What a US Withdrawal Means for America’s Diplomatic Pact with the Taliban

Questions have Arisen About Which Troops to Withdraw and the Impact on the US Mission 

US President Donald Trump will cut his country's military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon announced this week.  Acting defence secretary Christopher Miller said the number of US soldiers in Afghanistan will fall from 4,500 to 2,500 by the time Trump leaves office early next year, stopping short of a threatened full withdrawal from America’s longest war after fierce opposition from allies at home and abroad. The number of troops in Iraq will be reduced from around 3,000 to 2,500. This is expected to be completed just five days before Joe Biden takes over as president on 20 January. 
 
Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller on Tuesday confirmed that the Pentagon is following Trump’s orders and that the drawdown “is consistent with our established plans and strategic objectives, supported by the American people, and does not equate to a change in US policy or objectives. Moreover, this decision by the president is based on continuous engagement with his national security Cabinet over the past several months.” 
 
Miller’s comments, which were echoed by Trump's national security adviser Robert O'Brien who said the drawdown had been the president's policy "since he took office", adding: "By May, it is President Trump's hope that (the troops) will all come home safely and in their entirety".
 
As the plans have yet to be hammered out in detail, questions have been raised about which troops to withdraw and the impact on a mission that ranges from advising and supporting Afghan forces to carrying out counter-terrorism strikes against al Qaeda and ISIS militants.
 
The top Senate Republican, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, cautioned against any major changes in U.S. defense or foreign policy in the next couple of months, including any precipitous troop drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq.
 
“It is extremely important here in the next couple of months not to have any earthshaking changes in regard to defense or foreign policy,” McConnell, who opposed a pullout, told reporters
 
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, said it was concerning that Trump’s withdrawal was being carried out without close coordination with NATO and that a hasty withdrawal risks making Afghanistan a platform for terrorism once again.
 
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned on Monday that a premature withdrawal from Afghanistan could leave the country at risk of again becoming "a platform for international terrorists to plan and organise attacks on our homelands".  “We now face a difficult decision. We have been in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, and no Nato ally wants to stay any longer than necessary. But at the same time, the price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high,” he said.
 
NATO has fewer than 12,000 troops from dozens of nations in Afghanistan helping to train and advise the country’s national security forces. More than half are not US troops, but the 30-nation alliance relies heavily on the US for transport, air support, logistics and other assistance.
 
AN AL-QAEDA RESURGENCE?
 
US forces have been in Afghanistan since October 2001 and U.S. and Afghan officials are warning of troubling levels of violence by Taliban insurgents and persistent Taliban links to al Qaeda due to concerns that the Taliban is still involved in attacks on Afghan government soldiers. Thousands of American and allied troops have died in fighting in Afghanistan since the September 11 attacks triggered the U.S. military intervention. Some U.S. military officials had been urging Trump to keep U.S. troop levels at around 4,500 for now.
 
Al-Qaeda's strength and ability to strike the West has significantly diminished over the past decade, but its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is believed to still be based in Afghanistan along with a number of other senior figures in the group. 
 
According to the report issued to the U.N. Security Council, Al Qaeda, continues to operate in 12 provinces of Afghanistan, with 400-600 operatives and a training camp in the eastern part of the country. Relations between the Taliban, including its partners in the Haqqani network, and al Qaeda “remain close, based on friendship, a history of shared struggle, ideological sympathy and intermarriage,” the U.N. report said.
“The Taliban regularly consulted with al Qaeda during negotiations with the United States and offered guarantees that it would honor their historical ties,” said the report by the U.N. Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team.
The U.N. report suggests the Taliban have failed to keep their word on a provision seen as central to the U.S-Taliban agreement signed on Feb. 29 in Doha. 
The deal both parties signed earlier this year said all US troops had to leave by May 2021, assuming conditions in the country are relatively peaceful and the Taliban has upheld its end of the deal, which includes engaging in peace talks with the Afghan government and not attacking international forces
 
Edmund Fitton-Brown, co-ordinator of the UN's ISIS, Al-Qaeda and Taliban Monitoring Team, told the BBC last month that the Taliban promised al-Qaeda in the run-up to the US agreement that the two groups would remain allies.
 
"The Taliban were talking regularly and at a high level with al-Qaeda and reassuring them that they would honour their historic ties," Mr Fitton-Brown said. He said the relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban was "not substantively" changed by the deal struck with the US. "Al-Qaeda are heavily embedded with the Taliban and they do a good deal of military action and training action with the Taliban, and that has not changed," he said.
 
Rick Olson, a former U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said that 2,500 troops still give the United States some leverage in advancing peace efforts, but “it would have been better to have left them at 4,500.”
 
“Zero would have been truly awful, while 2,500 is maybe okay, but it’s probably not very stable,” he said. “I would say 2,500 is probably stable as long as the U.S.-Taliban peace holds. But that may not happen because the Taliban have not done a reduction in violence, as they committed to do.”
 
Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Kabul, cautioned that “if we are pulling out faster than the withdrawal schedule, there’s no incentive for the Taliban to negotiate.”
 
Violence has been rising throughout Afghanistan, with the Taliban attacking provincial capitals, in some case prompting U.S. airstrikes. Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, head of the U.S. Central Command, called that violence the “greatest obstacle to moving forward with the peace process. The sheer volume of Taliban initiated attacks against the people of Afghanistan are not indicative of an organization that’s serious about peace,” McKenzie said in a podcast released this week.