Shh! Even If We Are Leaving Afghanistan, Just Don’t Tell the Taliban
Even as suicide bombings in Afghanistan continue, the U.S. is preparing to withdraw roughly half of the twelve to thirteen thousand troops it has currently deployed. Announcing this withdrawal may play well for some in political terms domestically, but it is an unnecessary concession diplomatically as negotiations proceed with the Taliban. A predetermined withdrawal not only threatens stability in Afghanistan but also signals to allies and adversaries elsewhere that the U.S. lacks resiliency.
The remaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan primarily support local partners with surveillance, air support, training, and advice. Compared to earlier stages of the war when large numbers of American troops were responsible for major combat operations, the current mission allows a small force to work by, with, and through partners to limit U.S. losses and transition Afghan partners towards security independence. This is a slow, tough process, but it becomes even more so when adversaries do not believe the U.S. will remain committed to it. Additionally, the further withdrawal of American forces will increase the burden on the 8,500 NATO forces and other partners.
The Taliban predicts that the U.S. will leave Afghanistan before these partners are ready to operate without American support and has exercised strategic patience to wait for a U.S. withdrawal. By waiting to launch major operations, the Taliban seeks to preserve its strength so that that it can escalate operations once the U.S. has decreased its presence in Afghanistan. Once enough U.S. troops leave, Taliban forces may escalate, taking back the U.S.-led coalition’s hard-won gains.
While the Taliban has been strategically patient it also coordinates limited tactical level violence to decrease American willingness to stay. In fact, violence in Afghanistan has worsened since the start of the negotiations this year as the Taliban seeks to increase its negotiating leverage. Withdrawing troops now or even as part of a deal that does not ensure a power sharing arrangement could lead to a quick Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
Even more dangerous to U.S. interests, al-Qaeda and ISIS are also waiting for American troops to withdraw. The Taliban pose a threat to a stable Afghanistan, but the major danger that Americans should fear is that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan would again shield terrorist organizations that seek to target U.S. interests at home and abroad.
Announcing intentions to withdraw has strategic problems beyond Afghanistan. America’s other adversaries, including Islamic State, Iran, Russia, and China are also taking note. Combined with the Syria withdrawal, further troop reductions in Afghanistan would invite adversaries to fill the vacuum and signal that America is retreating from the region.
Prior efforts to schedule troop withdrawals have allowed adversaries to fill the vacuum that these troops leave behind.
President Obama withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011 in adherence to a Status of Forces Agreement signed during the Bush administration, but America’s partners were not ready to bear the full responsibility of maintaining security across the country. By 2014, ISIS was surging across Syria and into Iraq and the U.S-trained Iraqi Army was collapsing.
Just before this ISIS expansion in 2014, the U.S. had planned a phased withdrawal from Afghanistan from 34,000 troops to under 10,000, then 5,500 troops within a year, and finally a complete withdrawal by 2016. However, Obama backtracked on this decision, fearing a similar breakdown in Afghanistan to the one in Iraq.
More recently, the U.S. withdrawal from Syria offers an example of how a premature troop withdrawal can endanger America’s partners and interests. America’s withdrawal from northeastern Syria has already allowed Russia, Iran and Turkey to fill the vacuum while Islamic State fighters escape from prison and prepare to resurge. Like the rest of the world, the Taliban has noted America’s withdrawal from Syria and seeks to create a similar vacuum in Afghanistan.
If the administration is committed to a withdrawal, it should avoid officially or unofficially announcing these decisions and keep troop levels stable as it negotiates with the Taliban to avoid conceding negotiating leverage. Instead of making a troop withdrawal the focus of negotiations, the U.S. should seek a power sharing arrangement that would reinforce democracy and limit the Taliban’s ability to retake complete control of Afghanistan. Only once the Taliban demonstrates its commitment to maintain the peace and prevent terrorists like al-Qaeda and ISIS from proliferating should the U.S. begin a phased withdrawal.
The U.S. may be readying itself to wind down America’s involvement in Afghanistan, but there are dangerous consequences for doing so improperly. Conducting a precipitous withdrawal ignores the steep price the U.S., coalition, and Afghan partners have already paid in blood and treasure for a stable, free Afghanistan. This could potentially undo significant counterterrorism and democracy building steps that would roll back the clock to before the 2001 invasion.
Lieutenant General Richard P. Mills, USMC (ret.) served as Commander of NATO’s Regional Command Southwest in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011. He was a participant of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) Generals and Admirals program to Israel in 2019.
Originally published in the Washington Examiner