U.S. Troops Are Packing Up, Ready or Not

November 18, 2020 

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Had it not been for dozens of U.S. airstrikes in recent weeks, the southern hub city Kandahar would be under siege, after Taliban fighters threatened to overrun several surrounding districts, security officials say.

Now with President Trump’s orders to cut American forces in Afghanistan by roughly half — from 4,500 to 2,500 — Kandahar’s fate, and the fate of the Afghan security forces spread across the country, are once more in question.

“If it were not for the air support of U.S. forces, the Taliban would be sitting inside Kandahar city now,” Col. Zabiullah Ghorzang, an Afghan Army regimental commander in Kandahar Province, said Tuesday.

The Pentagon on Tuesday formally announced those troop cuts, stopping short of the full withdrawal by Christmas that Mr. Trump had mused about publicly and ensuring that the war in Afghanistan will transition to a fourth American administration over almost 20 years of conflict.

Mr. Trump’s withdrawal will leave President-elect Joseph R. Biden, without his consultation, the smallest force in Afghanistan envisioned by American counterterrorism planners. But in pushing for the reduction before he leaves office, Mr. Trump has faced resistance from some prominent members of his own party in Congress — and on Tuesday from rankled NATO allies as well.

The reduction, though expected by Afghan officials, is coming at a desperate time for Afghanistan: Peace negotiations in Qatar between the Afghan government and the insurgency are stalled, Taliban offensives are surging near important cities in the south and north, and morale has been plunging among the Afghan government forces as they take heavy casualties, officials say.

Afghan officials have long seen the American military presence as a crucial incentive for the Taliban to keep its promises and choose negotiation over endless war. Now, many in Afghanistan — including, government officials fear, the Taliban — are taking Mr. Trump’s quickened drawdown as the clearest signal yet that the United States is leaving Afghanistan no matter what the insurgency does.

ImageAmerican military personnel in a helicopter flying over Helmand Province last year.
American military personnel in a helicopter flying over Helmand Province last year.Credit...Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

The withdrawal plan has ramifications beyond Afghanistan, including troop cutbacks in the Middle East and Africa.

In Iraq, the American troop presence, which is seen as a hedge against a resurgence of the Islamic State and against powerful Iranian influence, has already come down to about 3,500 troops this year. Under the new orders, Pentagon officials say it will come down to around 2,500 in January. Unlike in Afghanistan, the cuts have not been a source of alarm: Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has described the cuts as being agreed to and desirable for both sides.

Almost immediately after the Pentagon announced the withdrawal on Tuesday, mortar shells or rockets were fired in several places in Baghdad. Officials said that the attacks killed a child and left five civilians wounded.

In Somalia, the withdrawal plan — no formal numbers were announced on Tuesday — is coming as the Shabab, a terrorist group linked to Al Qaeda, continues to intensify its attacks on both military and civilian targets in an effort to topple the country’s Western-backed government. More than 650 American troops — many of them from the Special Operations forces — are there to train Somalian forces and conduct operations against the Shabab.

Officials and analysts in Somalia say the sudden reduction or removal of those forces would be a propaganda victory for the Shabab at a critical time, and would also leave stated American goals for the troop presence unfinished.

“In terms of improving local capacity and degrading Al Shabab — none of that has really been accomplished,” said Omar Mahmood, a senior Somalia analyst at the International Crisis Group.

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U.S. military personnel survey damage at Al Asad Air Base in Anbar, Iraq, after it was struck by Iranian missiles in January.Credit...Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

For the Afghan government, the tumult surrounding the rapid U.S. withdrawal is only underscoring its reliance on Western support. Local police and national forces have been either pinned down or in retreat in many areas recently, rattled by the prospect of diminishing American support, Afghan officials say. And no one here expects a Biden administration to send troops back.

October was the deadliest month for civilians since September 2019, according to data compiled by The New York Times. More than 200 civilians were killed.

“The Afghan Army isn’t strong enough to stand against terrorists just by themselves, and it is obvious that they need others’ support,” said Atiqullah Amarkhel, a retired Afghan Army general and military analyst. The Taliban “are stronger than in the past, and if the Americans leave and don’t support and assist the Afghan army they won’t resist long, and the Taliban will take over. This is what scares me the most.”

