President Donald Trump recently indicated he wants a withdrawal of the remaining US soldiers in Afghanistan by Christmas. “We should have the small remaining number of our brave men and women serving in Afghanistan at home by Christmas!” the president tweeted on Wednesday, without any additional details. The Taliban welcomed the president’s announcement as an “important step.”
Accelerating the Planned Troop Withdrawal
Facilitating the president’s ambitious plan would significantly accelerate the withdrawal agreement of troops between the US and the Taliban. In the past few years, Trump has repeatedly stated his proclivity to cease America’s “endless wars” and bring home the troops. The president’s statement on Wednesday surprised even US officials, however. At the beginning of August this year, the US Department of Defense announced a reduction of US soldiers in Afghanistan from the current 8,600 to 5,000 by November.
Based on the agreement signed with the radical Islamic Taliban on February 29, the United States will gradually withdraws its armed forces from the Hindu Kush until mid-2021. In return, the Taliban have agreed to conduct peace negotiations with the government in Kabul. The negotiations started on September 12 in Qatar. However, the talks lack progress, and the Taliban are continuing their attacks, which have repeatedly killed Afghan security forces and civilians.
What Does Washington Want?
Washington also demanded a guarantee that Afghanistan would not become a sanctuary for terrorists from all over the world, similar to the Taliban’s previous reign. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, yielded the invasion of the US armed forces in Afghanistan as part of the Global War on Terror. The United States and its allies defeated the Taliban, who gave shelter to the terrorist network Al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden and liberated large areas of the nation from the extremists.
After 19 years of US troop presence in Afghanistan, Trump’s plan of withdrawal is now a bipartisan consensus including on the part of his challenger Joe Biden.
The president ran on the promise to bring home the troops first in his campaign against Hillary Clinton. His current campaign also emphasizes withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq. However, Trump failed to deliver his campaign promise, particularly in the case of Afghanistan and the announcement on Wednesday, and indeed the confusion it caused, points to this being a reckless campaign maneuver without any actual plans for facilitation.
Fluctuating US Troop Levels in Afghanistan
When President Barack Obama left office in January 2017, around 8,400 US soldiers remained in Afghanistan. In his early years in office, Obama dramatically increased the US presence, from just over 30,000 to more than 100,000 at its peak in 2011. Contrary to President Trump’s election rhetoric, his administration increased the troops compared to Obama’s 8,400. It needed the February agreement with the Taliban that the US military reduced its number in Afghanistan from 12,000 to now around 8,600.
The president’s remarks appear particularly ill-advised given the occurrences the past weekend. Two bomb attacks killed at least 18 people in Afghanistan. Authorities announced that 13 people – including three civilians – were killed in northern Sar-e Pul province on Saturday when an explosive device exploded next to a passing vehicle. Three soldiers were also wounded. An hour-long firefight with the Taliban preceded the casualties.
Moreover, an explosive device recently went off in the southern Helmand province roadside when a bus drove by. According to the Afghan government, at least five people died. The government blamed the Taliban for the attack.
The situation in Afghanistan remains highly volatile, and the peace talks continue to stall. The US President’s comments, purely for election purposes, cannot be helpful. The fact that the Taliban expressed support for the president’s ideas is a warning sign and one ought to be extremely cautious about this kind of development, particularly in the White House.
Moreover, the Afghanistan engagement is not a partisan issue in the US. The upside of the president’s pernicious remarks is thus infinitesimal at best. The downside is that this statement results in even less leverage for Qatar’s intra-Afghan negotiation: considering the Afghan government is dealing with extremists it is sufficiently complex already without the president’s self-serving and reckless tweets.