President Joe Biden has announced that the United States will pull out all its troops from Afghanistan by 11 September. His predecessor Donald Trump had started the process in December 2018, committing to do the same by 1 May this year.
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In preparation for this, the US organized several rounds of negotiations between the Ashraf Ghani-led Afghan government and the Taliban, but hardly any progress has been made. A US withdrawal at this juncture could be disastrous for the people of Afghanistan, have negative consequences for the wider region, including India, and help the cause of Islamist jihad around the world.
There are only about 3,500 American soldiers left in Afghanistan. The last American hostile-fire casualty on Afghan soil was on 8 February 2020, some 14 months ago. Since 2015, the US role has been largely limited to training and support. The war against the Taliban is being fought by the Afghan army, not Americans.
Today, US soldiers in Afghanistan are more or less a non-combat military presence, like the 53,000 American troops posted in Japan, 33,000 in Germany, 26,000 in South Korea, and 4,000 in Bahrain. Yet, the departure of US soldiers from Afghanistan this year could have deleterious effects, since even a token number of US troops has high symbolic value. So will their exit.
The withdrawal is being seen and touted by the Taliban as a decisive victory. It already controls about 40% of the territory in Afghanistan, and within hours of Biden’s announcement, Haji Hekmat, the militia leader for Balkh province, was telling the BBC: “We have won the war and America has lost.” Kabul, the Taliban believe, is now well within reach.
The first stated objective of the US-sponsored negotiations was to set up a ‘transitional government’, which would oversee the country’s return to peace. This has not happened. One, as should have been expected, nobody can figure out how this transitional government will be able to balance the theocratic-state goal of the Taliban with democracy. Indeed, the Taliban have been quite clear that they want to restore the fully-Sharia-compliant Islamic state that they had run till they were ousted from power by the US military in 2001.
Two, the Taliban have promised a ceasefire several times and then promptly gone back on those promises. In fact, they escalated their attacks and seized more territory. Again, only the naïve or the desperate would not have expected this.
Three, the Taliban have insisted that Ghani has to resign for the peace process to make headway. Ghani, meanwhile, is in a strange position. The Taliban call him a “US puppet”, while the US seems intent on selling him and his government down the river.
On 11 March, US secretary of state Anthony Blinken wrote to Ghani; the letter’s tone has been described as “bullying” and “neo-colonial” by some observers. Blinken appeared to blame the Afghan government for the failure of peace talks. The letter takes no cognizance of the obstacles the Taliban have constantly raised during the negotiations, their repeated reneging on promises, or even the fact that they have done nothing to sever alliances with groups like Al-Qaeda. Blinken also pulled a rabbit out of his hat: the US is now asking Turkey, the Islamist leanings of whose President Recip Erdogan are well-known, to convene a meeting between the Kabul government and the Taliban. This is beginning to sound less like a troop withdrawal and more like an abandonment of Afghanistan to the medieval Taliban.
To top it all, the day before Biden’s announcement, the office of the United States Director of National Intelligence released its annual threat assessment report, in which it said: “(The) prospects for a peace deal (in Afghanistan) will remain low during the next year. The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the (US-led) coalition withdraws support. Kabul continues to face setbacks on the battlefield, and the Taliban is confident it can achieve military victory.”
The Biden administration’s Afghanistan decision will probably further shake the faith that American allies have in Washington.
Of course, the most terrible consequences will be suffered by the people of Afghanistan. The Taliban are now energized. When the group was in power in the 1990s, it imposed the strictest of Sharia regimes, depriving women of nearly all freedoms, even banning music and photography. There is no reason to believe that they will behave any differently this time around if they are victorious. They’re already claiming moral victory, and this will surely motivate jihadi forces across the world.
All this is not good news for India, which has steadfastly supported the government of Afghanistan and is the second-largest aid donor to the country after the United States. If the Taliban return to power in Kabul, they may start working with their long-time sponsor and ally Pakistan to foment Islamist terrorism in India.
Sadly, Biden does not seem to have learnt much from experience. As vice-president to Barack Obama, he had overseen America’s military exit from Iraq in 2011. But, by January 2014, the Islamic State had captured large parts of Iraq and become a global threat. The US had no option but to send its forces back. Biden has been there, done that, and had to undo.