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Blow to morale: Afghan forces worry about US withdrawal

Updated December 23, 2018

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Afghanistan’s security forces rely heavily on US airpower against both Taliban.— AFP/File
Afghanistan’s security forces rely heavily on US airpower against both Taliban.— AFP/File

ISLAMABAD: The Taliban welcomed news of the US plan to withdraw half its troops in Afghanistan by the summer, as Afghan generals warned it would be a blow to the morale of the country’s beleaguered security forces who come under daily attacks from the insurgent fighters.

The announcement seems certain to complicate efforts to reach a peace deal, mostly because it gives the Taliban leverage by allowing them to hold off until a total US withdrawal, or step up their demands over a weakened Afghan government.

“I believe the Taliban will see this as a reason to stall, and therefore it disincentivises the Taliban to actually talk to the Afghan government, which it has refused to do,” said Bill Roggio, an Afghanistan analyst with the Washington-based Foundation for Defence of Democracies.

Afghanistan’s security forces rely heavily on US airpower against both Taliban and an upstart IS affiliate, and Afghan military officials note the announcement by the Trump administration comes as the country’s security is at its worst since 2014, when more than 100,000 Nato troops pulled out of the country and handed off security to Afghans. The US and Nato retreated into a training and advising role.

“A complete withdrawal of US forces would very likely cause the Taliban to make gains in key areas throughout Afghanistan,” Roggio said. “This likely would cause the general collapse of the [Afghan National Security and Defence Force] as a cohesive fighting force and lead to the return of the warlords.”

President Donald Trump considers the war in Afghanistan a lost cause and has long pushed to pull the troops out. His decision was made public a mere few hours after he abruptly announced the US was withdrawing troops from Syria.

A Taliban official told The Associated Press the announcement was a positive step. Speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the press, the official said Taliban officials think the promised departure could help the peace process because it could “lead to trust building that the US wants a political solution”.

But there was no sign the Taliban were ready to move on the two major sticking points: direct talks with the Afghan government and a ceasefire while the two sides negotiate Khalilzad’s so-called “roadmap for the future of Afghanistan”.

Peace talks aside, the announced withdrawal has Afghan generals and analysts worried about the ability of the beleaguered Afghan National Afghan Security Force to stave off a Taliban insurgency unfettered by US troops and their pounding air power.

Several high ranking Afghan military officials, who spoke on condition they not be identified because they were not authorised to speak to the media, said the morale of Afghanistan’s under-trained and poorly equipped security forces was already at a dangerously low ebb. The troops routinely complain about reinforcements that arrive too late, equipment that fails and even running out of food.

The officials called America’s withdrawal a defeat, comparing it to the US evacuation from Vietnam and Russia’s 1989 forced withdrawal from Afghanistan that capped a failed 10-year campaign.

Published in Dawn, December 23rd, 2018