As his time in the White House comes to a close, President Trump recently announced his continued commitment to removing US troops from Afghanistan in an effort to end the long-standing regional war. In an October tweet, Trump promised to finalize US involvement and remove all troops by Christmas. With that date drawing closer, however, Trump agreed to a partial removal to prevent a dangerous situation in Afghanistan amidst rising levels of violence. The projected number of American troops is now expected to drop from 4,500 to around 2,500 within the next couple of months.
President Trump ran on an isolationist platform committed to putting “America First.” This included getting the United States out of the Middle East. Within the last month, Trump has fired multiple Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who he believed was not committed to this same priority. Although Trump stated that he will not force a withdrawal quicker than “conditions on the ground would allow,” many high-level officials still believe that leaving Afghanistan at this time is dangerous for Americans and Afghans alike. In a statement to AP News, Michael McCaul of the House Foreign Affairs Committee made this sentiment clear: “We need to ensure a residual force is maintained for the foreseeable future to protect U.S. national and homeland security interests and to help secure peace for Afghanistan.”
The presence of the jihadist militant group al-Qaeda and the associated Taliban make Afghanistan an area of concern for US anti-terrorism efforts. The United States entered Afghanistan in 2001 in response to the September 11th terrorist attacks enacted by al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Since then, the US military has continually fought against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, ensuring that these groups were not encouraging terrorist activity or threatening democratic efforts. Many fear that as bloodshed begins to rise again, leaving Afghanistan could have potentially deadly consequences for the US and the international community.
Another concern arising from the lack of U.S. presence is local fighting, specifically that involving unarmed citizens. Violence in this area remains a concern as it continues to increase, with the United Nations reporting over 10,000 civilian deaths per year since 2014. Recently, the Taliban has revamped attacks in southern Afghanistan, forcing civilians to flee their homes. The democratic Kabul government which is supported by the U.S. does not possess the resources to actively fight back against Taliban forces—the Taliban government was only ousted from power in 2001 with the United States’ help.
Finally, rapid military action is both confusing and concerning for American troops in Afghanistan. During the length of the 20-year war, Pentagon officials have issued a variety of conflicting statements regarding the removal or continued occupation depending on the administration at the time or certain problems within the region. This has left those serving there in limbo, constantly unsure of when they will be sent home or shipped back. Americans are wary of leaving the region prematurely, bearing in mind Obama’s confusing attempted removal and rapid reinstatement of troops between 2011 and 2014. Furthermore, AP News reports that the White House often relies on incorrect counts of exactly how many troops are deployed in Afghanistan, making it difficult to mandate specific limits or estimates. This uncertainty will likely not improve with Trump’s proposed order being finalized on January 15th, just five days before Joe Biden steps into the role of Commander in Chief.
Despite this conflict, current peace talks between the Afghan government, the Taliban, and the United States could offer hope for an end to contention in the region, marking the first time the three have sat down together. Negotiations began in February when the United States and the Taliban crafted a mutually-beneficial deal attempting to restore peace. In it, the US requires the Taliban to officially break ties with al-Qaeda, ensuring that it is no longer “able to use Afghan territory to plot international attacks” (BBC). In return, the U.S. promised to remain in the region until May. Both sides’ commitments are now being questioned. Additionally, this deal requires a permanent ceasefire and power-sharing arrangement between the Afghani government and the Taliban which would attempt to restore peace to the region. Although this early action was promising, the current discussions between the Middle Eastern powers have stalled without results after 2 months, citing procedural disputes over Sharia law and which specific Islamic ideals to prioritize. Even if the deal were to be signed, some worry that ceding any power to Taliban forces could lead to a new wave of oppression towards women due to their strict adherence to Sharia law.
Although a US withdrawal from Afghanistan seems attractive to many Americans, the potential repercussions it could have—especially if undertaken too hastily—could have devastating impacts on civilian lives and peace both in the Middle East and the United States.
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