The Costs of Withdrawal From Afghanistan
First it was Syria, then came Afghanistan. Two days ago, President Trump shocked the foreign policy community by announcing the withdrawal of US troops from Syria, wrongly claiming the Islamic State has been defeated. Within the last 24 hours, reports have emerged that the US military will quickly pull nearly half of its forces from Afghanistan, and likely withdraw the rest by the end of 2019.
Trump’s decision is unsurprising to us. We’ve reported since October that the order to withdraw from Afghanistan could come at any time.
Many are celebrating the move, pointing to the length of the conflict (17 years), the enormous sunk cost and the inability of the Afghan government to stand on its own. Careful readers of this website will note that we have been critical of the war effort, and especially the rosy rhetoric employed by US military officials. We could easily pen another biting critique of the US-led war.
More troubling to us than a so-called “endless war,” however, is an outright jihadist victory. And that’s what Trump’s withdrawal of the small American force in country all but guarantees.
For years, the Taliban and al Qaeda have told their followers that victory is on the horizon. “Verily, Allah has promised us victory and America has promised us defeat, so we shall see which of the two promises will be fulfilled,” Mullah Omar has been quoted as saying.
More recently, al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri claimed that the Taliban’s resurrected Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will be the “nucleus” of a new caliphate. Such is the importance that Osama bin Laden’s successor has placed on the Afghan jihad. Similarly, the leader of al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), Asim Umar, predicted in 2017 that Trump’s “America First” policy meant that America would retreat from Afghanistan, thereby signaling the loss of its global leadership position.
Today, their predictions look prophetic. The precipitous withdrawal of US forces will grant the Taliban and al Qaeda a victory. Just as the mujahideen vanquished one superpower in Afghanistan, they will now claim to have defeated a second. The boost this gives to the global jihadist movement will be felt in the years to come. Trump’s withdrawal will have other costs as well, from undercutting his diplomats’ already weak negotiating position to validating Pakistani duplicity. And the Islamic State hasn’t been defeated in Afghanistan either.
A victory for the Taliban and Al Qaeda
The rapid withdrawal of US forces will give the Taliban, the group that hosted al Qaeda before and after the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackings, a clear triumph.
It will also be a win for al Qaeda, which has remained a steadfast ally of the Taliban since the US invasion. Zawahiri has sworn a bayat (oath of allegiance) Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, the current head of the Taliban, just as Zawahiri had pledged his fealty to Akhundzada’s two predecessors. Akhundzada’s top deputy, Sirajuddin Haqqani, has long worked with al Qaeda on the Afghan battlefield. In fact, Sirajuddin Haqqani and his father, Jalaluddin, gave al Qaeda a foothold in the region in the first place.
When Jalaluddin Haqqani’s death was announced in early September, al Qaeda’s general command eulogized him as bin Laden’s “brother.” Al Qaeda addressed Akhundzada and Sirajuddin as “our emirs in the Islamic Emirate,” vowed to remain loyal to the Taliban’s emirate-building project, and said that it took “solace in the fact” that Sirajuddin is the “deputy of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s Emir of the Faithful.”
The “Emir of the Faithful,” an honorific usually reserved for a Muslim caliph, is how al Qaeda consistently refers to Akhundzada.
This is not mere rhetoric. Numerous independent reports and assessments confirm that al Qaeda has embedded its operatives as military trainers and advisers alongside the Taliban, while also providing combat forces. AQIS was formed in 2014 for several reasons, but principally to help the Taliban rebuild its Islamic Emirate. AQIS’s men continue to serve their Taliban comrades to this day.
Al Qaeda has hidden the extent of its network in Afghanistan for years. The group doesn’t even release videos or images from its massive training facilities. This has been enough to fool credulous analysts into thinking that al Qaeda maintains only a minimal footprint in the country. Indeed, there is a cottage industry of Taliban apologists in the West. Their dismissal of the Taliban’s ongoing alliance with al Qaeda will be put to the test in the coming months.
Indeed, we expect that once American forces have left Afghanistan, al Qaeda will begin to advertise some of its activities once again. Zawahiri’s men will use America’s defeat as an alluring recruiting tool, bragging that the US couldn’t defeat them.
