Reaction to Announcement of U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan

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President Barack Obama announced last week the withdrawal of 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year and 23,000 more by the end of summer 2012, followed by further reductions leading to a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops by 2014. The timeline and scale of the withdrawal has given rise to a number of conflicting commentaries and editorials in the United States as well as the Middle East and among Afghanistan’s neighbors. For his part, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai, according to the Afghan website Bakhtar News, responded to the speech by meeting “at the Presidential Palace with members of the parliamentary group of Saba yesterday. At the meeting Hajji Almas Zahid chairman of the group of Saba, talked on others’ behalf and assured the group’s support towards improving the security situation in the country and asked the president to consult with this group in relation to important national issues….Calling the current year important for Afghanistan, President Karzai emphasized that protecting and defending Afghanistan [was] the responsibility of the Afghans and [that] we should exert more efforts in order to get more responsibilities.”

The Kabul-based news agency Pajhwok reports, “President Hamid Karzai…on Thursday said it would be up to Afghans to defend their country. ‘Afghans have the experience of a three-decade-long war. The sons of the soil will defend the country,’ Karzai told a meeting at his palace. The president said the troop drawdown was in the best interest of Afghanistan.” The statement follows a similar one by the country’s Ministry of Defense, which (according to the same news agency) declared, “Afghan security forces, especially the Afghan National Army (ANA), have the capacity to assume security responsibilities on their own…. ‘We are not concerned about operations against militants with the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country. The Afghan forces would be further strengthened, trained and equipped before the troop drawdown process is completed.’”

Acknowledging President Karzai erratic behavior, The Daily Outlook, another Afghan daily, seemed to sympathize with the U.S. government’s predicament:  “Here in Kabul, he is dealing with a somehow unwelcoming ally — President Karzai.  The Afghan president now, more than ever, bluntly criticizes his foreign allies, as his June 18, 2011, statements showed, when he claimed foreign countries were “‘pursuing their own interest in Afghanistan.’” Such an approach of Kabul officials deals severe blows to the Obama administration, as Americans might draw a grim picture from their Kabul allies, which will prove consequential for the Afghan people. It is important for the president to note that without a U.S. presence in the country, his government will collapse within months. Thus, he should keep secret feelings for them, for the sake of the entire people.”

Reaction from Afghanistan’s neighbors was also mixed. The Pakistani Dawn newspaper wonders if it is not too early for any such withdrawals, cautioning, “There is no evidence that the U.S.-led forces have turned the corner or that the militants have been put on the defensive, much less beaten. Instead, the militants must be encouraged by Washington`s plan that all American combat troops will withdraw by 2013, causing a vacuum which the U.S. wants the Afghan security forces to fill. Given the Karzai regime`s dismal record in terms of institution building, this appears to be a pipedream. The strength of the Afghan National Army is far below [its] stipulated strength, and the government`s writ doesn`t run in the greater part of the country.”

On the pages of the same newspaper, Khalid Aziz argues that with the departure of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, U.S. leverage against the Taliban will decline: “It will thus be more opportune for the U.S. defence and military elite to recognise that with the passage of time the United States will lose the capacity to shape future outcomes in these negotiations; thus it is now, [even] more than before, that the United States needs Pakistan`s help to exit in a respectable manner from Afghanistan. This can only be provided by a friendly and strong Pakistan. Its continuous rubbishing in the United States is shortsighted.”

Declan Walsh also touches on the implications for the ongoing behind-the-scenes negotiations with the Taliban, writing in the Indian daily Hindu, “There is little doubt that, with the start of a phased American troop withdrawal, the bugle has been sounded for a fresh bout of political and military scrambling to shape the destiny of a perilously fragile nation….The greatest changes will take place in 2014, when all U.S. and British combat troops are due to leave. The most pressing question now is what will take their place. In recent months, President Karzai has become strongly critical of his western allies, recently engaging in a bitter public spat with the U.S. Ambassador. Pakistan, India, Russia and China, with one eye on a peace deal, are already jockeying for position. But it is still early days, and much remains unclear. Meanwhile, western officials are facing up to the fact that, after a decade and billions in foreign aid, they made modest gains in a country where education remains poor, poverty is widespread and corruption is endemic.”

