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Does The United States Lack An ‘Exit Strategy’ For Afghanistan? – OpEd

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History has proven time and again that almost any military which came to Afghanistan left the country without an exit strategy but unwillingly under immense pressure. To name a couple of them would be the British empire and the Russians.

With the U.S and NATO forces on the verge of withdrawal, it sounds history is being repeated. 

Any U.S exit with no clearly defined strategy will have negative consequences for all sides involved in the war. The United States thinks its Afghan strategy is non-plausible and its military is entangled in an endless war that couldn’t be won except to make a complete pullout. Whether this is a wise decision the Americans make is yet to be answered. 

Afghan officials admit now if the United States and its allies withdraw their forces before a peace settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban is finalized, a civil war is very likely to breakout.

The Afghan National Security Forces already being at the threshold of the war is working hard around the clock to fend off any unexpected attacks carried out by the Taliban on daily basis. Afghanistan’s National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib stated recently that the ANSF is conducting 96 percent of the operations against the Taliban meaning the residual U.S and NATO forces currently in the country aren’t fighting anymore.

The United States reluctantly intervened in Afghanistan after September 11, 2001, attack. Back then the U.S didn’t have a clear strategy and its military wasn’t ready to attack the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate who had harbored Al Qaeda leaders. American analysts believed, the military intervention in Afghanistan wasn’t an easy option post-September 11 attack since the US didn’t have an easy route to get its forces on the battlefield and the perception in the U.S was to do this the soonest possible.

Now that the Americans are preparing to leave, it is still unknown and up to the politicians in Washington DC to decide a complete withdrawal. Although the military is seemingly infuriated by the rush plan to drawdown all forces stationed in the country because for them, their mission in Afghanistan is not yet over. On the other hand, The Taliban with obvious help from the Pakistanis are stronger today and perhaps waiting to retake the country once the US and NATO make an exit. 

Initially, the US and its allies came to Afghanistan with extravagant promises and commitments but after 19 years of a counter-productive war, extremely exhausted, they are leaving with almost no core interests achieved. History will judge whether the Americans committed a mistake in the first place by coming to Afghanistan and now leaving behind a mess with a weak and dysfunctional government in Kabul already enmeshed in chaos.

Basically, there seems to be no practical exit strategy that the US is relying on. Rather, the US came to Afghanistan in a rush and it seems to leave in a rush leaving a questionable legacy behind. The military bases abandoned by the U.S forces so far were destroyed so they aren’t used after their departure.

Typically, the United States army goes to any war based on clear objectives and according to the military doctrines given to them. For example, any military action by the U.S army should only take place if the national security interest of the US is threatened and the risks and costs of the intervention are fully and frankly analyzed beforehand. But the Afghan war proved it otherwise. 19 years on, the future looks unclear and bleak. The Taliban are as resilient as before and there is no sign of military victory on the horizon.

The one assumption though the U.S has now is that Al Qaeda is weaker and has almost no capability to carry out attacks from Afghanistan and the Taliban after signing a peace deal in February don’t attack the U.S troops or its allies in Afghanistan. Literally, they are down-playing the war they had been fighting for years and Al Qaeda’s destructive and ominous anti-American objectives.

A good example of their miscalculation on Al Qaeda’s activity in Afghanistan would be the killing of one of Al Qaeda’s top leader Abu Muhsin Al Masri in a raid carried out by National Directorate of Security personnel in Ghazni province this week. 

They could come up and blame their ally the Afghan government for failing to deliver good governance and do well but the burden of failure will undoubtedly be felt by everyone.

The US after pulling out from Afghanistan is maybe depending on the Afghan National Security forces to carry the weight and deal with an insurgent Taliban, Al Qaeda and Islamic State is basically a miscalculation. If the US and NATO failed to do the job, how could the ANSF do this on its own?

Any premature US pullout will mean the collapse of the current Afghan government and a possible return of the Taliban.

The people of Afghanistan are tired and numb to hear the sound of the drumbeat of foreign forces leaving the country. People say if the Americans are leaving, let them go now, we are still going to be here and face what is coming our way. We can’t make them stay and protect us forever.

On October 8, US President Donald Trump blasted a tweet, that the remaining US troops based in Afghanistan “should” be home by Christmas which surprised both the Afghans and the US military strategists. However, Trump’s aim was obvious to everyone. Having certain political obligations, he needs to convince his voters in the U.S presidential elections that he is going to do something they like.

When the Soviet troops had to leave Afghanistan, at least they tried to learn the lessons the British expeditionary hadn’t learned to make a happy exit in 1942. What the erstwhile soviet troops did in 1989 was, clear out their exit route by bombing villages all the way to the then soviet border north of the country massacring poor people.

