US exit

May 29 2020

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A MAJOR development in the Afghan theatre has been the apparent US decision to speed up the withdrawal of troops from the country. While Donald Trump has been ambiguous about his exact intentions, the numbers point to a more concrete reality: the American president wants to get his soldiers out of the Afghan war zone as soon as possible. According to reports in various media outlets, the US drawdown of troops is happening faster than expected, and if sources are to be believed, the last American soldier in Afghanistan may be out of that country before the November presidential elections in the US, instead of May 2021, the deadline set by the peace deal signed by Washington and the Afghan Taliban in Doha in February.

While Mr Trump has not been a big fan of American military involvement in overseas conflicts, here purely domestic concerns, namely re-election, may be driving his Afghan policy. After nearly two decades of involvement in Afghanistan, the Washington establishment seems to have realised that the nation-building/counterterrorism experiment launched by another Republican president — George W. Bush — in the aftermath of 9/11 has failed miserably and the time is ripe to cut losses and ‘bring the boys home’. The Taliban are far from defeated, which is apparent by the fact that the Americans are suing for peace with the hard-line militia, while a wobbly coalition is sputtering on in Kabul. These are far from ideal conditions, therefore Mr Trump, his generals and advisers have arrived at the apparent conclusion that further involvement in the Afghan theatre will be counterproductive. It seems the Americans have reached the same conclusion the Soviets had at the end of the 1980s, when they finally realised that their own decade-long imperial foray into Afghanistan was doomed to fail. Moreover, America’s other Nato allies may also be thinking of bringing back their own troops should the US quit Afghanistan.

From the above developments, it is clear that very soon foreign forces will be out of Afghanistan. Of course, the million-dollar question is: what next? As stated above, the Taliban are far from routed, and unless some intra-Afghan settlement is reached, the long war will only continue, with Afghan factions pulverising each other, and their battered country. While the US and Europe are clearly tired of the Afghan imbroglio, perhaps other regional states — Pakistan, China, Russia, Iran — as well as major Muslim states can play a greater role to help facilitate an intra-Afghan deal. Unless this is done, the country may plunge into a Mujahideen-like internecine civil war pitting tribes, ethnic groups and rival warlords against each other in an open-ended conflict. If Afghanistan fails again, it will have a negative impact on regional security and prolong the nightmare of the Afghan people. The window of opportunity for a workable deal is closing fast.

Published in Dawn, May 29th, 2020