Gaurav Kumar, Writes :
The war in Afghanistan is one of the most distinctive actions of the US foreign policy in the last two decades. It is distinctive primarily for two reasons: first, the enormous amount of financial resources and military capability it was forced to invest in the region; and secondly, the kind of international mobilization the US was able to achieve for the success of its war on terror policy, of which Afghanistan was a crucial leg.
The February 29, 2020 agreement between the Taliban and the US in Doha Qatar, therefore became a historical event as it committed the US forces to withdraw from Afghanistan in a phased manner. On November 17, 2020, Acting Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller announced the drawdown of troops to 2,500 in Afghanistan and 2,500 in Iraq by mid-January. However, he added that the decision is not irreversible, He said. “If the forces of terror, instability, division and hate begin a deliberate campaign to disrupt our efforts, we stand ready to ally the capabilities required to thwart them[i].” The announcement signals the US commitment to its agreement with the Taliban.
The current debates over the US drawdown plans, question the prudence of the decision to drastically reduce the forces in Afghanistan without any firm commitment or signals from the Taliban to reduce level of violence in Afghanistan. For many analysts, the agreement, and the subsequent process of drawdown has not only compromised the US stated objective in Afghanistan, but has also undermined its resolve to fight terrorism in the region. The reflection of it can be gauged by the fact that the level of violence in Afghanistan has escalated since the two sides signed the agreement in February. Taliban, contrary to their commitments in the peace deal, have increased attacks on major cities, highways, and military installations.
According to the latest SIGAR report, average daily enemy-initiated attacks in the country were 50 percent higher in the July-September 2020 compared to the previous quarter[ii]. At least 876 civilians were killed and 1,685 injured between July to September. Similarly, according to Afghan Human Rights group, over 7,600 civilians were killed and wounded in conflicts in Afghanistan so far in 2020. Out of 7,600, 2,342 people were killed[iii]. According to Afghan security officials, currently the ANDSF are fighting the Taliban in 19 out of 34 provinces.
The US Policy Objective
The most crucial implication of the US Afghan peace agreements is that it gave tremendous political acceptability to the Taliban as a mainstream political entity in Afghanistan and the region, at the same time eroding the legitimacy of the elected Afghan government. This is not to argue that the US policy in the last 2 decades has been single objective oriented without any compromise. Since the first presidential period of the President Obama administration, the US government has tinkered with the idea of peace talks/negotiation with the Taliban, in most cases mediated by a third party. The political and military exigencies have dictated the policy options for the US government in the Afghanistan. However, all the previous attempts were not at the cost of political legitimacy of the Afghan government, as it carried its own share of risk of instability in the region.
The Trump administration’s precipitous decision first to negotiate with the Taliban without deliberating with the Afghan government and its allies on the terms and conditions of the agreement, and then agreeing to withdraw in a time-framed manner showed the US unwillingness to engage in a prudent manner. Various reports claim that the necessity and strategic values of the drawdown is being questioned in the US, and many fear that the drawdown will undermine fragile security and hurt the continuing peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban[iv].
The Way Ahead
Joe Biden, possible future US President, had in the past, advocated minimum troops presence in Afghanistan limited to only counterterrorism activities, a level that is enough to make sure that it’s impossible for the Taliban and other insurgent groups to reestablish a foothold, and be able to use Afghanistan as a base to attack the United States [v]. He, as a vice-president, was one of the most vociferous opponents of the troop surge during the Obama administration plan to send more troops to Afghanistan. Therefore, one can expect little difference in the US policy 0f the Democrats from the Republican government. Above all, matters concerning to foreign policies, there are little scope and political space for the future administration to reverse the whole process initiated by the previous governments.
The coming US government can at best manage to make few changes including delaying tactics to extract more out of the deal from the Taliban. It can give more political and diplomatic backing to the current Afghan government. Secondly, there is a fear that any dramatic change in the US plans will give the Taliban a further excuse to ramp up violence and blame the US and international community of destabilizing the region. It will certainly leave the Afghan government with some short- term respite, but keeping in view the stage at which the peace process is, the Afghan government would also like the US government to make some recalibration of its drawdown plan and make it contingent upon the ground realities and progress in the peace process. The ultimate calculation that should dictate the US government option is, that the cost of peace should not outweigh the benefits of war.
[i] U.S. Will Draw Down Forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, Acting Secretary Says. (2020, November 17). Retrieved November 23, 2020, from https://www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/2418416/us-will-draw-down-forces-in-afghanistan-iraq-acting-secretary-says/
[ii] Kube, C. Afghan security forces, civilians face 50 percent surge in attacks, U.S. watchdog says. Retrieved November 05, 2020, from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/military/afghan-security-forces-civilians-face-50-percent-surge-attacks-u-n1246530
[iii] Ians. Taliban prisoners released in hope for peace: Abdullah. November 15, 2020, Retrieved from https://www.freepressjournal.in/world/taliban-prisoners-released-in-hope-for-peace-abdullah
[iv] Al Jazeera. “US Announces Plans to Cut Troop Levels in Afghanistan, Iraq.” United States | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, November 17, 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/11/17/pentagon-announces-drawdown-of-us-troops-in-afghanistan
[v] “Transcript: Joe Biden on ‘Face the Nation,” February 23, 2020.” CBS News. CBS Interactive, February 23, 2020. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/transcript-joe-biden-on-face-the-nation-february-23-2020/.
Gaurav Kumar is an Assistant Research & Editor at the USI.
Article uploaded on 07-12-2020
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI of India.