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Emboldening The Taliban? Accelerated U.S. Troop Pullout Risks Increased Violence In Afghanistan

U.S. soldiers attend a training session for Afghan Army personnel in Herat in February 2019.

The accelerated U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan announced by Washington this week could plunge the war-wracked country deeper into violence and undercut fragile peace talks aimed at ending the war, analysts say.

Under a February deal between the United States and the Taliban, the remaining U.S. forces were to leave Afghanistan by May if the militants met certain conditions.

But even with key U.S. demands unmet, the Pentagon announced on November 17 that it would halve the current deployment of around 5,000 American troops by mid-January, the lowest level since the beginning of the 19-year war.

The precipitous U.S. drawdown comes at a crucial juncture.

Intra-Afghan peace talks have stalled. The Taliban has ratcheted up attacks in violation of an understanding with Washington. And U.S. and Afghan officials have accused the militants of failing to sever ties with the Al-Qaeda terrorist network behind the 9/11 attacks in 2001 that killed nearly 3,000 people.

Analysts say the quickened U.S. troop reduction will give the Taliban less incentive to keep its pledges and choose negotiation over continued war.

“The Taliban will try to maintain as much pressure as they can over the winter months and then to continue ramping up their operations in the spring,” says Jonathan Schroden, a security expert with the U.S.-based nonprofit research and analysis organization CNA. “Until the U.S. does something to convince the Taliban they have to stop, they won't stop.”

‘Profound Position Of Weakness’

Afghan and Taliban negotiators have been deadlocked at the negotiating table since peace talks started in September, unable even to agree on a framework and agenda for the negotiations.

Fragile and deeply divided, the Afghan government has come to the peace negotiations in relative weakness. With roughly half of the country controlled or contested by the Taliban, Kabul lacks the military advantage to drive a hard bargain.

U.S. Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller speaks at the Pentagon in Washington on November 17.
U.S. Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller speaks at the Pentagon in Washington on November 17.

Washington’s accelerated withdrawal, analysts say, will further undermine the Afghan government’s negotiating leverage with the Taliban.

“The Afghan government is negotiating from a profound position of weakness and what little leverage they have come mainly from the U.S.’s willingness to use force against the Taliban in support of the Afghan security forces,” says Ted Callahan, a security expert on Afghanistan. “It's hard to imagine a U.S.-troop reduction not emboldening the Taliban.”

The Taliban has intensified attacks against Afghan forces, hoping to gain leverage in talks based on its gains on the battlefield.

But in attacking major cities and highways, the militants have violated an agreement with Washington to reduce violence. U.S. forces have retaliated by increasing air strikes against the Taliban.

The deadly aerial attacks have provoked a war of words between the U.S. military and the Taliban, which alleges the strikes are a violation of the U.S.-Taliban deal. The U.S. military has said it reserves the right under the deal to defend Afghan security forces who come under Taliban attack.

Afghan security forces inspect the site of a blast in Kabul on October 27.
Afghan security forces inspect the site of a blast in Kabul on October 27.

Under that agreement, all foreign forces are to leave Afghanistan by May in return for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which has pledged to negotiate a permanent cease-fire and a power-sharing agreement with the Afghan government.

“Going down to 2,500 troops will reinforce the sense among the Taliban that Trump is playing to a domestic audience rather than according to conditions on the ground, and therefore they have little to fear from further violating the agreement by continuing to attack Afghan government forces,” says Callahan.

Loss Of 'Situational Awareness'

Afghan security forces rely heavily on U.S. air support, intelligence, and logistics to keep the Taliban at bay.

Analysts say the troop reductions will limit the scope of U.S. operations in Afghanistan, handing the militants a battlefield advantage.

“In reducing the troop footprint, the U.S. will prioritize some key missions: protecting the U.S. Embassy, counterterrorism, air support to beleaguered Afghan units, and oversight of the billions of dollars in financial aid being given to the Afghan security forces,” says Schroden, who has provided assessments on the security situation in Afghanistan to the U.S. military and Congress.

The NATO-led Resolute Support mission currently trains, advises, and assists the 273,000-strong Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. A separate U.S. counterterrorism force combats foreign terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS).

In a further blow, U.S. allies reliant on American protection and logistics are likely to follow Washington in reducing troop levels in Afghanistan.

Callahan says the cuts in training will further hinder the “progress of the Afghan army and air force toward anything like self-sufficiency,” which has been a long-term goal.

With U.S. forces roughly cut in half, Callahan says foreign troops will “lose situational awareness, thus greatly increasing the potential for air strikes to result in civilian casualties.”

He cites the air attack by American special forces on a hospital run by Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) that killed 42 patients, medical staff, and caregivers in the northern province of Kunduz in 2015, saying the incident “is a good example of what is likely to occur in this situation.”

All Options Open

While the sharp U.S. troop reduction is a blow to the Afghan government, it falls short of a threatened full withdrawal.

Trump sent alarm bells ringing in Kabul last month when he tweeted that he wanted to pull all American troops out of Afghanistan by Christmas.

“They are relieved that the zero option is off the table for now,” says Omar Samad, a former Afghan diplomat who is now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, referring to Kabul.

Afghan officials have been angered and alienated by what they view as U.S. President Donald Trump’s push for a hasty military pullout from Afghanistan without a comprehensive peace settlement.

Many in Kabul have put their hopes on President-elect Joe Biden providing more flexibility for the Afghan government in its contentious negotiations with the Taliban.

Kabul wants a slower withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and the possibility of renegotiating the terms of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal that excluded the Afghan government and which is seen as skewed in favor of the militants.

Samad says Kabul is “eager to see how the incoming Biden administration will prioritize and manage the inherited Afghan file.”

But analysts say Biden will likely stay the course set by Trump to end the war in Afghanistan, where he has long called for a "counterterrorism-plus" option that would involve several thousand troops, similar to what the Trump administration has announced.

In his 2020 foreign policy manifesto in Foreign Affairs magazine, Biden said: "As I have long argued, we should bring the vast majority of our troops home from the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East and narrowly define our mission as defeating Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State."

Analysts do not expect Biden to increase troops in Afghanistan when he takes office in January. Instead, he is likely to maintain a small counterterrorism force in Afghanistan to combat terrorist groups, although the existing U.S.-Taliban deal does not allow for a continued American military presence.

Vice President Joe Biden receives a briefing at the Kabul Military Training Center in 2011.
Vice President Joe Biden receives a briefing at the Kabul Military Training Center in 2011.

“It remains to be seen whether the incoming administration will try to maintain the counterterrorism mission at 2,500 troops for some period of time, whether it will go ahead with the complete withdrawal specified in the U.S.-Taliban agreement, or whether it will attempt to somehow thread the needle between those options,” says Schroden.

Callahan says although it was hard to imagine Biden wanting to increase the number of U.S. forces, it was likewise difficult to envision a U.S. counterterrorism force -- ostensibly there to target Al-Qaeda and IS -- standing by as Afghan forces start to lose ground on a massive scale.

If talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government remain deadlocked and the militants launch a spring offensive and seize some provincial capitals, Callahan says Biden may have no choice but to resume targeting the Taliban, which might entail sending in additional forces.

“But then he's back in the business of providing perpetual support to a military that simply doesn't seem like it will ever be capable of standing on its own against the Taliban, so it will really come down to whether backstopping the Afghan forces in perpetuity to prevent the Taliban from seizing power is a vital national interest,” says Callahan.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.