Troop withdrawal from Afghanistan

The US initiative could help in achieving a real breakthrough on ending the conflict

Rustam Shah Mohmand April 16, 2021
The writer is a former chief secretary K-P and former ambassador

The US review of its policy regarding the war in Afghanistan has been completed — for the time being. All American forces will be out of Afghanistan by September 11, this year. All Nato forces will also depart by the same deadline. The withdrawal will begin next month.

In making this announcement from the treaty room of the White House — the same room from where former president Bush made a declaration of a ‘War on Terror’ in the aftermath of terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 – President Joe Biden had to confront serious opposition from some leaders of the Republican Party as well as some senior military officers. In a historic speech, Biden told the American audience that “the United States had become mired in an endless and increasingly irrelevant conflict that more time and more troops would not resolve”. The President also added that a perpetual presence in the country would not serve US interests. He added that America must focus on a “modern landscape of threats” that is far different from that of nearly two decades ago, when the war began.

Biden asserted that he will not pass this responsibility (of dealing with the war) to a fifth president — four US presidents including himself have presided over American troop presence in Afghanistan. Biden also said that the US had since long achieved the original goals of the war — an opinion that many would not agree with. The President declared, “I have concluded that it’s time to end America’s longest war.”

Questioning the whole rationale for supporting continued military presence in Afghanistan, Biden added, ‘’The main argument for staying longer is what each of my three predecessors have grappled with: No one wants to say that we should be in Afghanistan forever, but they insist now is not the right moment to leave.”

That was putting it very succinctly. The problem was the goals were not defined. What did the US want to achieve? The Afghanistan Papers had laid bare the truth about the whole unwarranted military intervention. The papers illustrated how the American public was told lies about the war and how facts on the ground were concealed by the government and the generals. Together they were trying to market a strategy that had no relevance to the objective realities.

The US initiative could help in achieving a real breakthrough on ending the conflict. In the last week of this month there will be a UN-sponsored conference in Turkey to build a consensus on governance systems following an agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The conference would be attended by Qatar, the Taliban, the Afghan government, and of course Turkey. In view of the US pledge to pull out all its forces before September 11, the deliberations of the conference have assumed added significance. The Taliban’s long cherished demand for the departure of all foreign forces has been met. Now is time for them to help in endeavours that would result in the establishment of an interim government. The interim government would be created by the traditional and time-honoured Afghan institution, the Loya Jirga, or People’s Grand Assembly. The interim government that will include the Taliban as a vital component would be multi-ethnic and broad-based.

Opposition to the interim government could come only from the current rulers who would like to prolong the status quo. But prolongation of the status quo is fraught with grave dangers to the unity of the country. The only country that can play a crucial role in countering the machinations of the Kabul government is the US. The Kabul government is dependent on external financial assistance for the maintenance of its army, police and for the general administration. Washington has to use that lever in forcing the Ghani government to acquiesce in the idea of an interim government as a means for ending the war.

There are reports that the Taliban would not agree to attend the Istanbul meeting because the US has not met the May deadline for the withdrawal of forces. That will be a costly error. A delay of four months should not cause the whole scheme of reconciliation to be sabotaged or abandoned. After 20 years of fighting when the goal of an Afghanistan free of foreign forces is in sight, no decision should be taken that would unravel the whole peace process. The Taliban must realise that if they don’t seize this opportunity not only would they lose support internationally, but also within the country. They would become more isolated. The US had made its intention clear soon after the new administration assumed responsibility. Biden was unambiguous when he said the May deadline for the exit of forces would be difficult to meet. And the new government needed time to complete its review of policy on Afghanistan. In less than three months, Washington has announced a new timetable for a complete withdrawal of all foreign forces. And this is a withdrawal plan that is not dependent or linked to any conditions. That is a clear departure from the narratives of the previous governments. The Taliban must reciprocate by being on board with the discussions in the Istanbul conference where the bottom line of complete and unconditional withdrawal of forces by September 11 will not be questioned or debated. Their willingness to participate in the Istanbul conference would not only raise their stature but also could help in the release of the nearly 7,000 remaining Taliban prisoners.

Regional countries have a role to play. China has stakes because of its heavy investment in Afghanistan which it would like to see protected besides its One Belt One Road project that would get a boost with normalcy returning to Afghanistan. Iran has an interest in a Taliban-inclusive government because only can such a government eliminate terrorist outfits like Daesh that pose a threat to its border areas. China has similar expectations. And of course, no country would gain as much from Afghanistan’s peace and stability as Pakistan for a host of reasons. Islamabad must play its role by advising the Taliban leadership to not miss a historic opportunity for peace.

Biden has emphasised that the US would continue to lend support to Afghanistan in helping to create conditions for a complete return to normalcy. In other words, Washington would not wash its hands off Afghanistan even though there would be no military presence. Ashraf Ghani’s acceptance of the idea of an interim government and the Taliban agreeing to come on board are critical elements in addition to continued international support for ending the conflict — all of which are indispensable components in a new peace formula.

Biden’s landmark announcement has opened the doors to resolving the long conflict. Missing the opportunity for peace would be a grave error.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 16th, 2021.

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