WASHINGTON - The recent White House announcement that the U.S. would further draw down its military forces in Afghanistan has heightened concerns for some Afghans facing increased violence amid stalled peace talks with Taliban insurgents.
“We do not know what is going to happen to this country,” said Mohammad Zahir, 35, a Kabul shopkeeper who, like many Afghans, sees the U.S. presence as a buffer keeping the militants from returning to power, and essential to finalizing a peace deal after nearly two decades of war.
“Our expectation was that the U.S., and the international community in general, would help with the process and leave only after guarantees from the Taliban that they would stop fighting,” Zahir told VOA.
In his November 17 announcement about removing 2,000 American service members by January 15 — reducing the U.S. force size in Afghanistan to 2,500 troops — acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Chris Miller said the expedited drawdown "does not equate to a change in U.S. policy or objectives,” and that Washington will “continue to stand” with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani “as his government works toward a negotiated settlement for peace.”
In a Tuesday press release, Ghani’s office said the Afghan leader had discussed the peace process with Miller, along with strengthening mutual relations and “continued meaningful U.S. military support.”
Miller, a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, was appointed acting defense secretary last week when President Donald Trump abruptly fired former defense chief Mark Esper. Esper had sent a classified memo to the White House earlier this month expressing concerns about a precipitous withdrawal in Afghanistan as violence remains high and peace talks drag on, according to The Washington Post.
The decision to speed troop withdrawals did not surprise some Afghans.
Abdullah, a 23-year-old law student at Kabul University who uses only one name, recalled that Trump announced his intentions for a full U.S. troop withdrawal by Christmas in October.
Still, he said, he was concerned "that the U.S. will leave Afghanistan without waiting for the peace talks to start.”
The U.S. began reducing its forces after it signed a peace agreement with the Taliban February 29, calling for a phased pullout of all U.S. forces by next May.
The U.S.-Taliban agreement also requires the Taliban to cut ties with al-Qaida as part of a negotiated political settlement. As such, U.S. officials have said in the past that a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan would happen only if the Taliban met all the conditions set by the agreement.
A June U.N. report concluded that the Taliban continues to shelter hundreds of al-Qaida operatives in the Afghan areas the group controls.
Shinkai Karokhil, a member of the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of Afghanistan’s National Assembly, told VOA that the U.S. drawdown is likely to further complicate peace talks in coming weeks, as militant violence continues to rise.
“The Taliban would think that they can achieve their political goals by fighting the government,” Karokhil said.
“The U.S. should have withdrawn responsibly," she added. "It should have waited to make sure that the Taliban fulfill their promises and meet the conditions laid out in the agreement.”
According to the U.S.-Taliban agreement, the intra-Afghan negotiations aim for a permanent ceasefire and a road map for the future of Afghanistan.
The negotiations have reached a stalemate, as both sides have failed to reach a compromise over Islamic jurisprudence and whether the agreement would serve as a basis for talks.
Karokhil said that a full U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan before the Taliban agrees to a peace deal will be celebrated by the group as a victory, encouraging it to wage a new wave of violence against government forces.
“This means the fighting would continue, in which civilians, the Taliban and Afghan [forces] would be killed,” she said.
Violence has surged across Afghanistan in recent months. A Taliban offensive against government forces in Helmand province displaced at least 35,000 last month, according to the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
The U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction on November 5 said attacks by anti-government forces have increased by 50% in the third quarter of the year, compared to the second quarter.
Afghan military capability
Afghan officials have said in the past that the country’s military is capable of defending against militant aggression once foreign troops leave the country.
Acting Defense Minister Asadullah Khalid said Tuesday that Afghan forces were independently conducting 96% of operations, adding that they receive air support from international forces “when needed.”
Some Afghan military experts, however, say the Afghan forces still need extensive outside support against the Taliban.
“We are not ready,” Atiqullah Amarkhil, a military analyst and retired Afghan army general, told VOA.
“The [Taliban] opposition is going on offense. Afghan forces are already stretched — they fight in 27 or 28 provinces,” he said.
Amarkhil said the U.S. decision to withdraw is a wake-up call to Afghan forces, who will ultimately have to reduce their reliance on foreign support.
“It is up to the Afghan government to take responsibility and provide security,” he said.
VOA Afghan Service contributed to this story.