On 29 February, the White House announced that it had reached an agreement with the Taliban* that could end the 19-year long conflict in Afghanistan and pave the way to bring US troops home in accordance with Donald Trump's election vow.
According to the US president, 5,000 US troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by May 2020. In case the jihadists uphold the deal the US and NATO would pull out completely within 14 months.
No One Can Guarantee a 'Clean Break'
Shuja Nawaz, a Pakistani-born author and distinguished fellow at the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council, says that while "there is may be good reason to celebrate the moves toward a peaceful American exit from Afghanistan", it's too early to open the champagne just yet.
"Who will guarantee that we do not lose the peace that follows the February 29 accord?" the scholar asks. "Afghanistan resides in a tough neighborhood. For it to return to peace, it will need to create successful dialogues internally as well as with its neighbours, especially Pakistan, and buck the history that has kept it imprisoned in conflict. Therefore, there may well be delays in the total US withdrawal. And opportunities for interested third parties to try to sabotage the peace plan agreed at Doha".
According to Nawaz, a 14-month deadline "may not work for the creation of a clean break". Referring to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan that began on 15 May 1988 and ended on 15 February 1989, the author recollects that the pull-out plan was prepared beforehand, in 1986, "with no public announcement of a departure". This case has been ignored by both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, the scholar highlights, foreseeing that "too much can go wrong in the interim" while "the advantage has clearly shifted to the insurgents".
"For the latest American gambit to succeed and for a stable Afghanistan to survive, it will be necessary for the United States and its coalition partners to commit to the economic future of Afghanistan", Nawaz emphasises. "It will need to work with both Afghanistan and Pakistan to develop the contiguous territories straddling the Durand Line, and create the conditions to employ the women and the youth bulge of Afghanistan’s expanded urban population in productive pursuits".
He envisions that the new Afghan government of national unity will face numerous challenges: it will have to "end corruption, deliver economic progress, and attain a better understanding with their immediate neighbors in the region on common economic goals".
Marjorie Cohn, professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and former president of the US National Lawyers Guild, echoes the author by suggesting that "so many conditions that must be met before the US withdraws all troops that it is unlikely to happen".
· First, the Afghan government is required to begin negotiations with the Taliban* by March 10, the professor notes, recalling that "the contested election between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah has created a political crisis and Abdullah is threatening to form a parallel government".
· Second, "those negotiations must produce a lasting ceasefire, which is highly unlikely given past experience".
· Third, the Taliban* is required to prevent terrorist attacks from Afghan soil against US forces. However, "the Taliban* leader who negotiated this term only controls one portion of the factionalised Taliban* forces", the academic underscores explaining that the jihadi commander can’t give 100-percent guarantee that this condition will be fulfilled.
· Fourth, "the Afghan government is required to release 5,000 Taliban* prisoners in a complex prisoner swap before the Taliban* and Afghan government negotiations begin but since the Afghan government was not part of the pre-agreement negotiations, there is no guarantee those prisoners will be released", Cohn stresses.
Why is the US Rushing to Withdraw Right Now?
While there are so many "ifs" and "buts" with regard to the upcoming pull-out one might ask as why the US government has rushed to promise to reduce its troops in Afghanistan to 8,600 in 135 days.
According to Shuja Nawaz, Trump likely would have left much earlier to fulfill his campaign promise, but neither his military nor Pakistan supported "a precipitate withdrawal". Now, Trump is shifting the responsibility to the Afghans.
"Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has done well to cobble together a paper deal that allows the Taliban’s Sirajuddin Haqqani to camouflage himself as a peacenik in the pages of The New York Times while allowing President Donald Trump to check off another campaign promise: that he would exit America’s 'longest war', even as he faces re-election", the author says.
For her part, Marjorie Cohn points out that "if the US reduces its troops to 8,600, they will be at the same level they were three years ago when Barack Obama left office".
"Those 8,600 troops include CIA and intelligence personnel and Special Operations Forces. The CIA-sponsored Afghan forces have committed so many war crimes that they have actually pushed the Afghan people to support the Taliban", the academic presumes.
Currently, there are about 13,000 US troops in Afghanistan. By the time Obama left the Oval Office the US troops' level had reduced to about 8,400. However, Trump stepped up the US military presence in the region while trying to establish a dialogue with the Taliban* that kicked off in Doha in October 2018 between Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghanistan, and the Taliban's* Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai.
Both Nawaz and Cohn believe that the abrupt decision was taken due to the pressure from the 2020 election race.
"Donald Trump wants to boost his chances of winning reelection in November by bragging that he fulfilled his promise to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan", Cohn opines.
For his part, Nawaz notes that the US military has also become "disheartened" by the Afghan war and "after 18 commanders went through the revolving doors of the Afghanistan campaign, America is now getting ready to call it quits".
The Afghan war that followed the US invasion of the Central Asian state on 7 October 2001 remains the longest military conflict in American history.
*The Taliban is a terrorist organisation banned in Russia and many other countries.