US soldiers in Afghanistan
In this file photo taken on August 12, 2015 US army soldiers walk as a NATO helicopter flies overhead at coalition force Forward Operating Base (FOB) Connelly in the Khogyani district in the eastern province of Nangarhar. Image Credit: AFP

A likely sharp reduction of American troops from Afghanistan coinciding with the resignation of US Secretary of State Jim Mattis, spells nothing short of disaster. For many Americans, the longest running and expensive war in Afghanistan had provided little evidence of success. But now, US president Donald Trump’s plan of a partial troops withdrawal creates the risk of an end that may bring a loss of face for the US.

Just when the Taliban were showing interest in entering peace negotiations, Washington’s weakening resolve to stay the course in Afghanistan will only cause immeasurable harm to efforts for stabilising the country. The departure of Mattis alongside an expected reduction of American troops from Afghanistan marks the end of an eventful year where Trump has gone from one policy blunder to another.

The year began with Trump’s infamous tweet on Pakistan — a country once seen by US leaders as a close ally in the global war on terror and the likely eventual guarantor of stability in Afghanistan. Since his election as the US president, Trump has repeatedly sought to humiliate Pakistan, disregarding the country’s loss of more than 70,000 lives since Islamabad joined Washington’s war in Afghanistan after the New York terror attacks of 2001. Additionally, the significant economic losses endured by Pakistan as it suffered a violent militant backlash, by far outstripped the US assistance that Trump has repeatedly mentioned.

But now the worst downside of Trump’s policies in Afghanistan during 2018 must be the message that has gone across to Taliban militants, who are engaged militarily against the US- backed beleaguered government of Afghan president Ashraf Gani. Reports from the ground in Afghanistan during the past year and before vividly suggest the serious capacity gaps surrounding the Afghan National Army and the Afghan police.

The Taliban who ethnically represent the ‘pashtun’ community — Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, reportedly continue to find widespread support notably in southern Afghanistan among the local population. Its therefore not surprising that the Afghan National Army faces a range of challenges from desertions in its ranks to its inability to track Taliban foot soldiers who have easily meshed into Afghanistan’s population.

Once US troops depart from Afghanistan, Afghan forces will hardly be a match for Taliban militants. And its just not beyond the realm of possibility that advancing Taliban forces who according to some reports already control half of Afghanistan, will likely occupy more territory. Ultimately, Gani’s administration which is already under pressure will be further weakened.

The challenges facing the Afghan administration are fundamentally anchored in a serious gap in Afghanistan which precedes the Trump administration. Fundamentally, after the Taliban were driven out of power in a US-led military campaign ordered by former US president George W Bush, little has been done to rebuild Afghanistan’s economic foundations. Its therefore hardly surprising that the Afghan state remains weak, fractured and simply unable to demonstrate its authority.

Consequently, Afghanistan’s pauperised state is simply unable to create and sustain a credible military and security apparatus, without outside help. The country’s war battered economy is additionally unable to assume responsibilities in other areas like creating an administrative government infrastructure or the framework for an environment where organised commerce or trade could grow. And last but not the least, reports of rampant corruption across Afghanistan make it virtually impossible to imagine, even a remote possibility of a return to normality.

As Afghanistan’s slide has continued, a marked deterioration in ties between the Afghan government and Pakistan has hardly helped to reverse the rot. Though high profile exchanges between the two countries recently have been highlighted by both sides as evidence of improving ties, the reality is fundamentally different. Afghanistan and Pakistan could have improved their ties with US backing if the two countries had been involved in clearly defined common interests. Yet, that has simply not happened.

Tough challenges

Going forward, Trump needs to reconsider pulling out the US military from Afghanistan until the US is able to first help resolve some of the country’s toughest challenges. Beyond simply improving the capacity of the Afghan National Army and the police, the US and its western allies also need to show greater resolve towards helping revamp Afghanistan’s economic structure in order to strengthen the Afghan state.

Furthermore, the US needs to rebuild its economic and military ties with Pakistan, Afghanistan’s next door neighbour and a country that holds the key to Afghanistan’s stability. Pakistan has one of the largest militaries in the world with the capacity to help the US and other western countries tackle major security challenges in its surrounding region. The country has also had the longest experience outside Afghanistan in dealing with challenges peculiar to Afghan insecurity.

Given Trump’s series of gaffes which have made him one of the most controversial presidents in US history, it is not possible to foresee a policy shift.

However it is vital for other US leaders and opinion makers to make sure that things don’t go out of hand in Afghanistan.

Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.