Tom Grein | Middle East and North Africa Fellow
In early March President Trump spoke with the Taliban’s chief negotiator from the Oval Office. The conversation—maybe the first direct dialogue between an American President and a senior Taliban official—discussed peace, power-sharing and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. After two decades of war, it appears America wants out.
The call came just three days after the two parties signed a conditions-based peace agreement in Doha. The deal reduces U.S. troops from 12,000 to 8,600 and closes several American bases in return for the Taliban ending all ties with terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, and entering power-sharing negotiations with the Afghan government.
The most significant part of the deal, however, is the full withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan within 14 months. This aspect has divided Washington, with foreign policy establishment voices supporting a skeleton force for ongoing security purposes and ‘America First’ isolationist types advocating complete withdrawal.
Though if anyone should know the consequences of an abrupt withdrawal from the Middle East, it should be Trump. It wasn’t so long ago Republicans argued President Obama’s 2011 extraction from Iraq created the Islamic State. In fact, Trump himself claimed Obama “founded ISIS”, labelling Hillary Clinton “the co-founder”. Experts have warned Afghanistan may face a similar fate if America leaves.
Confounding Washington’s movements are the region’s geopolitical heavyweights—Iran, China, Russia and Pakistan.
Afghan officials have long claimed Iranian meddling in their internal affairs, and in 2016 Iran’s ambassador to Afghanistan revealed his country had direct ties to the Taliban—a detail confirmed by the Iranian foreign minister in 2019. Sources also suggest the Ansar Corps—a militia established by the late Qassem Soleimani—have trained Taliban fighters on Iranian soil to carry out attacks on NATO and Afghan troops.
In September 2019 a Taliban delegation visited Beijing to discuss the U.S.-Afghan peace talks. The nature of Chinese-Taliban relations is relatively unknown, but China’s objectives in Afghanistan broadly mirror Pakistan’s in its aim to prevent a Western-friendly government that would support India’s regional standing. Expanding its Belt and Road Initiative channel through Afghanistan is also a key strategic objective.
According to the 2014 book The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics, Beijing supports several Islamist militias in Pakistan and Afghanistan, including the Haqqani network, which aims to restore Taliban rule and is responsible for the deaths of NATO soldiers.
The Taliban also travelled to Moscow in late 2019 to discuss their peace agenda. During the visit, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a total withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan was necessary to achieve peace. While Moscow is wary of Islamic militancy, an America-less Afghanistan is significant to the Kremlin’s geostrategic standing in Central Asia.
Pakistan is perhaps the primary thorn in America’s side. The principle of state sovereignty has long vexed American efforts in Afghanistan, as it has prevented Washington pursuing the Taliban into Pakistan. The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)—Pakistan’s national security agency—has aided the Taliban since the 1990s, and it is argued Osama Bin Laden was a patron of the ISI. The Taliban’s leverage in Islamabad and firm grip in northern Pakistan ensure its continuity in the region.
Washington’s strategic calculus has been complicated further in recent weeks by COVID-19, as it’s created a dual motivation to cut costs and accelerate a final settlement. On 23 March, Washington slashed $1 billion in aid to Afghanistan, warning more cuts in 2021. The recent contraction of the American economy—which is forecast to shrink 30 per cent in the next quarter—provides good reason—and cover—to reduce expenditure abroad.
Just two days after Washington’s announcement, the Afghan Health Ministry said more than half their population could become infected with COVID-19. With the virus already ravaging the United States, the White House must be wary of maintaining troops in a pandemic-stricken country. President Obama’s former chief advisor, Rahm Emanuel, once said, “never let a serious crisis go to waste.” COVID-19 provides Trump the ideal opportunity to make good on his isolationist desires.
Those against withdrawal from Afghanistan fear creating Najibullah 2.0—the day in 1992 when the Islamic Mujahideen seized Kabul after Moscow pulled support for the pro-Communist Afghan government. It led to civil conflict, a decade of international terrorism, and finally, September 11.
Though the United States can learn to live with an Afghanistan under part Taliban rule so long as the Taliban does not build terrorist training camps. “We know the Taliban is not a nice organisation”, said one American Congressman, “but what’s the alternative?
The region’s chief geopolitical players—Iran, China, Russia and Pakistan—have more to lose in Afghanistan than the United States hopes to gain, while the Taliban’s willingness to fight a war of attrition long outlasts American patience. These have been the worst kept secrets of the War in Afghanistan from the outset.
America’s departure from Afghanistan, however, ought to come with one essential string attached—an unequivocal avowal that should the Taliban or its terrorist proxies ever threaten to harm the United States or its allies, they will be met with overwhelming force.
In the meantime, it’s time to start packing.
Tom Grein is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.