The difference back then was, after a decade of invasion, the Russian’s only effective legacy was a strong president in Kabul who had the muscles and was clever enough to govern the country for another three years even after the Soviet troops had left, but not to forget former president Najibullah was a thug who had the blood of many innocent souls in his hands. His later populist maneuvers to convince the Mujahideen fighters to join his farce reconciliation process proved ineffective after which his government collapsed, and he was hanged by the Taliban in 1996 in Kabul. 

The Americans lack that now, it is said that President Ashraf Ghani who is a scholar and educated in the west, doesn’t connect well with the people at the grass-root level. Despite having many virtues, in no way he is of Najibullah’s caliber to bear the burden once the foreign forces are gone. Nor could anyone else in his government has the guts to fill up the space and retain the government after a full U.S exit.

It is obvious now that the Afghan war is not a good war for the United States anymore, the mission lost the popularity it once had, but succumbing to failure and defeat is not an advisable option either. After all, the lives of those Afghans who helped the US and NATO forces to get here is at stake.

The Afghan Peace Conundrum 

As the United States is packing up to leave Afghanistan by reducing the size of its remaining troops, a high level of uncertainty prevails in the country. In parallel to that, the peace talks is underway in the Qatari capital between the Afghan government delegates and the Taliban for about two months, meanwhile, the Taliban increased their attacks against the Afghan Security forces across the country. A series of their ambushes and attacks continue which adds to the violence that makes ordinary people bleed.

A recent example of that is the Taliban’s assault on Lashkargah the capital town of Helmand province in the south which left many civilians dead and wounded and thousands of others had to leave their homes. It even required the Americans to provide air-support to the ANSF fighting off the Taliban fighters who had sieged the town. Multiple bombings and attacks occurred since then taking a high toll on the civilians.

How close are we to forging a peace deal with the Taliban?

In early October, President Ashraf Ghani traveled to Doha to discuss peace talks with the Qataris and possibly with the Taliban representatives based there. There was speculation of a temporary ceasefire before the intra-Afghan dialogue kicks off. But it turned out the meeting with the Taliban didn’t happen nor there was a ceasefire.

On his way to Qatar, President Ghani and his entourage stopped in Kuwait to pay respect for the demise of former Kuwaiti emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed who died on September 29, 2020.

Separately, a spoiler group is working around the clock to derail the talks and get the Taliban to avoid making a compromise with the current Afghan government. The group apparently led by former president Hamid Karzai is anxiously waiting to be brought back to the throne by the creation of an interim type of government. However, it is unclear whether the Taliban endorse him if there finally be any settlement.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar leader of the Hizb e Islami party who joined the peace process in September 2016 after 20 years of exile, now stands against the current government’s way calling upon forming an interim government to resolve the current political upheavals in the country. He even toured Pakistan recently where he said, the solution to current political problems in his country is the formation of a new interim administration.

The Taliban not knowing what to do independently is trying to find hinges and balk the Doha process. They have not renounced violence yet nor did they fully comply with the rules of their agreement which they had signed with the United States in February.

One great example of their non-compliance is that their 5500 prisoners released by the Afghan government on good well gesture returned to the battlegrounds despite taking an oath not to do so. There is no guarantee that any of those prisoners who are released would not join their colleagues.

Although they fight in the name of religion but most of their actions aren’t religious. The only thing the Taliban adhered so far at least in words after they signed the agreement with the U.S is that they didn’t attack U.S and Coalition forces directly, but they have continuously attacked Afghan forces which required the U.S forces to provide air support and come to their aid.

Since the creation of the movement, it has been proven that the Taliban always conceded to the calls of the non-Afghans like when they risked to give up their so-called Islamic Emirate post-September 11, 2001, only to safe Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden’s life who was later killed in a raid in Pakistan. 

None of the Taliban representatives who reside in Qatar are authorized to decide and deliberate on behalf of the group in the talks with Afghan government representatives which undermines the credibility of the entire process also backed by the U.S and other NATO allies.

The overall security in the country has deteriorated ever since the peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban in February which has been confirmed by American and Afghan military officials.  

If the Taliban comply with the rules of the agreement and finally reach a settlement with Afghan government, there is a big chance Afghanistan will move towards a road to peace and prosperity. The level of uncertainties will vanish away and a sense of hope and aspiration will come into existence.

Obviously, there is the question of transitional justice and the Taliban’s dark past which they have made the people suffer and bleed. Only time can unveil what will happen next but for now, the country and the people need peace and an end to this endless war more than anything else.

*Jawad is an Afghan journalist who reported in Afghanistan for many years including for The New York Times. He has a BA in Political Science from Goa University, and an MA (MPS) from Indira Gandhi National Open University. Jawad was a Knight Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan in its class of 2019.  Follow Jawad on Twitter @JawadSukhanyar

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