History has shown us that there is no right way to withdraw from Afghanistan. Invading and occupying is quick and easy, but after failing to reimage the country and suffering a few tactical defeats, they all exit Afghanistan, leaving a huge mess for the Afghans. The British never spent more than three years in Afghanistan; they got out the quickest followed by Soviet Union retreating in less than ten years. Afghanistan is America's longest-running war; eighteen years and counting. President Trump recently hinted that he wants to withdraw half of the US troops from Afghanistan – a move that can potentially embolden the Taliban. US Special Representative to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, is currently on a mission to bring an end to the conflict and negotiate a withdrawal mechanism.
When the President of the United States – the commander-in-chief of the armed forces – speaks, the troops listen, the allies listen, and above all, the foes listen. Ryan Crocker, former US ambassador to Afghanistan, described the current peace deal “a surrender” and warned of dire consequences in case of a hasty pull out. This is the wrong way to end the Afghan conflict and the US may be doomed to repeat mistakes of the other Western Powers.
Why should the Taliban come to a negotiation table when they can dictate their terms from a position of strength? Taliban demonstrated their battlefield strength last week by blowing up an entire military training center, just south of the capital Kabul, killing 126 intelligence and security officers. This was the single deadliest attack by the Taliban on government security forces since the conflict started in 1979. Notwithstanding this attack, 2018 became the deadliest year on record for the Afghan civilians and security forces.
Whether half of the troops will be withdrawn is not clear, but if it happens, the country will likely plunge into a bloody civil war and ISIS and the Taliban will be the ultimate winners. Afghanistan has sunk into chaos at least three times in the past 40 years as a result of the withdrawal of foreign troops and support. Mohammad Najibullah’s regime fell less than three years after the Soviets withdrew in 1989.
At present, there are about 14,000 US troops in Afghanistan which are divided into two missions; a counter-terrorism mission which is a kinetic mission to hunt down terrorist groups to include senior Taliban – but also ISIS and Al-Qaeda leaders – and the other mission supports the Afghan Army and police through training and advising. The partial troop withdrawal, presumably, would come out of the training mission and not out of the counter terrorism mission. This would lead to an attenuation of the abilities of the Afghan Army and police which are already struggling on the battlefield.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani rang the alarm bells as early as January 2018 by saying that if the US withdraws its support – both the military and the financial support for the Afghan Army and police – the Afghans cannot sustain operations for 6 months; hinting at a Taliban take over.
President Trump tried to surge troops in Afghanistan, as his two predecessors did, but it is very clear that the mini surge of 4,000 troops did not work. The US has been doing this exercise for 18 years and there is no real evidence that supporting the feeble Afghan Army and police will defeat the Taliban; it didn't happen when President Obama put a hundred thousand troops and is certainly not going to happen with just 14,000 Americans troops on the ground. On the contrary, Taliban hold sway over the largest chunk of land – nearly 60% – since they were dislodged by a spectacular attack back in 2001.
Top military commanders agree that there is no military solution to the conflict. Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis ruled out a military solution in March 2018; General Joe Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said in November that the Taliban “is not losing right now” and that there is “no military solution” in Afghanistan. Retired General Stanley McChrystal declared last month that he has no answer for Afghanistan but that “we should just continue to muddle along, leaked audio revealed. General Kenneth McKenzie, Jr., nominated to lead US CENTCOM told the Senate a month ago that Afghan forces would likely collapse if US forces left. He did not specify when would the Afghan forces be able to fight and win on their own.
Does this imply that the US support is not essential; rather it is making the problem worse in Afghanistan? If that’s the case, then a face-saving retreat is the best option available and US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad is probably working on it right now. However, if the US support is germane and the entire Afghan Army and police will collapse, then the US is going down the same path, where after the occupying power or the funding power withdrew its funding and support, it opened up a real opportunity for numerous groups to descend into chaos. This phenomenon was particularly obvious in early 1990s after the Soviet withdrawal. Senator Lindsey Graham said last month that withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan would be a “high risk strategy” that could pave “the way toward a second 9/11”. No one wants that to happen!
The best course of action is a gradual, incremental withdrawal, leaving a residual force in Bagram. Spending a few billion dollars a year now would save the US from spending a whole lot more in case Afghanistan is completely taken over by a hostile force and the US has to come back “Terminator Style”.
Dr. Asim Yousafzai is a Washington DC based geo-science professional and regularly writes on technical and geo-strategic issues. He is the author of the book “Afghanistan: From Cold War to Gold War”. He can be followed @asimusafzai