Other regional editorials and commentaries raise more questions about the timing and wisdom of the Obama administration’s policy. The Peninsula editorial notes, “Obama’s new policy will earn him applause from a public which has grown completely pessimistic about the Afghan engagement. The death of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and huge concern over the growing deficit mean Obama would have political support to cut the number of military personnel in Afghanistan by as much as a third. But for experts from our region, the new policy is not very promising. The latest announcement comes after reports that the U.S. administration is trying to start a dialogue with the Taliban for a political solution to the crisis. The immediate troop withdrawal may bring the Afghan situation back to square one. Why did the United States wait so long to initiate talks with the Taliban?…The current haste of the Obama administration doesn’t do justice to the hard work his forces have done in the insurgency-hit country.”

The UAE daily The National suggests in an editorial the need for greater involvement from Afghanistan’s neighbors and Muslim allies, now that the United States has decided to decrease its footprint:  “Afghanistan needs more support than a foreign army can offer – and it needs it now. Other countries, non-governmental organizations and charities should all be involved in grassroots projects to employ Afghans and develop the country. Increasingly, this support should come from neighbors in the region and Muslim allies who can establish a rapport with the Afghan people….Development efforts in the foreseeable future – which are crucial to keep the country from sliding back into chaos – cannot be carried out at the end of a gun. Regional efforts have to be coordinated with and approved by the Afghans, who have the most at stake. In many areas, the presence of foreign troops has been propaganda fodder for the Taliban. The long-term solution is not more fighting, but development and education.”

Skeptical of President Obama’s motivations for announcing the withdrawal of US troops as the re-election campaign begins to kick into gear, the Lebanese Daily Star worries, “The U.S. withdrawal signals a moving back to square one, and not in the direction of peace and prosperity….Obama and other officials have failed to answer fundamentally important questions about Afghanistan, as they prepare to leave. Have the Taliban suddenly become an insignificant threat to the future of Afghanistan and its stability? Or have secret deals been reached with the Islamist group, to ensure a smooth transition to the next phase in Afghanistan’s political life.”

The Gulf News editorial also reflects on the ongoing negotiations with the Taliban: “The White House must walk the tightrope between cutting back on troops against the cost of the gains that the military has made. Which explains why a fresh channel has now been opened — dialogue with the Taliban in an attempt to bring them back into Afghanistan’s mainstream….Realistically, there are only a few months of conflict left before the advent of a severe winter, which is why the United States and its allies must establish their gains while holding out an opportunity for substantial negotiations with the Taliban. The key would be to bargain by holding the aces rather than allowing the Taliban to drive their own schedule and later push Karzai to the wall. Both parties will adopt the carrot-and-stick approach, but the Taliban have very little to lose.”

For a more critical take on the announcement, one must turn to the Saudi daily Arab News, whose editorial raises important questions while reluctantly welcoming . Citing recent revelations the United States is engaging in talks with the Taliban, the editorial asks “why this was not done earlier, when it could have avoided all this destruction and loss of thousands of innocent lives. What has America achieved?…Who will pay for the long occupation and devastation of a country that has already suffered so much during the past few decades? We do not want to spoil the reigning superpower’s party by raising these inconvenient questions, when everyone wants to forget the recent unpleasant past and move on. However, it’s important to demand answers to these questions if we are to avoid yet another war in the name of freedom and ‘our way of life.’”

Yet, there are others who argue that, while the Obama administration is signaling a shift away from a war footing, behind the scenes it is doubling down on the war on terror. Karen Greenberg writes at the Middle East Online,  “If anything, the Obama administration and Congress have interpreted the killing of al-Qaeda’s leader as a virtual license to double down on every “front” in the war on terror….In other words, Washington now seems to be engaged in a wholesale post-bin Laden ratification of business as usual, this time on steroids….But think about it for a moment: Should the postmortem to bin Laden be just a continuation of the same-old-same-old? Shouldn’t there be a national pause for reflection as the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches? Wouldn’t it make sense to stop and rethink policy in the light of his death and of a visibly tumultuous new moment in the Greater Middle East, with its various uprisings and brewing civil wars?”


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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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