Reports of US troop pullout catches Afghans by surprise

Neither government nor the Taliban expected Washington to act on stated intention to withdraw, expert says

FILE PHOTO: U.S. troops patrol at an Afghan National Army (ANA) Base in Logar province, Afghanistan August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani/File Photo
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News of President Donald Trump's plan to withdraw thousands of troops has been met with a mixture of surprise and alarm in Afghanistan, as it comes amid increased Taliban attacks and a renewed US push for a peace deal between the insurgents and the government.

The president's decision was revealed by US defence officials just days after Mr Trump announced the withdrawal of US soldiers fighting ISIS in Syria and on the same day Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis resigned.

“We have been hearing startled reactions from all sides of the war. Western diplomats, [Afghan presidential] palace officials, and the Taliban themselves were shocked by the announcement,” said Graeme Smith, a senior consultant for the International Crisis Group.

Mr Smith said President Trump’s special envoy for negotiating peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, had told officials in the presidential palace that such a decision was imminent, but they did not take him seriously.

"Senior figures in the Afghan government treated the warnings as a bluff, speculating that Khalilzad was beyond his remit, and the palace made no secret about its scepticism," he told The National.

“The Afghan government was warned repeatedly that western governments were tired of spending tens of billions annually. The palace was told bluntly that the US was seeking a responsible negotiated exit. But there persisted a mistaken belief among the Kabul elites that the American military wanted a permanent foothold in the country,” Mr Smith said.

The US has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan working either with a Nato mission to support Afghan forces or in separate counter-terrorism operations. US officials told the New York Times and Wall Street Journal that about half that number would be withdrawn.

Although it may have come as a surprise, President Ashraf Ghani's office said the US decision would not affect the security situation in the country.

Drawing comparison with the massive withdrawal of US troops in 2014, the president's chief adviser, Fazel Fazly, insisted that Afghan forces were capable of maintaining security.

“If the few thousand foreign troops that advise, train and assist leave, it will not affect our security," Mr Fazly tweeted. "In the past four and half years our security is completely in the hands of Afghans."

News of the US withdrawal plan was met with cautious approval from members of the Afghan security forces.

“We don't like that the foreigners lead us [in the battlefield],” said Ahmad Milad, a police officer from a district in northern Afghanistan that often sees clashes with the Taliban.

Mr Milad has been fighting the Taliban for nearly nine years and shares a sense of exhaustion increasingly common among Afghans as the conflict drags on. "We want our leaders to come together and bring peace. Then we would be happy for the US troops leave our country," he told The National.

Mr Smith said the US decision could affect more than just security.

“It’s clear that a rapid pullout of all international forces could spark the collapse of the Afghan government and start a new civil war,” he said.

But the move could also send a positive message to the Taliban who have held several rounds talks with the US administration, including in Abu Dhabi this week.

"This signals to the Taliban that the US is serious about negotiating an exit. Taliban have been asking each other in recent weeks whether American diplomats were honest when they claimed to be ready for a responsible withdrawal,” he said.

"Some of the insurgents did not believe that the US military would give up a strategic foothold in South Asia. Today’s news will erode that scepticism.”

There was no immediate response from the Taliban, which showed they were being cautious, Mr Smith said.

“Amid their celebrations there is also serious talk about reaching out to their enemies, and not antagonising their opponents on social media. They do not want another civil war of the kind witnessed in the early 1990,” he said, referring to the upheaval following the withdrawal of Soviet occupying forces.


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