One of Donald Trump’s main election pledges back in 2016 was to ‘bring our boys home’. Alongside this came criticism of Germany and other NATO states for not paying their way on military spending. He has followed up on both themes this week, by starting to reduce the US presence in Germany, albeit shifting some to Poland and leaving all the mechanisms of a rapid return in place, so that the extent of the ‘back home’ is far from what it appears.
Extricating US forces from Middle East is another matter. Many army units are consolidating in fewer bases in Iraq or moving to nearby Kuwait. The US Navy is holding on, too, mainly because of the confrontation with Iran. It currently has two carrier battle groups within reach of the region.
When it comes to Afghanistan, Trump is hardly alone in wanting to get out of one of the longest wars in US military history. His problem is to do this while avoiding accusations of defeat. That is no easy task. Only this week there have been press reports of some of the most intensively cultivated poppy crops in Helmand province being dotted with solar power arrays providing pumping capacity for irrigating the crops. UN sources report that almost 80% of Afghan opium comes from Helmand, and since the country is the dominant global source that means this one province produces around two-thirds of world supplies.
Largely because of this, Helmand was one of the most contested regions in the bitter war. All but five of the 454 British soldiers listed as killed in the country died in Helmand. US Marines also saw substantial losses as the coalition tried to oust the Taliban back in the early 2010s.
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With a thriving opium-based agriculture still in place, talk of victory is hollow and won’t wash during an election campaign. This is why February’s agreement with the Taliban is so important, the need now being to present it as an acceptable deal. The reality is rather different and as things stand it looks like Trump the great deal-maker is again proving to be anything but.
Under the 29 February agreement, which was a US-Taliban deal that didn’t involve the elected Afghan government, all foreign troops will be out by next May, enabling a negotiated peace between the Taliban and the government. Formal ceasefires won’t intrude but the Taliban did agree with Washington not to allow “any of its members, other individuals, or other individuals, including al-Qaeda, to use soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies” (Gabriel Dominguez, ‘Heading for the Exit’, Janes Defence Weekly, 29 July 2020).
Since then, the Pentagon has moved quickly. Timetables have been agreed with the Taliban and 3,400 of the 12,000 US troops have already left. Other NATO states are also involved, so the total presence of 16,000 foreign troops is already down to 12,000. There may be thousands of private military contractors still around, mainly guarding Western interests in Kabul and other cities, but that is not part of polite conversation and won’t figure in any White House announcements.
The precise rate of withdrawal from now on is not certain but the likelihood is that Trump will want to say in October that nearly half the troops are already back home, with more on the way. Given COVID-19 and all Trump’s other problems this will hardly be as significant as he hoped back in February, but it will still be a useful tool in the closing weeks of campaigning.
All, though, is not what it seems. First, the talks with Kabul that were due to start on 10 March have still not got under way. That said, after months of pre-negotiation stalemate this week were there small signs of progress as the Kabul government agreed a prisoner release and the Taliban responded with a three-day ceasefire over the Eid holiday.
Second, even if talks do start, the Taliban have meanwhile been engaged in a carefully calibrated campaign to undermine the Afghan government while not doing anything that might provoke the White House into reversing the withdrawal. According to last month’s Pentagon report ‘Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan’, they have been avoiding direct attacks on US and other coalition forces and also high-profile attacks in city centres such as Kabul.
To the international media this gives an impression of progress, but at the same time the Taliban have been stepping up their attacks on Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF), focusing mainly on static checkpoints that may be easy targets. With this continuing if largely hidden violence there have also been many civilian casualties, with at least 600 killed or wounded in the first six months of this year.
The Taliban strategy is therefore clear – target ANDSF personnel without antagonising the Pentagon and therefore negotiate from a position of strength with Kabul when the US and others have departed. They can then claim success so that within three or four years the Taliban will have a major share in Afghanistan’s governance, perhaps even taking back control within a decade. Trump may try to claim success but it would be anything but for Afghanistan.