On January 15th, the United States Department of Defense announced that military personnel in Afghanistan have been downsized to 2,500 soldiers, America’s lowest military presence in the country since 2001. This reduction completes a goal Donald Trump set after signing an agreement with the Taliban in February 2020. The agreement stipulates that all American troops be removed from Afghanistan by May 1st if the Taliban cuts ties with al-Qaeda and begins negotiating in peace talks with Afghan leaders.
The U.S. has had a military presence in Afghanistan since October 2001, when it sent more than 100,000 troops to Afghan soil in an attempt to overthrow the Taliban’s five-year regime. After toppling the Taliban, the American forces remained, working to prevent the Taliban from regaining Afghan land and fighting other terrorist groups like al-Qaeda.
This “war on terror” has spanned almost two decades. And yet, according to the Council on Foreign Relations (C.F.R.), the Taliban still controls one-fifth of Afghanistan, threatening the country’s unstable democracy with more than 60,000 full-time soldiers. This leads many to fear what would happen if U.S. troops are completely withdrawn. Former Afghan Joint Chief of Staff General Sher Mohammad Karimi predicts that “in five years’ time, if a newly gained democracy is not supported” by foreign military, the Taliban will overtake the Afghan government.
The C.F.R. reports that over 43,000 civilians have died in the war in Afghanistan, and an estimated 45,000 Afghan troops and police officers were killed in just the past five years. Despite this unrelenting violence and the stalled peace talks, some Afghan officials still think there is hope to end the conflict. According to the Washington Post, Afghan officials said that if President Joe Biden were to maintain a small U.S. counter-terrorism force in Afghanistan, the country’s government would have more leverage during peace talks than it would without American military aid. These negotiations could put Afghanistan on a path to end the past two decades of violence.
Maintaining a counterterrorism force could also curtail violence until peace talks are completed. Taliban violence has steadily increased after the February 2020 deal. Jawed Ludin, a former chief of staff to former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, suggests that the deal has given the Taliban the impression that they can act “with impunity.”
One condition of the 2020 deal was that the Taliban would break all ties with international terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Afghan and United Nations officials have reported, however, that the Taliban maintains ties with al-Qaeda. Critics of the decision to withdraw troops argue that the U.S. is rewarding the Taliban for abandoning their end of the deal. Those who opposed the agreement also contest that the U.S. demanded little from the Taliban. The few conditions outlined in the deal are vague, those critics say, and allow the Taliban to continue inflicting violence.
In addition to the danger of ever-increasing violence in Afghanistan, N.A.T.O. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned that withdrawing from Afghanistan could be dangerous for countries abroad. In a statement to C.N.N., Stoltenberg explained, “Afghanistan risks becoming once again a platform for international terrorists to plan and organize attacks on our homelands. And ISIS could rebuild in Afghanistan the terror caliphate it lost in Syria and Iraq.”
The United States needs to revise the February 2020 deal to explicitly forbid violence and clearly state the conditions for each party. Furthermore, since the Taliban has not upheld their part of the deal, U.S. military personnel must be maintained in Afghanistan until the militants have cut ties with al-Qaeda.
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