US to withdraw troops from Afghanistan: Here?s what it means for India and China

US President Donald Trump has decided to withdraw a “significant” number of troops from Afghanistan, a US official told AFP on Thursday, December 20. Trump’s decision came a day after he announced that he would withdraw troops from Syria.

“That decision has been made. There will be a significant withdrawal,” the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The United States currently has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan who are working either with a NATO mission to support Afghan forces or in separate counter-terrorism operations.

The seemingly impulsive decision to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan and the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis indicate an uncertain future in the United States’ longest war. These developments come as Afghanistan has been troubled by incidents of violence afflicting the capital Kabul and other important areas.

President Trump has long supported the withdrawal of troops, but in 2017, at Mattis’s request, he reluctantly pledged an additional 4,000 troops to the Afghan campaign in an attempt to hasten an end to the conflict.

An abrupt decision?

Several Afghan officials, who are often aware about security planning and decision making, said that they had not received any indication that the Americans would pull out troops. However, the fear of Trump taking impulsive decisions always existed, looming in the background of discussions with the United States, the officials said.

Officials view the abrupt decision as a further sign that voices from the ground were lacking in the debate over the war, and that with Mattis’s resignation, Afghanistan had lost one of the last influential voices in Washington who channelled the reality of the conflict into discussions at the White House.

An American official said that the reduction of American forces in Afghanistan is an effort to make Afghan forces more reliant on their own troops and not Western support. However, some fear that the move could put the Afghan troops in danger. Afghan troops have struggled against the Taliban and have suffered high casualty rates, even with the current level of American support.

How has Afghanistan responded?

The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan will not affect the security situation of the country, senior Afghan officials have said. Their comments came earlier when reports stated that Trump was just planning such a move.  

“If the few thousand foreign troops that advise, train & assist, leave it will not affect our security,” Fazel Fazly, chief adviser to the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, said on Twitter.

“In the past four & half years our security is completely in the hands of Afghans and the final goal is that ANDSF [the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] will stand on their feet to protect & defend soil on their own,” Fazly added.

Presidential spokesperson Haroon Chakhansuri also said, on social media, that a US withdrawal would not affect security in any way.

Former Ministry of Defense spokesman Zahir Azimi, however, noted that a withdrawal could affect the capabilities of Afghan troops in conducting effective night raids. Additionally, US aerial support is critical to Afghan ground forces.

Decoding the decision

Some American analysts believe that by withdrawing from Syria and Afghanistan, President Trump is being perceived as going weak on terrorism. Trump’s sudden announcement has raised speculation that it could be linked to his pre-election promises to pull out from external wars to save money to consolidate internally. It also signals that the US has perhaps admitted to defeat in Afghanistan and that it had agreed to Taliban’s demands.

Trump’s withdrawal decision could also mean that the US would now hands over the Afghan mess to Pakistan, leaving the arena open to its old strategic rival Russia and and new one, China.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Sunday, December 23, 2018, replaced two of the country’s top security chiefs with staunch anti-Taliban and anti-Pakistan officials, days after Trump’s decision to withdraw troops. Amrullah Saleh and Asadullah Khalid, both former heads of the Afghan intelligence agency, have been appointed to posts of interior minister and defence minister, respectively.

This could mean that reconciliation with warring Afghan Taliban becomes even trickier and could result in heightened militancy, which could result in the weakening of Pakistan’s and Chinese reconciliatory efforts.

India’s challenges

Keeping in mind that India has two main interests in Afghanistant, which are, preventing any extremist group from taking over Afghanistan, and maintaining economic cooperation with the Afghan government and civil society, troop withdrawal might not be good news for New Delhi.

The US is withdrawing at a time when its views on Afghanistan seem to run contrary to other traditional regional partners like Russia and Iran.

Asserting that India should adopt a “clear-cut roadmap” to tackle the Kashmir issue, former DGP of Jammu and Kashmir K. Rajendra Kumar has said that the US withdrawing troops from Afghanistan could affect the Valley as terrorist outfits may feel empowered. Kumar was delivering the Lalitaditya Memorial Lecture in Pune.

“Now USA is exiting Afghanistan. It has its implications in Kashmir. It is a matter of time that we will be feeling its implications in the Valley. After the US withdrawal, the terrorist organisations would feel pumped up, emboldened,” he said, PTI reported.

China, Pakistan discuss Afghanistan peace talks

Officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China met in the Afghan capital, Kabul, earlier in December to discuss trade, development, and solutions to end the region’s unceasing conflicts.

The bitter relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan was at the centre of talks, with all three countries agreeing that a peaceful end to the war will result in economic and trade benefits for the entire region.

During a news conference after the trilateral talks, Afghan’s Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani said that Kabul had yet to see “tangible progress” from Pakistan “in the fight against terrorism”. He added that Afghanistan wanted to see some “specific measures” from Islamabad to end the violence, without offering details, as per an Al Jazeera report.

China, which has hosted Taliban leaders in an effort to bring the warring sides to the negotiating table, sees an end to the war as crucial to its “One Belt, One Road” policy of expanding trade links across Asia.

In a report sent to Congress, the US Department of Defense said, “China’s military, economic, and political engagements in Afghanistan are driven by domestic security concerns that terrorism will spread across the Afghan border into China, and also by China’s increasing desire to protect its regional economic investments,” Dawn reported.  

The US report further noted that Afghanistan “continues to seek Chinese pressure on Pakistan” to assist reconciliation efforts and eliminate insurgent sanctuaries.

The United States looks at China’s concern about the growth of militancy as a positive element. This could encourage Beijing to work with the international community to suppress terrorism in the South Asian region.

Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius