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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 28 February 2021

US withdrawal leaves Afghan soldiers feeling abandoned

Analysts question rapid troop drawdown without reduction in violence by Taliban insurgents

Afghan security forces patrol in Pashtun Zarghun district after they cleared the area of Taliban militants, in Herat, Afghanistan. EPA
Afghan security forces patrol in Pashtun Zarghun district after they cleared the area of Taliban militants, in Herat, Afghanistan. EPA

Ahmad Seyar was 19 when he decided to join the Afghan Army.

Born in a time war and turmoil, he had grown up idolising the soldiers – Afghan and international – who helped to protect his village in northern Afghanistan.

He wanted to be just like them, and to save his people.

But eight years later, with violence mounting and some of his closest friends and loved ones among its victims, Lt Seyar is becoming disillusioned.

This month, his younger brother, also a soldier, was killed by a mine in southern Logar province.

“He was very young, and full of hope for the future. We were planning his wedding, but now he’s been taken from us by the Taliban who kill everyone,” Lt Seyar told The National.

“My mother, who was a war widow, raised us by herself to serve this country. And now after everything, she’s lost a child to this war that doesn’t seem to end.”

However, Lt Seyar said he felt betrayed more than anything after the US peace agreement with the Taliban earlier this year.

He and his brother enlisted in the army to join forces with their heroes, the US forces whom they saw as allies in a righteous battle against the insurgents who oppressed them, he said.

The US-Taliban deal laid out a timeline for the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan in exchange for the insurgents opening peace talks with the Afghan government, among other conditions.

Lt Seyar and many of his compatriots were hopeful that perhaps the deal would start a chapter that would end the decades of war. But that hope seems to be ebbing away after nearly three months of talks in Qatar without tangible results.

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“Ever since the US made peace with Taliban, it seems they have only become stronger and are targeting us. We have lost so many of our people this year,” Lt Seyar said.

“They are equipped with modern and deadlier weapons that kill with such precision.

"At this difficult time, our allies are leaving us behind.”

Afghan forces are not the only ones who are alarmed by the US withdrawal. Security analysts observing the situation questioned the drawdown to 2,500 troops by the end of the year – a sharp drop from the roughly 12,000 US personnel estimated to be in the country at the start of the year.

“The US will be giving away a good bit of leverage without having extracted anything in return,” said Jonathan Schroden, director at CNA, a non-profit research and analysis organisation.

“One could have imagined the US tying the drawdown to 2,500 troops to something tangible like a limited ceasefire, or real reductions in violence, but the US will gain nothing by the unilateral withdrawal," he said.

"It will also make it harder for the US to provide air support to Afghan security forces, because US assets will be consolidated in the vicinity of Kabul as opposed to spread throughout the country.”

The US assistance to Afghan forces comprises training, guidance and, most importantly, air support that has helped them maintain control of several provinces despite the Taliban’s efforts. However, the announcement of the drawdown emboldened the Taliban, Mr Schroden said.

“They are already targeting large provinces and provincial capitals. The Taliban have been positioning their forces for exactly that eventuality, by consolidating their positions across rural areas, increasing their control over roads, and posturing their forces to squeeze and choke the cities,” he said.

“Doing so while talks are ongoing allows them to pressure the government and keep their fighters engaged, but it also positions them well for an attempt at military victory should the US decide to withdraw the rest of its troops before a peace agreement is reached.”

Mr Schroden said US President-elect Joe Biden did not seem be in a hurry for a full withdrawal and might maintain a small contingent of troops for counterterrorism purposes after taking office in January.

“Additionally, he didn't negotiate the US-Taliban agreement, and US officials have been signalling for months that they don't think the Taliban are in full compliance with that agreement because of their continued increases in violent attacks," he said.

"So, I expect the Biden administration to try to reset the US-Taliban situation and establish a firmer set of expectations before it agrees to withdraw the remainder of US forces from Afghanistan,” he said.

Mr Seyar hoped that the next US president will reconsider the withdrawal, at least until a suitable peace deal is reached between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The Afghans, after all, fought the Taliban for the US and international powers, just as much the US forces did for them, he said.

“They must stay longer, till the peace talks end with a positive result. We are in this together.”

Updated: November 28, 2020 10:06 PM

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