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Cutting US troops in Afghanistan could be tough on Biden

Masood Saifullah
November 18, 2020

Experts told DW a hasty US troop cut in Afghanistan will give Joe Biden less leverage over the Taliban, and may jeopardize the ongoing peace process. The planned reduction comes as the militant group increases attacks.

US troops board a helicopter in Afghanistan
Image: Brian Harris/Planet Pix/ZUMA/picture alliance

US President Donald Trump is expected to reduce the number of US troops in Afghanistan from around 5,000 to 2,500 by the time President-elect Joe Biden takes office on January 20.

By doing so, Trump is seeking to deliver on his promise of bringing US soldiers home from the longest conflict in US military history.

Earlier this year, the US and the Taliban signed a peace deal signed in Doha, which called on the Taliban to cut ties with terrorist groups and engage in direct dialog with the Afghan government.

Read moreWhy is the US in a rush to pull out troops from Afghanistan?

In return, the US committed to a conditions-based withdrawal from Afghanistan and called on the Afghan government to release up 5,000 Taliban prisoners.

On paper, Trump's withdrawal plan, and the beginning of the intra-Afghan talks look like progress towards a political settlement in Afghanistan. However, the situation on the ground paints an entirely different picture.

Taliban are increasing attacks

Attacks on Afghan forces have intensified since the signing of the US-Taliban agreement, coordinated assaults on civilians —including students — continue; and negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government have failed to yield any results.

A reduced US military presence in Afghanistan could put incoming President Joe Biden in a tough position as he takes over.

Many experts and military officials in the US believe the conditions on the ground are not right for a radical reduction of US military in Afghanistan.

"There should be a responsible military pullout from Afghanistan. This means avoiding a vacuum, which could be exploited," Ali Ahmad Jalali, a former Afghan interior minister and a professor at the National Defense University in Washington DC, told DW.

The newly announced partial withdrawal is set to be completed in two months, and only five days before Biden takes office as the next US president.

However, any significant progress in the intra-Afghan talks during this period is unlikely because both the Afghan government and the Taliban are eager to find out what Biden's plans are for US policy on Afghanistan.

Read moreUS election: What does Joe Biden's victory mean for South Asia?

"According to the US-Taliban agreement, a military pull out from Afghanistan is dependent on progress in the intra-Afghan talks, a reduction in violence and the Taliban's commitment to cut ties with terrorist groups," said Jalali, adding that "there were still questions and concerns about all these issues."

No room for maneuver

It is unclear how Biden intends to deal with Afghanistan, however, the president-elect has spoken about his desire to bring US troops home. Still, he has yet to elaborate on how he wants to achieve this goal.

Some experts believe that Biden will try to be tougher on the Taliban, such as by threatening to delay a US troop withdrawal until the militants agree to reduce violence or cut ties with terrorist groups.

"His leverage has been taken away in large measure, given that he will be taking office with a very small troop presence still in place," said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.

What may put Biden in an even tougher position is the Afghan government's calls for a review of how the US deals with the Taliban.

Kabul, which was almost completely sidelined during the US-Taliban talks, believes Biden will take its side by pressuring the Taliban to reduce violence and eventually implement a ceasefire.

Read moreAfghan peace process: Is Washington running out of patience?

"There's a good chance that Biden will certainly support the intra-Afghan dialogue, but he will want to ensure that the whole process doesn't play out on the Taliban's terms, as it has to this point under Trump," Kugelman added, while warning that the Taliban could dump the peace process if it doesn't face a strong military adversary to apply pressure.

"The Taliban knows that the more foreign troops leave, the greater the battlefield advantage it has in facing off against a beleaguered Afghan military," said Kugelman.

That is why experts like Jalali believe that it is vital that Washington and its allies continue funding and supporting the Afghan security forces.

Read moreAfghanistan: NATO chief warns against hasty troop withdrawal

"It is more about financial support than how many troops remain in the country. It is important that aid to the government of Afghanistan continues," he said.