• Saleem Qamar Butt

Afghanistan: US Desperate to Get out of a Catch - 22

As Afghanistan continues to bleed and suffer heavily since ages as a result of being strategic arena for playing of great games among super powers of different centuries, there are recent developments which are indicative of growing American disenchantment with Afghan muddle, most probably to get out of a lingering catch-22 and its allied embarrassing political and economic cost. Such a development also fits in well with President Trump’s penchant to disengage from military commitments abroad and preference for leading from the rear by shifting the onus for finding a suitable solution to concerned country, regional players and other US allies in a region as already witnessed in Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria.


Recently, it has been reported in the US press that the Trump administration was urging American-backed Afghan troops to retreat from sparsely populated areas of the country, which would obviously mean that the Taliban would remain in control of vast stretches of the country. The approach was outlined in a previously undisclosed part of the war strategy that President Trump announced last year that was meant to protect military forces from attacks at isolated and vulnerable outposts, and focused on protecting cities such as Kabul, the capital, and other population centers such as Kandahar, Kunduz, Mazar-i-Sharif and Jalalabad. According to many observers, such pulling out reminds of strategies embraced by both the Bush and Obama administrations that had started and stuttered over the nearly 17-year war. After the declared end of combat operations in 2014, most American troops withdrew to major population areas in the country, leaving Afghan forces to defend remote outposts. Many of those bases fell in the following months. Now a fresh maneuver to pull out also confirms that the inability of the American supported government in Afghanistan to protect the country’s rambling rural population; besides, further splintering Afghanistan into incongruent parts with no end in sight to the conflict.


The latest retrograde strategy depends on the Afghan government’s willingness to pull back its own forces. A Defense Department official said some Afghan commanders have resisted the American effort to do so, fearing local populations would feel betrayed. Just over one-quarter of Afghanistan’s population lives in urban areas, according to C.I.A. estimates; Kabul is the largest city, with more than four million residents. Most Afghans live and farm across vast rural hinterlands. Of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, the government either controls or heavily influences 229 to the Taliban’s 59. The remaining 119 districts are considered contested, according to the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.


Mr. Trump has long called for ending the war in Afghanistan and only reluctantly accepted Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s advice to send an additional 4,000 troops in an attempt to claim victory. Not all of the roughly 14,000 United States troops currently in Afghanistan have pulled back to cities. Some who are training and advising Afghan troops as part of Mr. Trump’s war strategy are stationed in bases in remote areas and smaller towns. Should Afghan troops pull back now, defending remote pockets of the country would mostly be left to the local police, which are more poorly trained than the military and far more vulnerable to Taliban violence. In some areas, police officers have reportedly cut deals with the Taliban to protect themselves from attacks. The Trump administration is also instructing top American diplomats to seek direct talks with the Taliban to refuel negotiations to end the war, and two senior Taliban officials said recently that such talks had been held in Qatar a week ago. If they happen, the negotiations would be a major shift in American policy and would serve as a bridge to an eventual withdrawal of United States forces from Afghanistan.


In abandoning the held positions in rural areas to enhance security and hold on to the cities, despite some demoralization effect on Afghan security forces who have lost so much in blood and sweat, the overall envisaged outcome for the American planners appears to be creating favourable environment for dialogue between Taliban and Afghan Government or even directly between America and Taliban as just witnessed because yet another huddle reportedly took place at an old venue Doha. For some, it may remain hoping against hope as Taliban might see such retreat as a triumph in itself adding to their hard stance and demands, instead. For unexpected Taliban’s response, it is expected that American commanders in Afghanistan have a plan B ready, which has to be other than usual blame game.


Saleem Qamar Butt, SI (M) is a retired senior Army officer with experience in International Relations, Defence and Warfare Studies, in Executive Management, Military & Intelligence Diplomacy, Strategic Analysis and Forecast. (sqbutt61@gmail.com)