of 140,000 troops deployed at one stage in Afghanistan, the US may have expected total victory with the vanquishing of the Taliban and no portents of its return. Such an aim was utopian in modern hybrid wars and Afghanistan was long known for being the graveyard of empires. What the war did achieve and undoubtedly continues to achieve is the fact that it placed controls on the freedom that radicals had come to enjoy, that it has displaced and partially eliminated the leadership of the Al-Qaeda and prevented the conversion of the Afghanista-Pakistan space into a citadel for Islamic radicals from where they could operate against the world with impunity.
Had there been greater cooperation from Pakistan, perhaps the situation would have been far more positive; the US apparently had constraints on coercing Pakistan due to various factors. To maintain the status quo, on behalf of the world, with 14,000 troops and some billions of dollars, is not what Trump now wishes because he perceives, rightly or wrongly, that an eventual full withdrawal will get him the presidency again in 2020. He could have waited longer to allow Khalilzad to find some clarity with the Taliban, but the haste appears to show that Khalilzad has given some assurances to the Taliban of cutbacks as a confidence-building measure.
Which way the negotiations go is only one side of the narrative; the more important one is what the effect of this is going to be on the internal security situation, the political future and more importantly, the regional security environment beset as it is with Pakistani intransigence. There are just too many issues involved; primacy is given to a few below with the analysis being India-centric.
Even with US cutbacks, it is not as if the Taliban will rule in Kabul immediately. This arrangement could remain for long enough and even if an agreement cannot be reached with the Taliban, a status quo could be possible; although the slow erosion process of the stability and hold of the National Unity Government (NUG) will begin. The spoilsport here is likely to be Pakistan which is now sensing its first victory in years with an increase of its own strategic relevance. It will step up support to the Taliban with Chinese and perhaps even Russian backing. The crucial issue is financial support to the beleaguered NUG.
The US, under accusations of walking away from allies and its interests, must not exacerbate the situation further with any actions in the non-military domain. After pumping $130 billion to support Afghanistan since 2002, the international community still has little to show in terms of Afghan self-sustainment. The government still needs 80 percent foreign aid to sustain its annual expenditure and without the donor community's assistance, its 174,000-strong ANA and 150,000-strong Afghan National Police (ANP) cannot be maintained. Any erosion here will sound the death knell of the NUG and Pakistan will be backing that.
Famously, Trump said not too long ago: "We cannot repeat in Afghanistan the mistake our leaders made in Iraq." He referred to Obama's premature pre-conflict termination pullout from Iraq which allegedly gave rise to the space to terrorist entities. Surprisingly Trump is not mindful of that with these decisions. If re-election is blinding his strategic decision-making, then he must remember that he could lose greater credibility for doing what he critiqued Obama of doing at one time. 'America First' is great as a slogan but there can be many perceptions about what is great for America; what is good in the short run may not be so good in the long run.
India as an avid supporter of President Ashraf Ghani’s NUG, opted to bide its time in 2015 while it was ignored by Ghani; it was pragmatism and good thinking by India's strategic leadership. It must continue supporting the NUG, having invested energy and resources through political outreach, financial support, military training and soft power. That is because it must not be misled by any perception that the Afghan government is on its last legs and bound to fall anytime soon. No doubt the risk element from Trump's decision could weaken the NUG, but its abandonment by its traditional supporters will put it on a sure course of extinction which is not to anybody's advantage except Pakistan's. Any signal of abandonment would also place at risk future financing by international donors.
India could face a serious challenge to the existence of its consulates in Jalalabad, Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat, long suspected by Pakistan of activities against its interests; especially the first two. It will need to read the security situation closely to comprehend just how safe these missions remain, although primary security remains the responsibility of the ANA and ANP. There will be efforts by Pakistan to cultivate influence in these organisations to upend Indian interests.
With only 7,000 troops remaining in the country, the Afghan Taliban may talk but could simultaneously press home its advantage by accelerating the pace of attacks.
The reduction in force level could now give the Taliban confidence to work towards a full withdrawal of US forces as a reasonable expectation. What can surely be expected is a surge of the presence of intelligence agencies of different hues and a larger Pakistani footprint. Efforts will be afoot to unhinge the Indian presence although it is common knowledge that the average Afghan detests Pakistan and remains favourable to India. Fortunately, Pakistan does not have the sort of money it can flaunt here, although what it can exploit through the clandestine mafia and drug cartels is something else; further, sensing an opportunity, money from Saudi Arabia and others could be there for the asking.
While nothing may be lost with the US troop reduction, it certainly does open opportunities for the resurgence of the Pakistan and Taliban nexus, this time backed by a China-Russia axis too. What the US needs to realise is that by leaving the Afghans to the wolves, it would not be securing its homeland. The proverbial long hand of revenge of the radicals could well strike there too. It is better to stick it out with minimal casualties and some expenditure which will probably buy a safer peace.
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Updated Date: Dec 26, 2018 14:58:31 IST