Editor in Chief: Moh. Reza Huwaida Sunday, April 18th, 2021

Will US Troops Exit Afghanistan as Terror Prospects Increase?

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Will US Troops Exit Afghanistan as Terror Prospects Increase?

The threat of renewed Islamist terror looms large over Afghanistan as the May 1 deadline for withdrawal of US troops nears and President Joe Biden is being advised to review the pull-out agreement with the Taliban in view of the latter increasing its violent actions and coming closer  to Islamist terror groups like al-Qaeda and IS. 
President Joe Biden is being advised by the American military not to be cornered into a situation where the troops exit and the Taliban takes control of Kabul, nullifying the Doha agreement completely. He is being advised that complete withdrawal of the troops – there are 2500 of them at present – by May 1 will prove disastrous without the Taliban eschewing violence.NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was among the first to strike a note of caution: “The price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high ... Afghanistan risks becoming once again a platform for international terrorists to plan and organize attacks on our homelands. And ISIS could rebuild in Afghanistan the terror caliphate it lost in Syria and Iraq.”Voices inside the US too are being heard against the US withdrawal. Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan communicated to his Afghan counterpart recently that the Americans will “review” the agreement between the US and the Taliban. Pentagon chief spokesman John Kirby also joined the chorus, saying the US withdrawal also calls for the Taliban to cut ties with al-Qaeda and reduce violence.Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction John Sopko was categorical: “As the footprint of US agencies continues to shrink, it will become more important that the US and other donors perform aggressive and effective oversight of its dollars and programs.” He indicated that the American financial aid cannot be allowed to go waste or appropriated by the Taliban, meaning thereby there has to be some kind of military supervision to ensure the money is correctly spent in reconstruction activity in Afghanistan.The report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) officially admits that attacks by the Taliban are on the rise in the last three months and government officials, civil society leaders and journalists are being targeted. The worst case related to a series of attacks in Baghlan and Uruzgan provinces over a period of 48 hours that saw 19 Afghan security forces personnel killed.Resolute Support, the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, reported “2,586 civilian casualties from October 1 to December 31 last year, including 810 killed and 1,776 wounded”, according to the SIGAR report. Two Afghan female judges were shot dead in daylight in a Kabul ambush in late January.
This is seen as part of a new trend of targeted assassinations by the Taliban aimed at sowing fear among the people by killing high value individuals. Ironically, the attacks continue even as the Taliban is in talks with the Afghan government over a plan for peace post.withdrawal.Regular clashes between the Taliban and the joint Afghan-American forces in Kandahar since October have ended in thousands of families fleeing their homes. A similar exodus was reported from Helmand, also in October.The Taliban, while increasing violent attacks, is simultaneously targeting the US military, accusing it of violating the Doha agreement that American air strikes were killing Afghan civilians. This has forced the Americans into a no-contest debate with the Taliban.  The SIGAR report warns that “Al-Qaida is quietly gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate [in 12 provinces] with the Taliban under their protection”. It cites Afghan documents to suggest that other terrorist groups including Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Jaish-i Mohammed, and Lashkare-Tayyiba are operating in eastern Afghanistan “under the umbrella of the Afghan Taliban”. The renewed violence forced the US military to accuse the Taliban for the first time. A US forces spokesperson in Afghanistan, Colonel Sony Leggett, tweeted: “The Taliban’s campaign of unclaimed attacks and targeted killings of government officials, civil society leaders & journalists must … cease for peace to succeed.
A western media reported on the growing threat: “The UN report raises questions whether the Taliban intend to and actually can carry out their anti-terrorism commitment—and, if they try, whether die-hard Taliban members will defect to other movements.”
The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) an influential American think tank in a report in mid-February quoted retired General Joseph Dunford Jr, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of  Staff and co-chair of the Afghanistan Study Group, as saying: “On the one hand, the Taliban  have signaled publicly that if all international forces are not withdrawn by May 2021, as  envisioned in the Doha agreement, they will resume their ‘jihad’ against the foreign presence  and will withdraw from the peace process. On the other hand, a withdrawal in May under current conditions will likely lead to a collapse of the Afghan state and a possible renewed civil war.” The general warned against US troop withdrawal at this juncture saying “a precipitous withdrawal could lead to a reconstitution of the terrorist threat to the US homeland within eighteen months to three years”.Speculating on President Biden’s options in these circumstances, the CFR report says he has three:One, withdraw US forces as scheduled by May 1. Two, cite Taliban violations as justification for pulling out of the accord and maintaining an indefinite U.S. military presence. Three, ask the Taliban for an extension of the withdrawal deadline, citing the Taliban’s violations and delays in peace talks between the militant group and the Afghan government.The warnings by the American military and think tanks point to the risks involved in the first two options. The CFR thinks the US President may go in for the third option of trying to extend the withdrawal deadline and is “likely to ask other countries, including China, Iran, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, to pressure the Taliban into amending the agreement”.What if the Taliban refuses to agree to an extension? The CFR report is sure the Taliban will eventually come to the talking table, but anyway portrays a portentous picture in case it does not. It says in that case the US can either go ahead with the withdrawal or get trapped in another round of internecine civil war in Afghanistan.
If it is the latter, the Taliban will accuse it of violating the agreement and target US forces to exert pressure on them. If its tactics do not succeed, it may return to the talking table. As of now, only such ifs and buts abound amid speculations over what President Biden might ultimately end up doing.

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