The confused US withdrawal from Afghanistan

It is quite apparent that even the US army is surprised by the sudden turn of events. The confusion in the US army is compounded by the contradictory statements emerging from the US military leadership.
Airstrikes Afghanistan Taliban
Fighter Aircraft (File Pic)

The recent attacks by Taliban in Baghlan, Farah, Kunduz, Herat, Takhar, Helmand, Ghazni and Badakhshan provinces and the capture of Dahla dam which supplies water to Kandahar town should be a curtain raiser for those who ardently watch the story unfold in Afghanistan.

As on May 1, 139 pro-government and 44 civilians had lost their lives in just a week alone. On April 14, 2021, President Joe Biden promised to end the “Forever war” by announcing a full US pull out on September 11, 2021, largely out of symbolism to commemorate the 20th year of Global War on Terror (GWOT). But soon after the announcement, it is becoming apparent that the US has not thought through the larger implications of this decision.

It is quite apparent that even the US army is surprised by the sudden turn of events. The confusion in the US army is compounded by the contradictory statements emerging from the US military leadership.

“It’s not a foregone conclusion, in my professional military estimate, that the Taliban automatically win and Kabul falls,” said General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff , while speaking at the Pentagon on 6 May 2021 even as Afghan Army causalities began to mount in Taliban attacks within the week. He even came out in support of the ANDSF and their capabilities announcing that “I’m a personal witness — that the Afghan security forces can fight,” Milley, who had previously served in Afghanistan, added.

“We’ve been supporting them, for sure, but they’ve been leading the fight.”

That is not how a former US commander who crafted US strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus assess the situation. In an interview he said, “I do fear that two to three years from now we are going to look back and regret the decision to withdraw the remaining 3,500 US troops,” enthusing no confidence in the abilities of the ANDSF to stabilise Afghanistan post the withdrawal.

In fact he even predicted the return of ISIS and believed, “This is not going to end the endless war in Afghanistan; it is going to end the US and the coalition involvement in that war militarily” and warned of resurgence of Daesh.

For instance, the recent Taliban attacks have seen desperate calls for the Afghan Air Force to assist the ground troops in fighting the Taliban. The Afghan Air Force is almost entirely dependent on the US for its force sustenance and would be ineffective unless this support is assured. The US has indicated that it would be capable of supporting operations from its air bases in close proximity of Afghanistan like the Middle East and has been actively courting Uzbekistan as a possible destination. But that does in no way mitigate the problems of keeping Afghan Air Force in the air. Gen Mark Milley accepts that “[M]aintaining logistic support to the Afghan Air Force is a key test that we have to sort out”, and even hinted that some contractors could return to Afghanistan after the withdrawal is complete.

In fact the SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction) report released on April 30, 2021 stated that the Afghan Air Force could be grounded “within months without the current level of contractor support”.(italics mine). The SIGAR report is more candid as it quotes US military leadership expressing their reservations and concerns at the capabilities of the ANDSF to defend Afghanistan. Consider these statements in the run up to Biden’s speech of April 14, 2021.

On February 20, 2021, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin linked the US withdrawal to a reduction in Taliban attacks. “The violence must decrease now.”

The same day, on February 20, 2021, General Kenneth F. McKenzie, in a meeting with Pakistani officials, warned that an early US pullout could risk the collapse of the Afghan government.

On March 13, 2021, the commander of US and allied forces in Afghanistan, General Austin Scott Miller, expressed concerns at the capabilities of the Afghan air force saying that “When you start talking about removing our presence… certain things like air, air support, and maintenance of that air support become more and more problematic”.

On March 25, 2021, General Richard Clarke, Commander, US Special Operations Command accepted the Taliban have not upheld their end of the Doha accord and said: “It’s clear the Taliban have not upheld what they said they would do and reduce the violence. It is clear they took a deliberate approach and increased their violence since the peace accords were signed.”

On April 20, 2021, the Commander of US Central Command, General Kenneth McKenzie, while testifying at a House Armed Services Committee stated that, “Everyone will leave. All US defence contractors will leave as part of the withdrawal.”

The contradictions are visible. Violence has climbed by 37 per cent in the first quarter as compared to last year. With reference to Gen Kenneth McKenzie’s statement, it is now clear that as many as 17,000 contractors, approximately 6000 of whom are US citizens are in Afghanistan will be permitted to renegotiate their contracts. The Economic Times comments that the Pentagon was toying with the option of turning over some contracts , particularly maintenance contracts presently effected by US contractors to Afghan control.

Even the CIA Director William Burns acceded during a hearing that “[W]hen the time comes for the US military to withdraw, the US government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish… That is simply a fact.”

Even the Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, released as recent as April 9, 2021 and tabled before Biden’s announcement, assessed that the possibility of the success of an intra-Afghan deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban “will remain low during the next year,” and that “theTaliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan Government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the Coalition withdraws support.” The Report expressed serious reservations about the capabilities of the ANDSF and concludes that the ANDSF “continues to face setbacks on the battlefield, and the Taliban is confident it can achieve military victory.”

Almost as if on cue, and in complete synchronisation with the US, NATO too ordered its drawdown from Afghanistan, clearly aligning their interests with the US and showing how bereft EU is of an independent Afghan policy as well as the limitations of its military reach and capabilities. Almost immediately after Biden’s announcement, on the same day, at a joint press conference NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that NATO ministers “decided that we will start the withdrawal of NATO Resolute Support forces by May 1… We plan to complete the drawdown of all our troops within a few months.”

Clearly, the military leadership did not approve of or never sensed the impending announcement by the President. In any case, if indeed they made a pitch to the President, he obviously has overruled their advice.

The US withdrawal, as it unfolds at the present, is confusing and portends ill for the future of Afghanistan.

(The writer — Maj Gen Mandip Singh, SM, VSM retired recently from Northern Command. He has been a Senior Fellow at MP- IDSA & Dean of the Army War College at Mhow. He is a keen China watcher and writes regularly on foreign & military affairs)

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