The Pentagon is forging ahead with a dramatic cut in combat troop levels in Afghanistan even as the Taliban ramps up attacks and specialists warn that the COVID-19 outbreak could destabilize the fragile country and fuel even greater chaos.
More than two months after the Trump administration’s landmark peace deal with the Taliban, Pentagon officials tell The Washington Times that the U.S. expects to meet its commitment to draw down forces in Afghanistan from between 12,000 and 13,000 to 8,600 by mid-July. The U.S.-Taliban agreement, struck in late February, calls for the reduction to be completed within 135 days.
Officials also said the COVID-19 pandemic has not slowed down their plan so far, even though the Defense Department has instituted strict limits on the movement of troops abroad in an effort to stop the spread of the virus through the ranks. Behind the scenes, President Trump reportedly has been pushing military leaders to accelerate the drawdown amid fears that U.S. troops based in Afghanistan could find themselves in grave danger as the coronavirus curve trends upward.
But COVID-19 is just one piece of a complex puzzle that has emerged as the U.S. begins its long-awaited exit plan from the longest war in American history. Some foreign policy analysts warn that the administration is setting itself up for failure if it moves ahead with its withdrawal plan, placing a major bet on the militant Islamist Taliban insurgency to live up to its word and agree to a power-sharing deal with the beleaguered U.S.-backed government in Kabul.
Meanwhile, a Pentagon watchdog reported last week that the Taliban increased the number of attacks against Afghan National Security Forces in March “above seasonal norms,” though they have refrained from assaults on the U.S.-led NATO coalition operating inside the country.
The full picture, however, is not clear.
The quarterly report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR) said the U.S. military is now restricting data on “enemy-initiated attacks” inside Afghanistan. It said such figures are now part of “deliberative interagency discussions” about the path forward in the country and won’t be released publicly.
As part of the February peace deal, the Taliban agreed to a reduction in violence and to begin talks with Kabul, which the Taliban for years have refused to recognize as legitimate. The uptick in attacks against government forces, some analysts warn, could suggest that the Taliban are merely biding their time and have no long-term plan to drop their quest to restore the regime ousted by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
Despite that, the Pentagon said it is proceeding with its end of the bargain.
“U.S. Forces Afghanistan continues to reduce force levels and expects to be at 8,600 U.S. troops within 135 days (mid-July) as stipulated by the U.S.-Taliban agreement,” said Army Lt. Col. Thomas Campbell, a Pentagon spokesman. The U.S. mission “remains committed to supporting our Afghan partners throughout the process and maintains the capabilities and authorities necessary to accomplish our train, advise and assist and counterterrorism objectives.”
Some signs indicated that U.S. patience with the Taliban was wearing thin. The U.S. Kabul command over the weekend posted a warning to the Taliban that the U.S. and its allies were prepared to retaliate if the tempo of violence kept up.
“If the violence cannot be reduced, then, yes, there will be responses,” Col. Sonny Leggett, a spokesman for U.S. Forces Afghanistan, wrote to Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid. In response, Mr. Mujahid accused the U.S. of making “provocative statements,” according to the Reuters news agency.
Col. Campbell also noted that the Pentagon has stopped giving public updates on U.S. troop levels “primarily due to operational security concerns associated with the drawdown.”
In the past two months, many outside analysts have concluded that the Taliban will not abide by the deal and are not truly interested in peace. They argue that officials such as Zalmay Khalilzad, the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan, were desperate to achieve a foreign policy win and to fulfill Mr. Trump’s campaign promise to end two decades of inconclusive U.S. military involvement in the country.
“It was bad enough the Taliban bargained us down to a very bad agreement. That we are going to give them a pass on upholding even that is the ultimate humiliation,” said former Defense Department official Michael Rubin, now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “Khalilzad was instrumental in designing the Afghan government back in 2002, in negotiating a noninterference pact with Iran about Iraq in 2003, and then the Taliban deal now. It’s safe to say he’s zero for three. … Failure has become the new normal when it comes to U.S. diplomacy.”
The administration has countered that negotiations with the Taliban represent the only realistic path forward and officials have vehemently rejected the characterization that the deal represents a capitulation to the Taliban.
But the timelines on the original peace deal are already slipping. Mutual prisoner swaps designed to build confidence have been slow, and direct talks, supposed to have begun March 10, have not even been scheduled.
The Trump administration received a ray of good news late last week when Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and arch political rival Adbullah Abdullah said they had reached a deal to put together a functioning unity government. Mr. Abdullah had rejected the official results of the September presidential election and contended he was Afghanistan’s rightful president.
The situation inside Afghanistan was delicate and fraught with pitfalls even before COVID-19 began sweeping the globe, but the pandemic could present unique problems for a country that lacks the infrastructure to deal with a widespread health crisis.
In its report, SIGAR warned that a rapid rise in cases could exacerbate underlying issues.
“Afghanistan is especially vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic due to its weak health care system, poor water and sanitation infrastructure, and high malnutrition rates, among other factors,” said the watchdog, citing data from the United Nations and other international bodies.
The effects on the Afghan economy already are being felt. U.N. data show that food prices are skyrocketing and the purchasing power of laborers has dropped by as much as 20% over just the past month.
Such economic peril historically has been a recipe for disaster in many developing countries, and extremist groups have taken advantage of similar situations to rally public support behind their cause.
From the U.S. perspective, officials say, COVID-19 and its side effects have not affected the drawdown so far.
“There has not been an impact on our ability to draw down our force levels in Afghanistan at this time,” Col. Campbell told The Times. “We continue to plan for various scenarios to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, and at this time we do not foresee any impact on our ability to meet the 135-day timeline.”
But specialists say the trends inside Afghanistan are troubling.
As of Sunday, Afghanistan has at least 2,704 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 85 deaths. More than 230 new cases were reported from Saturday to Sunday, marking the highest 24-hour jump since the outbreak began.
The highest number of cases is clustered around the capital of Kabul, which also serves as the base of U.S. operations. The Associated Press reported Sunday that a third of some 500 random coronavirus tests in Afghanistan’s capital came back positive, suggesting the risk of widespread infection in a nation of 36.6 million.
Specialists expect that case count to rise. They also expect to face great difficulty in conducting contact tracing and other practices designed to prevent a second surge of infections.
“The whole nation is at higher risk and vulnerability,” Hamid Elmyar, a former community health adviser in Afghanistan, said last week during a virtual forum hosted by the Middle East Institute. “Tracing is not as easy in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, contact tracing. That puts the country in a difficult situation.”
Much of the concern is driven by huge numbers of Afghans returning to their country from Iran, which has been one of the nations hit hardest by COVID-19. As of early April, at least 226,316 undocumented Afghans returned from Iran, according to SIGAR figures, and that figure surely has risen even higher over the past several weeks.