09.06.2020 Author: Vladimir Odintsov

What Future does US Envision for Afghanistan?

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Recently, US President Donald Trump has once again stated that he wished to pull all American troops out of Afghanistan. It is important to remember that a proposed timetable for the final withdrawal of United States troops from Afghanistan was laid out in the deal the USA signed with the Taliban (editor’s note – a terrorist organization banned in the Russian Federation) in February of this year. According to the agreement, all US and allied forces are to leave Afghanistan within 14 months as long as certain conditions have been met, such as Taliban’s pledge to sever ties with other terrorist groups (e.g. al-Qaeda, editor’s note – an organization banned in Russia). The United States agreed to reduce the number of its troops to no more than 8,600 by July 2020.

Staff from the US Department of Defense are currently “drawing up options for early Afghanistan troop withdrawal”, because Donald Trump would like to ensure that he has kept his promise to bring servicemen home before voters go to the polls. According to CNN, senior US military leaders, including General Scott Miller, the Commander of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission and US Forces – Afghanistan; General Frank McKenzie, the head of the US Central Command; Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, and General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are all involved in the preparation of various versions of the plan for troop withdrawal. The media outlet also reported that their discussions were “being tightly held because of concern an impulsive decision to quickly go to zero could have significant implications for Afghanistan’s immediate security”.

An article in The Wall Street Journal said that “one option would leave approximately 5,000 troops in Afghanistan”, while “another plan under consideration would leave about 1,500” servicemen there.

According to The New York Times, one proposal suggests bringing all American forces in Afghanistan home by Election Day in November. However, if the US leadership were to decide to keep even a minimal number of troops in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, other countries would, most likely, choose to leave their forces in the nation as well, and would be able to then take on more responsibility, for example, in training and advising local fighters.

It is fairly clear that the US President probably prefers the last option because, during his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump (who subsequently won that election) called pulling out all American troops from Afghanistan and ending US participation in all military conflicts, in general, his key foreign policy aims.

Washington was unable to win the war in Afghanistan over a period of time, which is twice as long as that of the Soviet occupation of this nation. In fact, from 2010 to 2012, there were more than 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan. In other words, the US Department of Defense kept one tenth of all of US Armed Forces in the country at the time.

Since the start of US military operations in Afghanistan through mid-2019, nearly 2,400 American servicemen died and over 20,000 members of US forces were wounded. The aforementioned figures do not take into account the losses private military companies (which also employ quite a few American citizens) have sustained.  USA’s NATO allies have also lost a substantial number of their troops. In addition, the United States has spent a considerable amount of money on the war in Afghanistan. According to official estimates provided by the US Department of Defense, $778 billion (from the federal budget) was spent on the conflict from October 2001 to September 2019. However, independent experts have said that the figure is much higher, i.e. up to $2 trillion!

On September 11, 2019, Professor at Harvard University Stephen Walt published an article that called on the US leadership to admit the war in Afghanistan had been lost. It is quite clear that Donald Trump himself or members of his inner circle would never say so directly. However, constant discussions about withdrawing troops from Afghanistan serve as indirect proof of the defeat.

In their attempts to end US involvement in the Afghan war, the US leadership has already tried to use various exit strategies. Not so long ago, there was an active push to replace American troops with private military companies (PMCs). The NBC television network reported that before signing the peace agreement with the Taliban in Qatar, Donald Trump, on the basis of recommendations from the now infamous PMC Blackwater (currently called Academi), had considered, in 2018, replacing foreign troops stationed in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan with staff members of the company founded by Erik Prince. However, the plan was not approved by the US Secretary of Defense at the time, James N. Mattis. In the end, US military leaders decided to withdraw American troops in stages and to substitute some of them with fighters from private military companies.

Recently, Donald Trump’s administration has been accused of aiming to legitimize military activities the Taliban (editor’s note – a terrorist group banned in the Russian Federation) engages in by transforming the organization into a private military company of sorts. For instance, this opinion is held by some members of the Afghan parliament who believe that this plan had already been formalized and included in the wording of the peace deal (signed in Qatar) on withdrawing all foreign troops from Afghanistan and on the start of intra-Afghan negotiations. Zalmai Mujadidi, a member of the Afghan parliament’s Lower House, talked about such US schemes during a plenary session of the National Assembly. The issue has already become a topic of intragovernmental discussions thanks to the former spokesman for the Afghan National Security Council, Tawab Ghorzang, who, in part, lent credence to the rumors by Tweeting about them.

In addition, recently, Washington has started putting considerable efforts into trying to convince its allies from NATO and other nations in the region to take on more responsibility as far as military presence in Afghanistan is concerned.

For example, the United States took advantage of Tashkent’s ambitions to become a political center of the region, and “spearheaded the creation of a new three-way line of diplomatic dialogue in Central Asia” by acting as Sherpa (a chief negotiator) “for talks between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan as part of an experiment in pursuing its strategic objectives in the region”. The foreign ministers of Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, along with US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale, took part in the first meeting, which was held on May 27 via a teleconference. On May 28, US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Central Asia Jonathan Henick told reporters that the United States remained “totally committed to the C5+1 platform” (a mechanism for bringing together 5 former Soviet Central Asian republics with the United States (+1), which plays the role of a leader and arbiter). He added that the trilateral format had arisen “from the need to tackle some of the thorny technical issues on the border between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan”. In addition, Jonathan Henick stated that the USA “was exploring the possibility of similar trilateral meetings with other countries” of the region.

NATO is also seeking to take advantage of Central Asian nations’ capabilities by focusing on partnerships with both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, in particular.

However, regardless of the steps taken by Washington in Afghanistan recently, it is important to remember that the resolution of the conflict should not only involve Afghanistan or the USA and Central Asia, but also Russia, China and Pakistan. For instance, the PRC could play a constructive role in Afghanistan by making substantial investments into its economy. In fact, China is not the only nation interested in making such investments (as part of its initiative to establish a transit corridor via Afghanistan), so are Central Asia and other countries of the region, which can derive substantial benefits from doing so.

Hence, regional cooperation holds enormous potential for the future of Afghanistan, and Washington ought to clearly understand this and foster such collaborations among all the nations of the region.

As for the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, owing to the fortuitous set of circumstances nowadays, which include economic, geopolitical and epidemiological (on account of the Coronavirus) conditions, the Trump administration has a historic opportunity to finally put an end to the conflict, which has had a devastating impact not only on Afghanistan but also on the United States for almost 19 years.

Vladimir Odintsov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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