Top US envoys caution against ‘irresponsible’ early troop withdrawal

A group of high-ranking US envoys, including previous ambassadors to Afghanistan, on Saturday, called on the United States government not to withdraw all troops by Christmas, saying it would tip the balance in the Taliban’s favor and have a “terrible impact on Afghan women”.

In an article written by the group and published on the Atlantic Council’s website, the group of six said: “We urge that US troops not be withdrawn by Christmas or until conditions on the ground assure that US security objectives in Afghanistan are guaranteed through a political settlement and a sustainable peace – a peace that honors the sacrifice of America’s brave men and women.”

This comes after US President Donald Trump’s unexpected tweet this week saying that all US troops will return from Afghanistan by Christmas.

The Atlantic Council article meanwhile also stated that this move threatens the prospects for success in the current intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha, Qatar.

“If confirmed, a premature US withdrawal would tip the balance toward the Taliban, who are still waging war across Afghanistan. It would undermine our Afghan partners and have a terrible impact on Afghan women.

“US national security would be undermined leaving the United States with less leverage to assure that the Taliban will keep commitments – especially their promise to prevent al-Qaeda and other international terrorists from using Afghanistan to attack the United States,” read the article.

The authors stated that Trump’s tweet also undercuts the credibility of the US with partners and allies and appears to have been made without prior consultation with allies fighting alongside the US.

This comment appears to have been reflected in an apparent response to Trump’s tweet by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg who said on Friday: “We decided to go into Afghanistan together, we will make decisions on future adjustments together, and when the time is right, we will leave together.”

The authors of the Atlantic Council article stated Saturday that Trump’s tweet also suggests the US “would abandon agreements made abroad for short-term domestic political calculations. It would badly damage the international support which the United States has worked so hard to build around a sustainable Afghan peace process.”

Reiterating that the US agreement with the Taliban, signed in February, is conditions-based, the article pointed out that numerous public statements by the secretaries of state and defense and the US’ special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad have underscored that the US will “not withdraw from Afghanistan until the Taliban has demonstrated its good faith by abiding by the terms of the agreement.”

The authors of the article also pointed out that US administration officials have admitted in Congressional testimony that the Taliban is not yet fully compliant with its counterterrorism commitments. “Yet, remarkably, the president’s tweet seems to have the United States rushing to withdraw troops without achieving its stated goals and well ahead of the final May 2021 deadline.”

They also stated that an accelerated withdrawal will effectively mean abandoning the fruits of two years of determined US diplomacy with the Taliban, Afghan partners in Kabul, US allies, and regional and international partners to get the Afghan parties to the negotiating table.

They stated that despite Trump’s persistent interest in quickly pulling out of Afghanistan, many in and out of the US government have worked to persuade him to stay the course and assure a sustainable peace.

These top diplomats meanwhile pointed out that the impact in Afghanistan of Trump’s surprise tweet should not be doubted.

“As one Afghan official wrote privately to one of us: ‘people were talking about waking up to a tweet like this … How serious is this? Is it a decision or not? How was the decision made? Was there any consultation? It does undermine the conditionality and will impact the dynamics in Doha’…”, they stated.

According to them, a speedy withdrawal of troops would be highly irresponsible especially as peace negotiators in Doha are still grappling with the initial issues in order to lay the foundation for actual peace talks.

“After decades of fighting, it is not realistic to believe that these issues will be resolved quickly or without the ability of the United States and other partners to exert leverage in Afghanistan,” they said.

Pointing out that a key element in the US-Taliban agreement is a commitment to reducing violence, when in fact, they said, “the Taliban has so far ignored this commitment and in the past several months has actually heightened the tempo and intensity of its military campaign against the Afghan security forces.”

“At present, there is no indication of a serious Taliban interest in implementing a ceasefire,” they said.

The authors of the article went as far as to say that should the United States accelerate its departure, the Taliban “will be even more tempted to just wait, by stalling the talks until the United States completes its withdrawal.

“Once the United States and its allies have departed, the Taliban is likely to further intensify its military campaign and potentially seek a military victory,” the article read.

“In addition to undermining US security, those who will pay the biggest price for a premature US withdrawal and effective abandonment of the nascent peace process are the women of Afghanistan and the millions of younger Afghans who have grown up over the last nineteen years. They are the ones who will suffer terribly with a Taliban victory.”

In conclusion, they stated that the “United States should not undermine the important progress that the combination of US diplomacy and military steadfastness, working with allies and friends, has yielded in getting Afghans to the negotiating table and putting the Taliban on the spot to become a more responsible actor against terrorism.”

The authors of the Atlantic Council article are as follows:

Ambassador James Cunningham was US deputy ambassador to Afghanistan in 2011 and US ambassador to Afghanistan from 2012-2014. He is also a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.

Ambassador John Negroponte was US deputy secretary of state from 2007-2009 and director of national intelligence from 2005-2007.

Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann was the US ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005-2007.

Ambassador Hugo Llorens was US assistant chief of mission in Afghanistan from 2012-2013 and charge d’affaires from 2016-2017.

Ambassador Richard Olson was US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (2015-2016) and previously served at the US Embassy in Afghanistan (2011-2012) as well as US ambassador to the UAE and to Pakistan.

Ambassador Earl Anthony Wayne, was US deputy ambassador to Afghanistan and coordinating director for development from 2009-2011. He is also a nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Global Business and Economics Program.