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February 13, 2013

US Troop Drawdown Elicits Mixed Reactions Among Afghans

by Ayaz Gul

Afghanistan's government has welcomed President Barack Obama's announcement that the United States will withdraw about half of the 66,000 American troops now in the country over the next year.  But Taliban insurgents have rejected the U.S. move as a "tactical" effort and reiterated their fight will not end until all foreign forces leave Afghanistan.  

The U.S. president said in his annual State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress Tuesday night that 34,000 soldiers will come home from Afghanistan within a year, and that America's "war in Afghanistan will be over" by the end of 2014.  Mr. Obama also said U.S. forces will move into a support role this coming spring while Afghan security forces take lead.
 
President Hamid Karzai welcomed the announcement and his advisors say that newly trained Afghan forces are ready to take responsibility for their country's security.
 
A presidential spokesman in Kabul said the war-ravaged nation has long wanted foreign forces out of Afghan villages, and the withdrawal of American forces in the spring "will definitely help in ensuring peace and full security in the country."
 
Political commentator, Said Mohammad Azam, a former Karzai government official, noted that President Obama did not say how many U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan after 2014, adding that Afghans are uncomfortable about the persistent ambiguity surrounding the issue.  He says a majority of the people in Afghanistan are not in favor of all foreign forces leaving the country.
 
"They want a kind of international presence in their country and they see that as a sign of ensuring stability in their country.  But by and large they are not favoring a larger number of troops, which means more fighting in the country.  They are fed up with fighting and they are also scared of (a)collapse of (the) state, chaos and civil war," said Azam.
 
In its reaction to President Obama's announcement, the Taliban has reiterated that if any foreign forces remain in Afghanistan, fighting will continue.  A spokesman for the insurgents stated that "instead of tactical efforts, troop reductions and gradual withdrawals," foreign countries should immediately pull out all their troops.
 
Some in Afghanistan are skeptical about the ability of the country's newly trained security forces to deal with the Taliban insurgency past 2014.  But others dismiss those fears.  They cite improving security in parts of Afghanistan where local forces are leading the security operations.  Political commentator Azam says that continued foreign military assistance to Afghan forces is the key to maintaining long-term stability in the country.
 
"They have proved themselves quite effective, but of course the Afghan forces are very much dependent for the support both of logistic and also military," explained Azam. "And also intelligence support of international forces, particularly of (the) Americans."
 
Some observers say the Afghan government's efforts to engage the Taliban in peace talks are also vital to weakening the insurgency.  Asad Munir is a former officer of Pakistan's spy agency, the ISI, which is known to have links to the Taliban.
 
"If they are able to make some progress in the peace process and even if they manage get some people out of Taliban on board, so then the intensity of insurgency, it will be not very high and the Taliban I don’t think that they would be able to capture any major city," Munir stated. "If there is no disintegration in the (Afghan) army, I think they will able to sustain the onslaught of Taliban."

Leaders in neighboring Pakistan have also lately stepped up efforts to get the Afghan reconciliation process started as early as possible.  Islamabad recently freed 26 Afghan Taliban officials from its prisons.  Kabul has been demanding the release of all such prisoners in Pakistan, hoping they will be helpful in persuading Taliban insurgents to end violence and reintegrate into Afghan society.