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What Would A U.S. Troop Reduction In Afghanistan Mean?

FILE: U.S. soldiers prepare to board a helicopter after Operation Deliberate Strike some 60 kilometers north of Kandahar.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s reported plans to withdraw around 7,000 troops from Afghanistan, roughly half the remaining U.S. military presence there, has prompted much discussion about the impact the drawdown could have on the country.

Analysts interviewed by RFE/RL warn that a partial withdrawal would further degrade security, jeopardize possible peace talks with the Taliban aimed at ending its 17-year insurgency, and strain Washington’s relationship with the Western-backed government in Kabul.

'Exacerbate The Conflict'

The already worsening security situation in Afghanistan is likely to be exacerbated by a U.S. troop reduction, according to analysts.

A recent U.S. military report said Taliban control over Afghanistan has increased in recent months, and the government currently controls or influences only 55.5 percent of the country's districts -- the lowest level recorded since it began tracking the data in 2015.

"The Taliban has steadily captured territory in recent years and it's reasonable to expect that trend to continue," says Graeme Smith, an Afghanistan analyst and a consultant for the International Crisis Group, although he adds that in practical terms the withdrawal "may not make a significant difference on the battlefield," and Washington could replace departed troops with security contractors.

The United States would still have 7,000 troops in Afghanistan as part of a NATO-led mission and a separate U.S. counterterrorism mission, if the withdrawal order reported by various U.S. media outlets, citing officials, is carried out. The Pentagon also has 25,239 private security contractors deployed in Afghanistan.

INFOGRAPHIC: Which Countries Have Troops In Afghanistan?

Haroun Mir, an Kabul-based political analyst, says the vacuum left by withdrawing some U.S. forces could have wider security ramifications.

"A U.S. military drawdown without a well thought out strategy behind it and without concerted efforts with internal and regional stakeholders could further exacerbate the conflict in the country and intensify competition among regional stakeholders," Mir says, referring to countries that have been accused of providing support to the Taliban, including Pakistan, Iran, and Russia.

'Breathtakingly Bad' For Peace Talks

Trump's decision could scuttle U.S. efforts to negotiate an end to the conflict, analysts warn.

The U.S. special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad
The U.S. special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad

U.S. special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has met Taliban representatives during at least three separate rounds of direct talks in recent months as part of the effort to encourage negotiations between the Taliban and Kabul. The latest talks in the United Arab Emirates from December 17-19 were seen as the most significant yet.

"This makes no strategical sense, as it weakens the U.S.'s own position and that of its local ally, the Afghan government, in the midst of attempts to get a peace process going," says Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank in Kabul.

Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, says the timing of Trump's troop-withdrawal decision "is breathtakingly bad."

"Announcing a move like this now could squander the best chance to date to launch a peace process to end a war that has raged for far too long," says Kugelman, adding that Washington would lose a major bargaining chip in talks.

Afghan Taliban militants in Jalalabad in June. A recent U.S. military report said Taliban control over Afghanistan has increased in recent months.
Afghan Taliban militants in Jalalabad in June. A recent U.S. military report said Taliban control over Afghanistan has increased in recent months.

An Afghan official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL that Trump's reported decision suggests "some serious progress with talks" in the U.A.E, without elaborating.

Some analysts say the U.S. troop withdrawal could also have a silver lining and could send a useful message to all sides.

"This signals to the Taliban that the U.S. is serious about negotiating an exit," says Smith, adding that it would erode the militant’s skepticism that Washington is open to withdrawing from Afghanistan. "This will also force the Afghan government to think about peace as a short-term prospect instead of something that could be delayed for years."

'Kabul Was Blindsided'

Trump's reported decision apparently surprised Afghan officials, even though the U.S. president had previously voiced opposition to the U.S. war effort there. The Kabul government was not briefed on the plans.

"The sudden decision has come as a shock," an Afghan official, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, told RFE/RL.

Afghan officials put up a brave face, with an adviser to President Ashraf Ghani writing on Twitter that the U.S. decision "will not affect our security."

"It's becoming clear that Kabul was blindsided," says Smith. "Diplomacy gets harder when the White House fails to coordinate with other branches of government and close U.S. allies."

"Considering the decision as a serious U.S. endgame step, political elites in Kabul will probably aim to close ranks and raise questions about the timing and commitments made to maintain stability," says Omar Samad, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council and former Afghan diplomat.

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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.