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

Masood Saifullah
June 2, 2020

Independent monitors have reported to the UN that the Taliban have not severed ties with al-Qaeda. Yet, Washington is determined to pull out its troops from Afghanistan, ignoring its own pre-condition for the withdrawal.

US soldiers with Task Force Iron at Bost Airfield, Afghanistan
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Operation Resolute Support Headquarters/Sgt. Justin T. Updegraff

The Taliban in Afghanistan have maintained close ties with the al-Qaeda terrorist group, according to a report by independent monitors to the UN Security Council.

One of the US pre-conditions for the US and Taliban sign historic deallandmark deal with the Taliban in Doha on February 29 was that the Afghan militant group sever all ties with al-Qaeda – the terrorist outfit responsible for orchestrating September 11, 2001 attacks on US soil. At the time of the deal, the Taliban said they had cut off their relations with the international Islamist organization.

"The Taliban regularly consulted with al-Qaeda during negotiations with the United States and offered guarantees that it would honor their historical ties," the report stated.

One of the reasons behind the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was that the Taliban, who ruled the country from 1996 to 2001, had provided shelter to al-Qaeda commanders.

"If the Taliban fail to keep its promise on the al-Qaeda issue, the US could end the Doha deal," Atiqullah Amarkhail, an Afghan security expert, told DW, adding that it would be a setback for the Afghan peace process.

"If the US-Taliban deal collapses, there will be no winner. Afghanistan will face a prolonged crisis, and all stakeholders, including the Afghan government, the Taliban and the US will lose," Jawid Kohistani, a Kabul-based expert, underlined.

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A hurried withdrawal?

It is unimaginable that Washington was not aware of the Taliban's continued connections to al-Qaeda while it was sealing an agreement with the Afghan insurgent group in Doha. But that has not deterred.

Western diplomats have told media that the US is likely to reduce the number of its troops in Afghanistan to 8,600 ahead of a timeline agreed with the Taliban in the Doha agreement.

According to the Doha deal, the US must bring down the troops from about 13,000 to 8,600 by mid-July, and completely exit by May 2021. American and NATO officials now confirm that the first stage of troops withdrawal may well be achieved by mid-June.

Read more: Afghan peace process: Is Washington running out of patience?

Experts say this could be a result of the coronavirus pandemic in the US, which has killed over 100,000 people in the country so far. The Trump administration is grappling with an unprecedented public health crisis, as the US economy has been badly hit due to the COVID-19 lockdown. Also, the US troops stationed in the war-torn country could also be infected with the disease.

But some analysts say there is more to the withdrawal urgency than the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The Afghan government is not making enough progress in the peace process and the US is running out of patience," Amarkhail said.

"Washington wants to send a clear message to Afghan leaders – that it will leave the country irrespective of the situation on the ground," he added.

The US-Taliban agreement, which does not involve Kabul, has faced several hurdles in the past three months. President Ashraf Ghani's government is reluctant to release all Taliban prisoners, and the Taliban have not halted their attacks on the Afghan security forces.

Read more: Afghanistan: Journalist killed in Kabul roadside bombing

"If the peace process doesn't move forward and the intra-Afghan talks don't begin, then I imagine the Trump administration will give up its mediation efforts, scale down its engagement, and potentially even expedite its withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan," Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Wilson Center, told DW.

"President Trump could use the coronavirus as a pretext, declaring that he can't keep his troops in conditions where they face the risks not only of Taliban attacks but also of a deadly pandemic," he added.

Read more: India-Pakistan tug-of-war jeopardizes Afghan peace process

Is the US pressure finally working?

It seems that the US pressure on the Afghan government and the Taliban is yielding some results – Kabul and the insurgent group have recently taken some surprising confidence-building measures.

Read more: Afghanistan: Taliban prisoner exchange an 'important step,' says US envoy

In May, the Taliban announced a three-day ceasefire to mark the Eid celebrations. Afghan President Ghani lauded the move and released around 2,000 Taliban prisoners as a "goodwill gesture."

Ghani has also been able to iron out differences with his political rival Abdullah Abdullah, who had claimed victory in last year's presidential elections and formed his own government parallel to Ghani's. After months of international mediation, Ghani and Abdullah last month signed a power-sharing agreement, which mandates Abdullah to lead Afghanistan's High Council for Peace while Ghani remains president.

The Afghan government has also formed a team for negotiations with the Taliban. Abdullah says Kabul is "ready to start talks at any moment."

Read more: US troops begin withdrawal from Afghanistan

Life under Taliban rule in Afghanistan's Kunar province