In Depth

US pullout from Afghanistan ‘risks total civil war’

Former envoys warn of power vacuum after Taliban launches Kabul bomb attack as Washington pledges to withdraw troops

Withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan before the Kabul government and the Taliban finalise a peace settlement could result in a “total civil war” in the country, experts have warned.

In a joint statement released on Tuesday, nine former US ambassadors argue that any major troop withdrawal “must be contingent on a final peace” and “should follow, not come in advance, of a real peace agreement”.

“The initial US drawdown should not go so far or so fast that the Taliban believe they can achieve military victory,” they add in their report, published on the website of the Atlantic Council think tank.

The group - who according to Reuters include five former ambassadors to Kabul, a former special envoy to Afghanistan and a former deputy secretary of state - spoke out after US chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad this week announced that Washington was on “the threshold of an agreement” with the Taliban, following months of intense talks.

More than 5,000 US troops are set to withdraw from Afghanistan, Khalilzad said during a televised interview in the Afghan capital.

The Telegraph’s Con Coughlin says it is “entirely reasonable” that the Donald Trump administration is “actively seeking an exit strategy for its role in Afghanistan’s bitter civil war”, which has dragged on for 18 years.

But with a resurgent Taliban continuing to commit atrocities and the Afghan government largely sidelined, he adds, a US withdrawal could prove to be an “unmitigated disaster”.

What is in the peace deal?

Following nine rounds of protracted peace talks between Washington and the Taliban - held in the Gulf state of Qatar - negotiator Khalilzad announced on Monday that an agreement has been reached “in principle”.

The draft accord includes a pledge by Washington to remove 5,400 US troops from Afghanistan within 20 weeks. In return, the Taliban must never allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for militant groups seeking to attack the US and its allies.

Khalilzad appeared keen to stress that the troop withdrawal would have to be “conditions based” and did not clarify when the remaining 14,000 US troops would leave the country. He also insisted that final approval rests with President Trump, the BBC reports.

“We have agreed that if the conditions proceed according to the agreement, we will leave within 135 days five bases in which we are present now,” Khalilzad said.

How has the Taliban responded?

Hopes of peace were undermined almost immediately undermined when the Taliban launched a deadly bomb attack during Khalilzad’s televised announcement.

At least 16 people were killed and a further 119 injured in the blast, near a residential compound housing foreigners in Kabul, the BBC says. The Taliban also recently launched a fresh military offensive to capture the city of Kunduz.

The latest bloodshed marks a trend of increasing extremist violence in Afghanistan. According to The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall, July 2019 was the “most lethal month for years, with about 1,500 people killed or wounded” as a result of violent clashes between rival factions in the country. 

What do commentators saying?

The BBC says that “many in Afghanistan” fear that a deal “could see hard-won rights and freedoms eroded”, with a return to a regime like that of the notoriously brutal Taliban government of the late 1990s.

The Telegraph’s Coughlin argues that the US’s faith in any prospective deal “appear somewhat optimistic” in light of the Taliban’s fresh offensive, describing the Kabul bomb attack as “hardly the actions of an organisation that is serious about peace”.

“So far as the Taliban is concerned, this is its way of demonstrating its supremacy,” he adds, noting that the militant group “has made steady gains in reclaiming territory from coalition forces”.

The Los Angeles Times suggests that an overly rapid troop withdrawal could lead the Taliban “to avoid making compromises with other Afghans”, resulting in a civil war that could allow “al-Qa’eda and the local Islamic State affiliate space to grow”.

Where is the Afghan government?

US negotiators have been criticised for not allowing the Afghan government to take part in the talks and only speaking directly to the Taliban, in a bid to secure guarantees that the militants will not allow extremists to take hold of the country following troop withdrawal.

Coughlin says the exclusion of the democratically elected body that is “supposed to represent the interests of the Afghan people” is a “major shortcoming of the negotiating process”.

That view is echoed in the newly published statement from the nine former US envoys, who argue that “giving way to the Taliban’s refusal to negotiate with the Afghan government would let the Taliban determine with whom it will negotiate”.

“We must not yank so much support from our Afghan friends that they are unable to protect themselves or the chance to keep moving forward with a representative democracy,” the group add.

Meanwhile, the Afghan government has been quick to condemn the Kabul attack, with presidential spokesperson Sediq Seddiqi tweeting: “This is what the Taliban are up to in Afghanistan; totally committed to total destruction. Can they be trusted!!??”

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