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'We're sending a message that the US can't be trusted'

Carla Bleiker Washington
November 19, 2020

Former US State Department analyst Marvin Weinbaum spoke with DW about how Donald Trump's decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan impacts Joe Biden's policymaking – and why he believes it's a risky plan.

Afghanistan US-Soldat
Image: AFP/W. Kohsar

DW: US President Donald Trump announced he would withdraw troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. In Afghanistan, the number of troops is supposed to shrink from 4,500 to 2,500 by January 15, 2021. What do you make of this decision?

Dr. Marvin Weinbaum: It's a decision that was anticipated. The president had spoken about wanting to remove all American forces from Afghanistan by the end of his first term. Then he tweeted that he was prepared to have that happen by this Christmas. So there was certainly an expectation that he would be making some decision along these lines in the coming weeks that he now [still] has available as president.

It's a decision that has gone down well with almost no one. The military has never wanted to be in a position where there were no American forces, or where there were too few in order to be able to conduct counterterrorism operations, or to protect American assets in the country. They've always been on record here as pushing back against [these] troop reductions.

Interestingly the neighboring countries have not been pleased with this either. They all want to see the United States leave, but they are very concerned about the US leaving prematurely, such that the problem of Afghanistan will be thrown into their laps.

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

Finally, among members of both political parties there's a sense here that if we don't withdraw in a responsible way, we may very well be creating more problems for us down the road. On both sides there is an understanding that this step is due to the president's personal preference, his political calculations for a future career in politics, and that there hasn't been the level of preparation that should have gone into this kind of decision.

The announcement of the partial troop withdrawal came after the election, after it's become clear that Trump will no longer be president come January. How unusual is it for a US president to make such important foreign policy decisions shortly before a handover in power?

Normally the incumbent does not take any actions which are going to in any way preclude the incoming administration from setting its own foreign policy [strategies]. What this action has done is it has pre-empted to some extent the ability of a Biden administration to set its own policy for Afghanistan.

Marvin Weinbaum
Weinbaum worked for the US State Department as an Afghanistan analyst from 1999 to 2003Image: Middle East Institute

Still, we will see an attempt by Biden to carve out his own Afghan policy, despite the fact that he is somewhat restricted now. But that policy will not be greatly different from what we have now because of the commitment that the Afghans should be prepared to take over completely from American forces and international forces.

The timetable for going about doing this and the level of US forces [that need to remain] may differ. But the objective of bringing the boys and girls home, if you will — that, I think, both the Biden administration and the Trump administration have in common.

So the Biden administration is also still interested in eventually pulling all troops out of Afghanistan, they might just look into changing the date?

The US has agreed to remove all of its troops by the end of April [2021], that's part of the agreement [Trump reached] with the Taliban. But critics are saying we can't possibly honor that agreement. We've got to at least keep a force available there that would be able to stand up against inevitable attempts by al-Qaida and the Islamic State to take territory and raise the level of the insurgency once we're gone.

Read moreAfghanistan: How Fatima Gailani wants to make peace with the Taliban

We originally wanted [all troops] out by April because we anticipated that by April, there would be progress in the inter-Afghan peace talks and that we would therefore be able to say 'Yes, we're leaving, but we're leaving a country that is moving steadily toward finding a political solution to what has been almost 20 years of military conflict.'

But what we have been learning from these talks [between the Afghan government and the Taliban] is how difficult it's going to be to reach any kind of agreement. The two sides have a very different vision of what Afghanistan should be like.

On the one hand there's a vision of a constitutional, fairly liberal democratic system. That's the aspiration that [the Afghan government] has. The Taliban would install a regime that would only value a strict interpretation of religious law as the basis for political order. These two visions are incompatible.

What did you make of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell saying that if the US pulled out of Afghanistan too quickly, it could end up like the "humiliating American departure" from Saigon in 1975? Those are strong words from someone who is usually an ardent Trump supporter. 

The concern here is that if we act unilaterally — because Kabul does not want us to exit the way President Trump is now intent upon doing — we are sending a message, once again, that the United States can't be trusted. I believe that's what Senator McConnell is getting at with his remarks.

Dr. Martin Weinbaum is the director for Afghanistan and Pakistan Studies at The Middle East Institute, a Washington DC-based think tank. From 1999 to 2003 he served as an analyst for Pakistan and Afghanistan in the US Department of State's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

The interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.

Carla Bleiker
Carla Bleiker Editor, channel manager and reporter focusing on US politics and science@cbleiker