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The perils of a US troop drawdown to the Afghan army and tribes

The perils of a US troop drawdown to the Afghan army and tribes
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Before his ouster as Secretary of Defense on Nov. 9, Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Army details new hair and grooming standards | DC National Guard chief says Pentagon restricted his authority before riot | Colorado calls on Biden not to move Space Command New Army hair and grooming standards allow for ponytails, buzz cuts and earrings Trump administration official Norquist sworn in as acting Pentagon chief MORE sent a memo to President TrumpDonald TrumpBlinken holds first calls as Biden's secretary of State Senators discussing Trump censure resolution Dobbs: Republicans lost in 2020 because they 'forgot who was the true leader' MORE stating that the “unanimous” recommendation of the chain of command for the war in Afghanistan is that conditions are not ready for a U.S. troop withdrawal. The generals charged with prosecuting the war in Afghanistan saw Trump’s recent troop drawdown order as counter-strategic folly, driven by the president’s desire to proclaim that he ended “endless wars.”  

According to the Pentagon, none of the conditions required for withdrawal — including the Taliban’s ongoing relationship with al Qaeda and negotiating with our Afghan government allies — has been met. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHumanist Report host criticizes 'conservative Democrats:' They 'hold more power' than progressives Dobbs: Republicans lost in 2020 because they 'forgot who was the true leader' Biden's Cabinet gradually confirmed by Senate MORE (R-Ky.) warned that troop withdrawal would “would hurt our allies and delight — delight — the people who wish us harm. The consequences of a premature American exit would likely be even worse than President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq back in 2011.”                                                    

But what is less obvious to domestically focused Americans is the impact this withdrawal likely will have on Afghans who rely upon the American military presence to keep the Taliban at bay. There are two aspects to this important Afghan perspective on the president’s decision: the Afghan National Army, which has suffered horrific losses in its battle to stave off a Taliban conquest, and the Afghan tribes, which the military considers to be the “center of gravity” in this tribal land.

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The Afghan army

We both can attest from personal experiences, the Afghan army does not lack bravery or willingness to make sacrifices to defend their country. But Afghan soldiers lack much of the essential training, equipment and resources that American support troops provide. When Afghan forces go on missions, American airmen transport them in Black Hawk or Chinook helicopters. When Afghan allied troops engage in combat, American Special Forces embedded with them fly hand-launched Raven drones that provide overwatch and call in strikes from HIMARs (small satellite-guided artillery) or air strikes from assets such as Apache helicopters, AC-130 Specter gunships and A-10 Warthogs. This ground and air artillery support gives the Afghans a fighting chance against a dedicated, fanatical enemy.

The much-appreciated Americans also provide their Afghan allies with logistical support and, in the psychological sense, let their hard-fighting partners know that a superpower has their back. The small number of American “force multiplier” troops, contrary to misconceptions conveyed by the Trump administration, do not lead the fight from the front, but every one of them is the equivalent of a thousand Afghan troops. From a combat and logistical support perspective, withdrawing these troops from the already small and thinly stretched U.S. contingent would, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “potentially cripple” Afghan army operations. 

From a morale perspective, it would be devastating to the fighting spirit of an allied fighting force that is barely holding the line against never-ending waves of Taliban offensives.

Afghan tribes

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Few Americans from a post-modern, melting pot society truly grasp the importance of tribes in this ancient land that is more of a jostling, blood feud-ridden battleground than a modern, homogeneous nation state. Winning the support of tribes, especially among the warlike Pashtun tribes in the country’s southeast, is key to staving off defeat. These people live in an unstable, dangerous land and their tribal leaders constantly have their fingers to the wind trying to gauge which warring side has the strongest gales at its back. 

When the Bush administration signaled a lack of commitment to the Afghan “forgotten war” and sucked all the oxygen out of this theater of action to wage war against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, the tribes sensed lack of commitment and weakness. As vital American resources were diverted from Afghanistan to Iraq, many tribes that previously had joined the victorious Americans and Afghan government defected to a resurgent Taliban in order to be on the winning side.

Afghanistan was saved by a 2009-2012 troop surge, which tripled the number of troops in the country, conveyed a message of strength to the tribes, and saved the south and east from a Taliban conquest. Since then, a tentative stalemate has reigned. The insurgents control roughly half of the country, mainly in the countryside, but cannot overrun major provincial towns or the half the government controls. Today, numerous tribes are clearly on the fence, waiting and watching for a sign of weakness from either the Taliban or the Americans. In this unstable land, where perceptions of weakness galvanize ancient tribes to switch allegiance, the first side that blinks in this war of perceptions will be considered weak.

Trump’s troop withdrawal decision will be hailed by the Taliban — who endorsed the president in the recent elections — as a victory. The tribes will gravitate to the insurgents’ side out of a sense of self-preservation. A recent Rand Corporation report warns that a precipitous troop drawdown will “accelerate among Afghans a crisis of confidence in the durability of their government and security forces.”

No one has his finger on the pulse of the tribes better than former Afghan vice president and current marshal, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the focus of “The Last Warlord.” This legendary counter-insurgent/insurgent and master of the art of Afghan tribal warfare has warned, “If the Americans withdraw their troops, the Taliban will smell blood. The tribes will interpret it as a retreat based on weakness, just like the British and Soviets.” Conventional wisdom in Afghanistan is that the Taliban will transition to an offensive on the capital, as happened when the Soviets withdrew troops and their allied Afghan communist government forces subsequently began a retreat that eventually led to a collapse.

When factoring in these two important determinants, Trump’s troop withdrawal order has the real potential to militarily, morally and logistically weaken and seriously destabilize an allied democratic government that has been sustained by a small, but highly effective, U.S. force commitment of just 4,500 support troops. Most alarmingly, a premature disengagement has the potential to strengthen and revitalize a fanatical enemy that has shown no interest in breaking its ties with al Qaeda or respecting the democracy the U.S. has established with such great sacrifice in a land that was the launching pad for 9/11.

Mission interminable?

Many war-weary Americans question how long U.S. troops must remain in the Central Asian “Graveyard of Empires,” and how much blood and treasure is worth stabilizing Afghanistan. The answer is, for all of America’s tremendous successes — such as building a rudimentary Afghan Air Force, training an effective Special Forces branch, and standing up an Afghan army of 180,000 — the Afghans’ war enterprise remains problem-plagued and dependent upon the Pentagon’s vital support. The small contingent of U.S. troops that has gradually decreased in size will need to remain in the country for decades to come, to prevent a collapse of the Afghan government and conquest by the Taliban-al Qaeda alliance. 

Fortunately for Americans, we can keep Afghanistan from becoming another international base for holy war for the planning of terrorist attacks with a relatively low cost in American lives. Thus far in 2020, there have been 10 U.S. KIA (killed in action) in the Afghan theater of operations.

Brian Glyn Williams is a professor of Islamic history at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and author of “Counter Jihad: The American Military Experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria” and “The Last Warlord.” He worked for the U.S. Army and the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center in Afghanistan. Follow him on Twitter @BrianGlynWillms.

Javed Rezayee is an Afghan consultant and translator, including for National Geographic, and an ethnic Hazara Shiite from Kabul whose father worked for the U.S. embassy. He lives in Boston and is writing a book on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Follow him on Twitter @javedrezayee.