KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — President Donald Trump has ordered the withdrawal of 7,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan in the coming months, a move that came as a shock to Afghan politicians, analysts, and citizens who woke up to the news early Friday morning.
Though Washington has yet to issue a formal announcement of the pullout, which would see the number of U.S. soldiers reduced by at least half, several media outlets citing top U.S. officials said preparations for the withdrawal have already begun. The decision comes just days after Trump ordered troop withdrawals in Syria and signals a dramatic change of course in the 17-year-old Afghan war.
Obaid Ali, a Kabul-based analyst, said the timing of the potential pullout is particularly troubling. In the years since the bulk of foreign forces withdrew in 2014, the Taliban have become stronger, Ali said.
“It only took a year after the foreign troop withdrawal for a province to fall,” Ali told ThinkProgress, referring to the autumn of 2015, when Kunduz became the first province to fall to the Taliban in the 14 years since the U.S.-led invasion. Though Afghan Forces were able to regain control of the Northern province in a matter of weeks, by 2016, the Taliban once again took control of Kunduz for a brief period that left civilians trapped in their homes.
Since then, a number of provinces in the South (Uruzgan), East (Ghazni), and West (Farah) of the country have come under the verge of collapse as the Taliban continued to gain ground. At the same time, strategic districts around the country once again found themselves mired in ongoing back-and-forth battles as the armed opposition and the Kabul government fought to maintain control of key areas.
According to the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the top U.S. watchdog on Afghanistan, Afghan government control over the nation’s 400-plus districts fell to 55.5 percent this year, the lowest figure since SIGAR first began tracking district-level control in 2015.
Ali said such gains, coupled with a potential U.S. troop pullout will only serve to bolster the Taliban.
“They are widespread around the country now. They will be much stronger this time,” said Ali of the differences on the ground between 2015 and 2018.
Raihana Azad, a parliamentarian from the Southern province of Uruzgan, said she fears the decision was made in haste, without taking the situation on the ground into account.
Azad questions Trump’s willingness to publicly announce a troop drawdown, something he had long mocked his predecessor for doing in 2014.
“This was a major, unexpected shock to the people of Afghanistan,” Azad said.
Like Ali, Azad points to growing insecurity as proof of why such hasty decisions could prove detrimental to both Afghanistan and the global war on terror, which she says Afghanistan plays a key role in.
“For years, Daikundi was one of the most secure provinces of Afghanistan but in the last year we’ve seen that the Taliban are even making gains there,” Azad said of her native province in Central Afghanistan.
In October, days before the parliamentary elections, hundreds of Taliban fighters stormed Afghan Police and Army forces in Kajran district of Daikundi province. The hours-long battle led to the deaths of at least eight soldiers and five police.
Though some say the withdrawal could be part of ongoing negotiations between the Taliban and U.S. officials that have taken place in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, Azad fears that the suddenness of the decision could be a sign of backroom political deals that do not take the wishes of the people into account.
“We’ve made too many sacrifices to turn back now,” Azad said.
Like many Afghans, Azad is fearful that a rash decision by Washington could be seen as a boon for regional forces who have been accused of aiding and abetting the Taliban, namely Pakistan, Iran, and Russia.
“This what they have all wanted for a long time now. They don’t want us to be able to stand on our own two feet,” Azad said, referring to recent economic decisions by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that have seen Kabul turn away from trade with Islamabad and Tehran in favor of routes through the other Central Asian states, Turkey, and Europe.
But there are some in the country who say that Trump’s reported decision signals the first time that officials in Washington or Kabul will have to seriously consider what an end to the latest conflict in Afghanistan would look like.
Janan Mosazai, Afghanistan’s former ambassador to Pakistan, tweeted, “Even if US ends up departing in 5 or 10 years from now rather than in next 6, 12 or 24 months, we must plan and make our arrangements as if it were going to occur tomorrow. In other words, we need real urgency on this right away.”
Even if US ends up departing in 5 or 10 years from now rather than in next 6, 12 or 24 months, we must plan and make our arrangements as if it were going to occur tomorrow. In other words, we need real urgency on this right away.
— Janan Mosazai (@JananMosazai) December 21, 2018
Others referred to a potential end to civilian casualties and violence. In 2013, the Obama administration’s reliance on airstrikes and drones earned Afghanistan the title of the most “drone-bombed country in the world,” a trend which Trump has continued during his tenure.
Idrees Stanikzai, who ran for a seat in Kabul province during October’s parliamentary election, questioned Washington’s intentions for its longest-running war:
so what if #US is departing their soldiers from Afghanistan. They were never here for Afghans, they always had their own goals. And they have always sold us to Pakistan for their interests. I trust #AfghanForces more than any foreigner.
خبردار که بیگانه بیگانه است
— Idrees Stanikzai (@Stanikzaiii) December 21, 2018
Meanwhile, the Taliban have long been calling for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan as a pre-condition for peace. Last week, the Taliban sat down with U.S. representatives, as well as representatives from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, in the latest round of peace talks. They once again reiterated their calls for a pullout of foreign forces while maintaining their refusal to sit down with representatives of the Kabul government.
“Discussions are taking place with the representatives of the United States about ending the occupation, a matter that does not concern the Kabul administration whatsoever. The entire agenda is focused on issues concerning the occupiers and talks will exclusively be held with them,” a Taliban statement issued last Tuesday read.
Though Afghan and U.S. officials say they are hopeful about the ongoing talks between Washington and the Taliban, there is a fear that Trump’s decision could in fact serve as a blow to the peace efforts.
If the U.S. president does in fact go through with his call for a troop withdrawal, it will be yet another example of his ever-changing views of the United States’ longest-ever foreign war. Last year, Trump went against years of his own rhetoric to deploy 4,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. Then in February, he insisted that he would never engage in peace talks with the Taliban. By July, his stance seemed to change once again, and U.S. officials flew to Qatar, where they had their first-ever direct talks with the Taliban.
This story has been updated with comments by Janan Mosazai and Idrees Stanikzai.