WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump announced on Wednesday night that all US troops in Afghanistan could be home by Christmas, putting an end to America’s longest war.

On Thursday, Taliban welcomed the announcement and called it a “very positive step” towards the implementation of the US-Taliban peace deal.

Just before Wednesday night’s vice-presidential debate, Mr Trump posted a tweet on his official account, declaring: “We should have the small remaining number of our brave men and women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas.”

Within hours, Taliban posted their reaction through spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid’s Twitter account. “President Trump has announced in a tweet that he will withdraw all his troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year. The Islamic Emirate welcomes this announcement and considers the move a very positive step in the implementation of the agreement between the Islamic Emirate and the United States,” Mr Mujahid wrote.

“The Islamic Emirate is also committed to the contents of the agreement and hopes for good and positive relations with all countries, including the United States, in the future,” he added.

Taliban welcome announcement but analysts say move will weaken Kabul’s position

Although the United States and its allies do not recognise the emirate, Taliban wrote their reaction on a letterhead titled “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Commission for Cultural Affairs, Office of the Spokesperson”.

This indicates a complete disregard of the US desire to prevent the restoration of the Islamic Emirate, which existed before the US invasion in October 2001.

The reference to the Islamic Emirate was also noted by some US media outlets, with a warning that a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan could jeopardise the US-Taliban deal and its main objective of ending two decades of conflict in Afghanistan.

Between 2001 and 2020, there have been more than 3,500 coalition deaths in Afghanistan. The total includes about 2,400 Americans while the rest were from other Nato nations. More than 20,000 Americans have also been wounded in this 19-year-long war.

The United State has also spent a total of $975 billion in Afghanistan to keep this war going.

The stalemate and the losses have made it one of the most unpopular wars in the US history and since 2008, every presidential candidate has promised to end this conflict as soon as possible.

President Trump too has suggested on multiple occasions that he wants American forces out of the war-torn country as soon as possible. In August, he said in an interview with Axios that he expected US troop numbers in Afghanistan to be reduced to under 5,000 by Election Day, Nov 3.

On Wednesday afternoon, US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said during an event in Nevada that American forces in Afghanistan would be halved to 2,500 by early 2021. But hours later, President Trump went a step ahead and announced his plan to recall all US troops by the end of this year.

US Defence Department, however, has not yet made any public comments on the announcement. When asked for comments, the US Central Command and the Pentagon referred all questions to the White House.

The US-Taliban agreement, signed in Doha, Qatar, in February, called for the withdrawal of all foreign forces by May 2021, in exchange for security guarantees and a pledge by the militants to negotiate a permanent ceasefire with the Afghan government.

US media commentators warned that President Trump’s plan would weaken Kabul’s position in the intra-Afghan talks and would further strengthen the Taliban, who already have an upper hand on the ground.

The commentators also said that if Mr Trump lost the Nov 3 election, the new administration may review his withdrawal plan.

Last month, US Special Envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad told a House of Representatives committee that a final evaluation of the US military presence in Afghanistan should be made once troop numbers reach 4,500.

Published in Dawn, October 9th, 2020