WASHINGTON - Reactions are mixed to reports in the U.S. media that U.S. President Donald Trump is mulling over withdrawing within weeks roughly half of the more than 14,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
The news of the potential withdrawal from Afghanistan comes a day after Trump announced that the U.S. had defeated the Islamic State in Syria and that U.S. military personnel would withdraw from the war-torn country.
If the U.S. proceeds with its plans, roughly 9,000 U.S. troops would withdraw from the region in 2019.
The Afghan government, however, has downplayed the significance of the withdrawal.
“The alarm about the future of Afghanistan raised in media [today] was more intense in December 2014,” presidential spokesperson Haroon Chakhansuri said in a tweet Friday.
“Back then, most of the analysts predicted with the withdrawal of more than 100,000 foreign troops, Afghanistan will collapse. But our brave defense and security forces defended this country and its people with courage and proved these analyses wrong,” he added.
Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center, however, said the U.S. decision would have major consequences.
“It will embolden the Taliban, which has gotten what it’s long wanted without having to give up anything in return,” Kugelman said.
“It will demoralize the Afghan government and security forces, and it could well damage Washington’s relationship with Kabul. In the absence of any type of cease-fire or peace deal, it will also give the Taliban a tremendous battlefield advantage that could result in stepped-up offensives and even more violence,” he added.
Some analysts like Matt Dearing, an assistant professor at the Washington-based National Defense University, are cautiously optimistic that the drawdown would be carefully executed.
“I’m confident policymakers will heed the advice of military and civilian practitioners on the best way forward in Afghanistan,” Dearing said.
“NATO and Afghan forces tell me a continued U.S. presence supporting the mutually dependent missions of counterterrorism and train, advise, assist is critical toward a stable Afghanistan in the near term,” Dearing added.
The U.S. has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan engaged in both train-and-advise missions, as part of the U.S.-led NATO Resolute Support Mission, and in counterterrorism missions against the Islamic State and al-Qaida terror groups.
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About 8,000 troops from NATO allies and partners are also stationed in the country, training and supporting the Afghan security forces.
Jason H. Campbell, a policy researcher at the Rand Corp., maintains that the U.S. decision could undermine the NATO alliance.
“If a U.S. decision to drawdown was made without coordinating with or even informing these allies and partners, it will upset and offend them and perhaps cause them to reconsider their own commitments,” Campbell said.
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Campbell cautioned, however, against early judgments ahead of a formal U.S. announcement. He said that if such an announcement did come, it would contradict the South Asia Strategy.
“The very optics alone will serve as a hit to U.S. credibility and call into question the mantra of the 2017 South Asia Strategy review that it is based on conditions and not timelines,” Campbell said.
In announcing the new U.S. strategy in South Asia in 2017, President Trump criticized the previous U.S. administration for announcing timelines and instead emphasized that his approach would be based on conditions on the ground.
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Some Afghans are fearful that the drawdown might be the beginning of a complete withdrawal and that would push the country toward another civil war, similar to that of 1990s when the former Soviet Union pulled out of the country.
“The withdrawal of American forces amid Russia and other neighboring countries’ control over the Taliban, the pressure from Islamic State, the Taliban violence and the Afghan government weakness, would lead the country into another civil war,” Abdul Basir Wasiq, an activist in northern Balkh province, told VOA.
Najib Alokozai, a journalist in eastern Nangarhar, downplays the drawdown.
“The withdrawal of American forces would not have a great affect because some 5,000 new U.S. forces were deployed to Afghanistan based on new U.S. South Asia strategy and now 7,000 is leaving the country.”
Alokozai added, however, “People are concerned that if all the foreign forces leave Afghanistan, the country would fall into conflict.”
The news of a possible drawdown comes at a time when the Trump administration has recently stepped up efforts to find a negotiated settlement to the 17-year war in Afghanistan.
U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad this week concluded another round of direct talks with Taliban negotiators in the United Arab Emirates.
Publicly, the Afghan government has welcomed the U.S.-Taliban talks, but privately Afghan leaders have expressed dissatisfaction over not being at the driver’s seat of the negotiations.
Ishaq Atmar, a Kabul-based political analyst, believes that by entertaining the idea of a drawdown, the U.S. is exerting pressure over the Afghan government.
“The decision made by the U.S. is more of a psychological war to pressurize not only the government but Afghanistan in general to show more flexibility in terms of negotiation with the Taliban,” Atmar said.
The Taliban have reportedly celebrated the news of a U.S. troop drawdown as a victory for the insurgent group.
A senior member of the group told NBC News Friday that the insurgents were close to victory.
“The 17-year-long struggle and sacrifices of thousands of our people finally yielded fruit,” the Taliban commander told NBC.
However, Waheed Muzhda, a former member of the Taliban and a Kabul-based analyst who is in regular contact with the insurgents, told VOA that Taliban are not in favor of a hasty U.S. withdrawal.
“Nobody in Afghanistan, including the Taliban, want to see the foreign forces leave Afghanistan without proper planning. During the past discussions with different parties, the Taliban have always asked for an organized program of foreign forces withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Muzhda said.
VOA’s Ayaz Gul contributed to this report from Islamabad.