The Afghan security forces are still well-supplied, and funded by an influx of foreign cash, meaning a further American withdrawal would not automatically entail a collapse. Afghan military officials say they have defensive plans of their own if the United States continues to withdraw and the peace talks drag on without progress.

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An Afghan soldier watching over a position last year along the the main road in Warduj, in Badakhshan Province, Afghanistan.Credit...Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Speaking to Parliament on Tuesday, acting Defense Minister Asadullah Khalid tried to assure lawmakers that Afghans should not worry about the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

“We are not concerned, and we are ready to defend Afghanistan independently,” Mr. Khalid said.

But that has not stopped some Afghan officials from fearing another civil war if the country splits along ethnic and regional lines while under pressure of the Taliban’s attacks.

Metra Mehran, a member of the Feminine Perspectives Campaign in Afghanistan, worried that the Americans were leaving without getting enough assurances from the Taliban and without a clear path forward for the peace talks.

“Considering that the negotiations haven’t reached any agreement and security has been worsened, I am afraid it can even lead to another civil war,” Ms. Mehran said. “It is not a wise decision to leave without any concrete agreement and a feasible agenda beyond it.”

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President Trump addressed U.S. troops at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan last year.Credit...Erin Schaff/The New York Times

At the Pentagon, acting Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller told reporters that the troop cuts in Afghanistan — he called them “repositioning” — would not adversely affect the safety of remaining American soldiers, diplomats or intelligence officers on the ground, and “does not equate to a change in U.S. policy or objectives.”

The cuts, with a deadline five days before Mr. Biden is to be inaugurated in January, will leave behind a force that military planners see as a critical counterterrorism force to serve as a hedge against Al Qaeda and Islamic State loyalists and to try to keep neighboring countries from meddling more forcefully in Afghanistan. Mr. Biden has referred to that kind of force in his own sparing mentions of a future Afghan strategy.

Mr. Miller, a former Army Green Beret who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, said he spent Tuesday morning calling NATO allies and other partners to notify them of Mr. Trump’s new orders and to reassure them of America’s commitment to the nearly two-decade-old mission in Afghanistan.

“We went in together, we adjust together, and, when the time is right, we will leave together,” Mr. Miller said.

But NATO’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, appeared to express frustration with the sped-up American withdrawal. In a sharply worded statement Tuesday, he warned that “the price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high.”

“Even with further U.S. reductions, NATO will continue its mission to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces,” Mr. Stoltenberg said.

Most notably, Italian and German forces, which rely on American transport and protection for their missions in northern and western Afghanistan, would have a decision about whether to scale back their operations as well.

Afghan officials involved in the peace negotiations with the Taliban in Qatar insisted that withdrawal or not, they would still be prioritizing the negotiation process.

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Members of the Taliban delegation at the peace talks in Doha.Credit...EPA, via Shutterstock

“We are in negotiations — we are not thinking about the withdrawal of foreign forces, said. Ghulam Farooq Majrooh, a member of Parliament and part of the Afghan government’s negotiating team with the Taliban. “What is important for us is how to reach an agreement and a cease-fire and peace.”

In the Feb. 29 agreement between the United States and the Taliban that started the troop withdrawal, the Taliban agreed to publicly separate itself from Al Qaeda — which was under the Taliban government’s protection when it launched the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — and to deny terrorist groups the use of Afghan territory as a haven.

But the troop withdrawal has continued even though last month a Qaeda leader was killed in a Taliban-controlled district in the country’s east, and there has been no evidence of any decisive severing of ties between the groups.

But for Hayatullah, 33, a street vendor in Kandahar, peace agreements and diplomatic forays to end the war meant little. All he can see is that the security in his city was worsening.

“The city condition is bad, people are worried, the fighting is ongoing in several directions of the city and the districts are falling,” said Hayatullah, who like many Afghans uses just one name. “We are afraid that Americans leaving will only intensify it.”

Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Najim Rahim reported from Kandahar, Afghanistan, and Fatima Faizi from Kabul. Reporting was contributed by Eric Schmitt and Jennifer Steinhauer from Washington; Taimoor Shah from Kandahar; Abdi Latif Dahir from Cairo; and Falih Hassan from Baghdad.

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