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Incoherence and uncertainty. Trump spontaneously plans to withdraw thousands of US troops.

December 21, 2018

Summary: Donald Trump may have announced a large downsizing of US troops in Afghanistan.  The fact that we do not know what he may intend causes great uncertainty, which is damaging in itself.  A spontaneous withdrawal would be the worst kind of strategic decision, potentially impacting peace talks with the Taliban (who will be emboldened) and relationships of trust with Afghanistan and US allies.  “Mission Accomplished” declarations often end badly.  A deterioration of the conflict in 2019 is a real possibility.     

Over 20 and 21 December US government officials began announcing that President Donald Trump had authorised planning for a rapid and large-scale withdrawal of thousands of US troops in Afghanistan.  This caused concern and speculation in Afghanistan, the US and worldwide over the precipitate nature of the announcement.    The US has around 14,000 troops inside Afghanistan, conducting a range of missions in support of the Afghan government and its armed forces: training, advice, air support, intelligence gathering.  They are rarely involved in ground combat operations themselves unless something has gone wrong or they are after a specific high value target.

Time to go?

Reports suggest a downsizing of 5,000 to 7,000 troops – more or less half the force – might be planned.  The timing is unclear but weeks or months have been floated.  More or less simultaneously, US Defence Secretary General Jim Mattis has resigned in what appears to have been a major disagreement with President Trump’s foreign policy decision over US troop withdrawals from Syria – and likely compounded by this new Afghanistan confusion.  Trump’s political supporters appear disconcerted.  Republican politician Lindsey Graham responded: “we are setting in motion the loss of all our gains and paving the way toward a second 9/11”

Analysis and Outlook

The over-arching impression is utter uncertainty about what is happening and what might actually happen in the end.  Is this an official policy announcement or not?  Were allies and the Afghan government consulted?  Was the Pentagon consulted?  Trump’s predilection for spontaneous outbursts and statements, usually via social media, is characterised by reversals of mind, changes of direction or simply nothing happening at all.  His foreign policy decisions often appear merely as supporting props to his multiple domestic political and personal crises.

Perhaps scrambling generals, experts, officials and his own political party can pull Trump back from the ledge.  But the uncertainty and speculation triggered by this flurry of leaks, unofficial comments, resignations and announcements is damage enough.  Coming while peace talks with the Taliban were taking place, the Taliban will certainly have taken note and be emboldened by such an incoherent demonstration of anger, weakness and frustration from their superpower adversary.

Trump’s frustration at the lack of progress in the 17-year bloody and expensive engagement in Afghanistan is understandable – as it was for Presidents Obama and Bush.  But clear, simple and quick solutions to a complex guerrilla insurgency halfway around the world are demonstrably few and far between.  Impatiently spinning the tiller and lurching to one side is rarely an advisable move, particularly when it seems unlikely that Trump has troubled to learn much about the region and the issues, or coherently consult with advisors and experts, of which he has an abundance.

Given that all we have to go on thus far is a possible announcement of possible action, it is difficult to judge the range of impacts.  How many troops are leaving?  When?  What type of troops will be leaving?  What type of capability will remain?  How much US diplomatic and financial support will remain?

The international military forces downsized from 140,000 to around 12,000 over 2011 to 2014. Under a different (read: any other) US Presidency, downsizing by 6,000 troops could well be achievable if managed in a coordinated and planned manner, minimising uncertainty and ensuring the buy-in of the Afghan government, neighbouring countries (read: Pakistan) and the international military allies deployed.  The United Kingdom has 650 troops in-country and this number is to double to 1,100 in 2019.

But if the US pulls out half of its troops in a timeframe of weeks, these are the possible impacts to be considered:

  • Trust. No consultation – breakdown of trust between US and Afghanistan, US and allies
  • Strategic incoherence. Incoherence in US military and diplomatic strategic planning heightened by the loss of the Secretary of Defense.  How to cobble together a new diplomatic, economic and military plan for Afghanistan?
  • Western disengagement? The US is the lead coalition partner for the international community in Afghanistan.  Other countries may follow their example, reducing troops, advice, financial and other forms of support.
  • Uncertainty in the country and the neighbouring region – impact on business, investment, people migration and asylum seekers?
  • ANA losses. A struggling Afghan army will struggle further – 28,000 dead since 2015.  What and where might the breaking point be?
  • Peace talks and an emboldened Taliban – what incentive do the Taliban have to talk to anyone when they may now believe, rightly or wrongly, that they can wait out the US?
  • Playing to an audience of one – an increase in violence in the short-term? If the Taliban sense that the US is on the “tipping point” of a collapse in resolve, they may judge that a few well-placed hammer blows might push the US over the edge – a handful of co-ordinated suicide bombers, the death of a couple of US soldiers, the overrunning of an Afghan provincial capital, a complex attack in Kabul, a helicopter shoot down.  In short, any US reverse that will make it onto Fox News…
  • Wobbly government, conspiring warlords – part of the uncertainty. Warlords, religious and political figures may see this as a sign of international disengagement and begin again to make their own political and military arrangements, looking for other less-reputable backers and support.  Dostum has frequently stated that he should have his own army and take the fight to the Taliban.  We might see added instability for a central government not known for its resilience.
  • Meddling neighbours into the strategic power vacuum? – The usual suspects: Pakistan, Iran, India, Russia, central Asia, China.

As Trump regularly says when he doesn’t really know what’s going on: “we’ll see what happens”…












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