Tuesday’s announcement that U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan would be reduced from 4,500 to 2,500 by Jan. 15 by Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller, will fulfill President Trump’s plan to bring the two-decade war to a “successful and responsible conclusion, and to bring our brave Service members home.”
The conflict has cost thousands of American lives, and countless more Afghan casualties, yet in the country itself, in the cities and in diplomatic quarters, the withdrawal promises to herald yet more uncertainty with daily violence showing no signs of abating and the Taliban poised to capitalize on any reduction of American military presence.
Despite the Trump administration’s historic agreement signed at Doha with the militant group earlier this year, with the Taliban agreeing to reduce the levels of violence and cut ties with Al-Qaeda in exchange for a reduced American presence, the reality on the ground tells a very different tale. Near daily fighting between Afghan government forces and the Taliban have continued, all during the intra-Afghan dialogue over the past few months.
Just this past Tuesday, an attack attributed to the Taliban killed two officers and wounded another on a police patrol in Kabul as part of a strategy of intimidation that has seen the Taliban increasingly target government officials and journalists. The Taliban announced forgiveness for any government employees — especially from security forces sectors — that leave their job; if they want to live. If they don’t — they will be targeted. According to sources in the Afghan government, the Taliban, despite their indications to the contrary, have not changed their policies towards human rights and women’s education and enfranchisement.
In an open letter on Nov. 13 prior to Miller’s announcements, several former U.S. ambassadors and officials warned that a “complete withdrawal” of American forces from Afghanistan would be an “impetuous, damaging, and risky course of action.”
“A complete but planned and orderly withdrawal (which we oppose outside the context of a peace agreement) would be damaging enough,” the signatories to the letter, including former ambassadors James Cunningham and Ronald E. Neumann, wrote. “The spectacle of US troops abandoning facilities and equipment, leaving the field in Afghanistan to the Taliban and ISIS, would be broadcast around the world as a symbol of US defeat and humiliation, and of victory for Islamist extremism.”
“The international forces defeated Taliban [and] forced them out of the power,” Mohabat Khan, a street vegetable seller, told ABC News. “We celebrated their win [and] thought we will have good life but that didn’t happen. The same people who once fought each other [have] now become allies [and] made a political deal [that] forced our government to release their prisoners unconditional in return we will have cease fire that didn’t happen. I am sure Taliban will never keep their words and will not do anything they agreed to on a piece of paper. They are just fooling everyone by making fake promises.”
Fawad Stanikzai, a student of private university, said: “Americans didn’t respect the sacrifices not only [of the] Afghan people but the blood of their own soldiers who lost their lives pushing Taliban out of power. After 19 years they are basically handing over everything to them.”
That trepidation is also felt by members of the Afghan government. “The decision complicates everything,” an Afghan official told ABC News. “It emboldens the Taliban to take over the government, stall further the peace negotiations, and weakens the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] morale.”
Yet, at home in the U.S., the policy of President-elect Biden may yet follow the same course as Trump’s withdrawal. Continuing talks between the Taliban and Afghan government have stalled for the time being, and while U.S. officials are hopeful of a breakthrough, the road ahead looks more uncertain than ever.
ABC News’ Conor Finnegan and Luis Martinez contributed to this report.