Weakens an already weak negotiating position
This fall, the US government tasked Zalmay Khalilzad with negotiating a peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government. FDD’s Long War Journal has been very clear that we think that this effort has little chance of success. Past efforts to negotiate with the Taliban ended in a fiasco. The Taliban has steadfastly refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, which it views as an “impotent” “stooge” and “puppet” of the US. The Taliban has demanded that American troops leave the country, Taliban prisoners be freed, and its leaders removed from the UN blacklist before the Taliban even considers talking with the government. The Taliban also rejects democracy, refuses to share power with the government, and most importantly, calls elections “un-Islamic.” While some Afghanistan watchers claim these positions can be negotiated, the Taliban has proven over the past that it is willing to hold fast to its radical principles. The West has often mistakenly downplayed the Taliban’s ideological commitment.
Regardless of whether or not you believe negotiations can lead to a settlement (and we do not), the immediate withdrawal of 7,000 troops from the country does not strengthen Khalilzad’s position. In fact, it greatly weakens it. Before news broke that the US would begin withdrawing soldiers, Khalilzad and other US officials had already signaled American weakness by pushing for a quick negotiated settlement. They wanted a deal as soon as April 2019. The US has engaged in these talks without the participation of the Afghan government — a move that grants legitimacy to the Taliban and delegitimizes President Ashraf Ghani’s administration.
The Taliban undoubtably views Trump’s withdrawal as further evidence of US desperation. There was little to no reason to think that the Taliban would negotiate in good faith before. There is none now. The Taliban can string along the US and extract concessions without giving anything up.
From the beginning, the Taliban has insisted that it was “fighting and negotiating with the American invaders for the success of Jihad” – that is, to get America out.
The Taliban has already achieved that goal.
Potential ANSDF collapse & a return of the warlords
The Afghan National Security Defense Forces (ANDSF) have struggled with containing the Taliban-led insurgency, as well as the Islamic State, even with approximately 15,000 US troops in country. Afghan military outposts are routinely overrun by agile Taliban forces. The jihadists even briefly took control of large areas of Farah and Ghazni cities this year. The military and police have largely been on the defensive, as the Taliban has maintained the initiative. ANSDF casualties (killed in battle) average between 500 and 600 a month for the past several years.
Even with US and NATO forces backing the ANSDF, the Taliban controls about 13 percent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, while contesting another 49 percent, according to an ongoing study by FDD’s Long War Journal.
A rapid reduction in US forces will no doubt allow the Taliban to step up its efforts to gain more territory. A complete withdrawal will pave the way for the Taliban to take control of large areas of Afghanistan. At least some provincial capitals and other populated areas will fall under the Taliban’s control in short order. This likely could lead to the collapse of the ANSDF and the Balkanization of Afghanistan. We could see the return of warlords and a revival of something akin to the Northern Alliance.
Pakistan’s use of jihadism as a foreign policy tool has been validated
Pakistan also has much to gain from a US withdrawal. It says much about America’s ineptitude and confusion that not a single Pakistani official was ever sanctioned or designated as a terror supporter throughout 17+ years of war. Besides the Trump administration’s decision to withhold some miitary aid, Pakistani officials never paid a real price for harboring the same forces that were attacking Americans and their allies.
Pakistan’s model of using jihadists to further its foreign policy goals in the region has been validated. Pakistan sponsors the Taliban and other terrorist groups as part of its regional security strategy. But there is more to it than that. Some unknown number of Pakistani officials have themselves fallen under the jihadists’ sway. The Pakistani military and intelligence establishment will continue to export the jihad to neighboring countries, particularly in the Indian state of Kashmir, but perhaps also elsewhere.
The Islamic State isn’t dead in Afghanistan
Finally, the Islamic State’s so-called Khorasan “province” hasn’t been defeated either. Although a US-led counterterrorism campaign has killed several of the group’s emirs, and dislodged Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s loyalists from their safe havens in eastern Afghanistan, they continue to terrorize the Afghan capital and other populated areas. Meanwhile, they also regularly attack inside Pakistan as well.
Outside of Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State’s men are most active in the “Khorasan.” The so-called caliphate hasn’t been defeated in any of those areas, but President Trump is withdrawing from the fight.
We share much of the widespread frustration with the US-led war effort in Afghanistan. We simply disagree that America can withdraw without serious consequences.
In the coming months, we will report on the ramifications of President Trump’s decisions, just as we did during the Obama administration. There is a simple rule of thumb many haven’t learned: the enemy gets a vote.
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