More than 7,000 US troops will be leaving Afghanistan in the coming weeks as the first stage of a phased withdrawal after 17 years of war.
The decision announced by President Donald Trump has been controversial both in the US and in Afghanistan. Yet it could bring about an array of new possibilities if Afghanistan plays its hand prudently.
The announcement couldn’t have come at a worse time when the Taliban controls at least 45 percent of the territory; when Afghan security forces are under heavy pressure; and while Afghanistan is preparing for four sets of elections including presidential polls in April.
For America it signals a failure in both the military and nation-building fronts. It reveals a disregard for the security of the people of Afghanistan and for US partners. It creates a void that could be explored by the Taliban and their main supporter, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), as well as by China, Iran and Russia.
US military officials and other experts have said the Afghan government is still not ready and would likely collapse if the US pulled out.
“On the military side, that's going to make the job of counterterrorism forces and the job of the security assistance forces there much, much harder, if not impossible,” says retired Lt. General David Barno, who once commanded coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Yet Afghan military officials view this differently: "If they withdraw from Afghanistan it will not have a security impact because in the last 4 1/2 years the Afghans have been in full control."
Yet for Afghanistan the change of scene may also offer new opportunities and new regional and international alliances that for the past 17 years have been dwarfed by the American presence.
The first positive effect would be that the Taliban would lose its raison d’etre of fighting foreign troops. Over time it could become an obsolete force – militarily, at the very least.
President Ashraf Ghani has already reshuffled his cabinet with the aim of disabling the Taliban. He has brought back two staunchly anti-Taliban former chiefs of National Directorate of Security (NDS) with vast experience in intelligence and effective networks of operatives potentially improving security analysis and strategy.
Both Amrullah Saleh and Assadullah Khalid, appointed on Sunday as acting interior and defence ministers respectively, are also opposed to negotiations through Pakistan.
“All my compatriots and international experts of terrorism would agree with me that the real threat is ISI, not the tiny ISIS-K,” Tweeted Saleh on Sunday juxtaposing the Pakistani ISI with the Islamic State-Khorasan.
“At least 30 million Afghans know who the enemy is,” he said.
That so-called “enemy” is also the most calculated foreign player in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has been quick to move both on the peace talks through President Trump’s special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, and with organising direct Taliban talks with Kabul. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi visited Kabul on Monday to meet Afghan President Ghani to convey the message.
Then on Tuesday Qureshi held talks with China, arguably the most important future foreign power in Afghanistan. Qureshi and China’s State Councillor Wang Yi “reached a consensus,” on broadly a political, rather than a military, solution for Afghanistan.
Little is known about the details of the talks but despite claims otherwise, the military aspect must have been on the agenda.
China needs both Pakistan and the Taliban for dealing with its own Islamic insurgency, the Uyghur nationalist East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) who are known to use Pakistani and Afghan territory for re-grouping and planning purposes.
To that end China claims it is helping Afghanistan set up a mountain brigade to fight terrorism. This is reportedly being done in the Wakhan Corridor – a narrow strip of remote land on the border extending about 350 km from the northern Afghan province of Badakhshan to China’s Muslim region of Xinjiang.
Additionally China has been involved in the China Silk Road Economic Belt, which would greatly expand trade and economic opportunities for China towards Central Asia. The first stage involves multi-billion dollar investments building rail and road links to Central Asia and across Central Asia to Iran, Russia, the Caucasus, Turkey, and Europe. The project has been held to ransom with the ongoing war in Afghanistan.
Iran and India are also working with Afghanistan on Chabahar Port project aimed at expanding transit to Central Asia. Russia is watching over these developments concerned about what it regards as its southern borders in Central Asia.
While interested in trade, all these countries are also waiting to benefit from exerting more power in Afghanistan, promoting their own brands of government which may be very different to what benefits the people of Afghanistan.
Iran has on Wednesday held talks with its contacts in the Taliban, and Russia has hosted two sets of peace conferences with the Taliban.
A departure of US troops would, therefore, present a unique turning point for Afghanistan. The challenges are enormous but so are the opportunities.
As Afghanistan’s political players prepare for April’s presidential elections they should remain vigilant not to be left out of any new regional deals especially over handing out new roles or government posts to the Taliban in the bargain.
The people of Afghanistan want peace but a dignified peace with no compromises to their national sovereignty and no bounties given to a group that is responsible for traumatising a nation and killing tens of thousands of civilians over the past two decades.
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