By Saleem Safi
January 10, 2019
At last, what was being dreaded actually happened on the Afghanistan front. The unpredictable President Donald Trump hinted at an abrupt withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan.
It seems that history has started repeating itself in a more horrifying form in the Afghan theatre. The US faces more or less the same fate as that of the mighty Soviet Union in Afghanistan. While time will judge whether Donald Trump proves to be a Mikhail Gorbachev for the US, but he has been proving to be another Gorbachev for Afghanistan. The hint at troop withdrawal by Trump is more dangerous for Afghanistan and Pakistan than that of the Soviet withdrawal in the late 1980s.
The Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan with bag and baggage, leaving nothing behind except destroyed tanks and deserted camps. But the US intends to maintain its military bases. The Soviet Union left Afghanistan at the mercy of the Afghans or of its neighbours. But the US is leaving Afghanistan at the mercy of more than a dozen regional and global powers that will interfere in Afghanistan’s internal matters with impunity.
During the Soviet withdrawal, Afghanistan had some sort of organised setup in the form of Dr Najeebullah’s government, but now the country is under the already fragile and chaos-ridden government of Ashraf Ghani. Similarly, in the 1980s, Afghanistan was divided into two parties: the Najeeb government and the Mujahideen. But now the political setup is divided among several ethnic and political parties as well as dozens of militants and resistance groups.
After the Soviet withdrawal, Afghanistan was left to Pakistan and opponents of Pakistan, but the US is handing over the country to multiple players. The proxies of external powers like India, Russia, Iran, Arab countries, Turkey and the UK etc have a strong presence in Afghanistan. In the late 1980s, people had hoped that the mujahedeen would occupy the whole country sooner or later after the withdrawal of the Red Army. While there are those that still harbour the same hopes post-US withdrawal, it is clear that the Taliban and Isis could give a tough time to the Afghan government but can still not occupy the whole country.
The news of the impending US withdrawal jolted the Ashraf Ghani government and indeed boosted the morale of the Taliban. Comparing this situation with the defeat of the Soviet Union and victory of the mujahedeen, the Taliban of today perceive themselves as winners and celebrated the victory with jubilation; they were joined in by some right-wing forces in Pakistan.
Critically analysing the situation, analysts have unfortunately reached the conclusion that Afghanistan is on the brink of another disaster as it was in 1989. The fallout of this disaster could prove disastrous for Pakistan like it was in the 1990s. The horizon is cloudy and uncertain but we assume a clear sky.
George W Bush’s decision to invade Afghanistan was indeed a foolish act, but now Trump’s decision of an abrupt withdrawal is also an absurd and insane step. Internally too, he is also facing opposition to his decision from concerned quarters. The text of the resignation of US Secretary of Defense James Mattis shows how much difference in opinion existed among them. Lt Gen Kenneth McKenzie warned the US Senate Armed Service Committee of the collapse of the Afghan military in case of an abrupt withdrawal of US troops: “If we left precipitously right now, I do not believe they would be able to successfully defend their country”.
Whenever the officials of the US establishment and the US State Department talked to the Afghan side, they would insist on a quick solution of the issue as well as warn that Donald Trump could announce a unilateral withdrawal. This was probably the reason that the Pakistani establishment made great efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiations table.
Negotiations were held between the US and the Taliban but, despite being a main stakeholder, the Afghan government was sidelined. Even Donald Trump did not wait for the final outcome of the ongoing negotiations and hinted at a possible withdrawal – just on the basis of the preliminary meeting.
The decision is part of Trump’s ‘America First’ policy, but the strategy is absurd and totally flawed. On the one hand, he agreed on negotiations and on the other hand hinted at an abrupt drawdown of troops – instead of waiting for the result of the negotiation process. Moreover, the position of the Afghan government has further weakened after having been kept out of the negotiation process; this has enhanced the morale of the Taliban. In the past, the Taliban did not give much importance to the Afghan government; now their attitude and stance towards Kabul will be even harsher and inflexible.
Although the Americans have not managed to achieve their goals in Afghanistan, and some would say they face a Soviet Union type defeat, on some fronts, Washington did get some success. For example, Afghanistan was a safe haven for Al-Qaeda before 9/11. But now the network has been considerably disrupted and is unable to strengthen its position in Afghanistan. It is also not possible for anyone to plan and launch attacks on the US mainland while sitting in Afghanistan. In fact, the US has strengthened its own position in Afghanistan and made a strong lobby in Afghan politics to defend and protect American interests. The deteriorating economy also put Kabul in a disadvantageous position and every government will be highly dependent on Washington.
In addition, the US will keep its military bases in Afghanistan through which Washington will likely try to keep the region under its influence, as has been the case in the Middle East. Moreover, Washington will continue its aggressive approach against Pakistan since its dependency on Islamabad will considerably shrink once American troops leave Afghanistan.
The abrupt withdrawal will end up causing political instability and civil war in Afghanistan with serious repercussions for its neighbouring countries, especially Pakistan. The others to be affected include Central Asia and Russia as well as the Belt and Road Initiative of China – the US’s number one competitor. Needless to say, the United States will not face any such direct consequences.
Therefore, Pakistan, Russia, China and Iran should initiate strong diplomatic efforts and pave the way for reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The Afghan side should focus on building the bridges that they broke in their ties with Pakistan and other regional powers so that these countries may play an effective role in the reconciliation process with the Taliban. The Taliban should also shake off the fancy assumption of victory and see the ground realities and then find a solution to the Afghanistan issue.
If Afghans keep fighting amongst each other, they will be handing over space to external powers to interfere in Afghanistan’s internal matters. But if the Afghans come together and stand united, Afghanistan has a chance at one day being free of all kinds of external interference.
Saleem Safi works for Geo TV.