Theories on disruptive change are all the rage in international relations, but few learned academics could adequately describe the disruption that has marked the last month of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Not content with firing Defense Secretary Mark Esper in a truly ‘revolving door’ administration, the President typically announced on Twitter that ‘all’ American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq would return by Christmas.
As general consternation broke out on this entirely unexpected development, a visibly tense Acting Defense secretary Christopher Miller clarified that the Trump’s orders would mean a reduction of troops from the present 4,500 to 2,500 in Afghanistan, as also similar reductions in Iraq, and a complete pull out in Somalia, thereby echoing National Security Advisor O’Brien’s comment earlier.
US’s Withdrawal Plan & Implications
Unlike the other two theatres, the drawdown in Afghanistan is likely to have the largest impact, especially for India, where the pace of decision-making will have to be sped up to recognise available opportunities.
In all fairness, President Trump had always disliked the ‘longest war’ in Afghanistan, where fathers have watched their children enlist to fight the very same war 20 years down the line. Why the President pushed the decision to start withdrawal five days before Biden takes over, is best left to the inevitable memoirs of White House staff.
Even as Trump allies like Senate Majority Leader Mitch MacConnell condemned the move as “even worse” than Obama’s premature exit from Iraq, a Taliban spokesman Mohammed Naeem said the move was a ‘positive step’ towards implementing the Doha agreement.
Earlier a Taliban statement noted that a new President-elect would do well to abide by the agreement, and “withdrawal of all US forces from Afghanistan, non-interference in our country, and not allowing the use of Afghanistan to threaten America”. That’s the rub. While the first has been accelerated, the other conditions are virtually non-starters.
What The Doha Agreement Hinges On
The Doha Agreement – which didn’t have the legitimate Afghan government as a signatory, because the Taliban refuse to recognise it – did promise a full and complete withdrawal of all troops, security contractors and other support staff by April 2021. Till June, the pace of withdrawal has been according to that time table, (from 13,000 to 8,600) with Trump’s election promise of a further reduction ( 4500) also being implemented.
In October he had already offered a a complete withdrawal by Christmas, which is now to be implemented early 2021 to the promised 2500.
Saner heads have clearly ruled, because the whole Doha agreement hinges on the fact that the Taliban not allow fund raising, recruitment or shelter of Al Qaeda, Islamic State or any other groups that threaten the US.
Will A Biden Administration Rethink US Pull Out From Afghanistan?
The understanding was also that violence would go down, something the Taliban denies as it launches operations which have so far seen a fifty percent rise in violence, including the latest Kabul University bombing claimed by the Islamic State. An SMS from a student who was murdered soon after, said that the attackers spoke Urdu, reinforcing the exhaustive report from Kate Clark that foreign fighters are returning and training has begun again, particularly along the Pakistani border. Then there is the disquieting news from a senior UN official that prior to the Doha meet, the Taliban had assured the Al Qaeda that they would honour historic ties. Simply put, none of the highly limited objectives of the Doha agreement have been fulfilled in the least.
Does this mean that a new President will rethink the withdrawal? Biden’s much discussed article in Foreign Affairs mentions Afghanistan thrice only, and that too in the context of ‘bringing the troops home’, and focussing only on counter-terrorism.
That means a small US contingent, with Special Forces, backed by strong intelligence, and perhaps a remnant ‘contractor force’ could just about do the job. What such a small force cannot do is bone up the capabilities of the Afghan National Army and training its Special Forces in particular. Forced by an unequal agreement to take a ‘defensive’ position, reliable analysis points to sagging morale, even as reports of defections to the Taliban are rising.
How India Can Find An ‘Opportunity In Disaster’
It is a truism that opportunities are often found in disaster. So in the midst of a US pull out, India can decide to take up the slack in training of the Afghan army by ramping up its existing programs, including with a possible training centre at a neighbouring Central Asian state.
After the faux pas of boosting Trump at the Houston rally, a timely offer to the Biden Administration would certainly be appreciated.
Delhi also has to remind itself that as Vice President in 2009, Biden was advocating a reduced troop presence but with “strikes against Qaeda cells, primarily in Pakistan, using special forces, Predator missile attacks and other surgical tactics”.
That strategy was not then accepted, but the present situation is tailor-made for it. Such a strategy, however, depends on critical intelligence, something which Delhi should be able to provide, provided significant resources are committed to such an effort. We can also consider how best to persuade our risk averse business community to invest in what is a very clear national security goal – the greater peace and stability of Afghanistan.
(Dr Tara Kartha was Director, National Security Council Secretariat. She is now a Distinguished Fellow at IPCS. She tweets at @kartha_tara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)