By JAMES B CUNNINGHAM, HUGO LLORENS, RONALD E. NEUMANN, RICHARD OLSON and EARL ANTHONY WAYNE
This article, written by five former U.S. ambassadors, including Earl Anthony Wayne, who served as the U.S. envoy to Mexico from 2011 to 2015, was previously published on the Atlantic Council website. It is being republished on Pulse News Mexico with express prior permission.
Recent news reports suggest that U.S. President Donald J. Trump is seriously considering withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan because of concerns related to the novel coronavirus (covid-19). There are arguments for the United States to stay and to go, but this is a bad one on every count. U.S. troops will be exposed to covid-19 wherever they are. In Afghanistan, U.S. military presence is key to the strategy the Trump administration has been laboring to implement to foment peace.
The United States recognized several years ago that a negotiated peace was the only way to preserve the gains made in Afghanistan. The United States has invested great effort to get to the point where negotiations between Afghans might be possible. At this point, the Taliban has signed a troop withdrawal agreement with the United States, but have so far avoided starting negotiations with the Afghan government. In fact, in recent weeks, the Taliban has intensified its military operations and unleashed a wave of violence that has killed Afghan security personnel and civilians alike.
The Taliban leadership’s unwillingness to engage in good faith talks with the government in Kabul appears linked to its view that the United States and its allies are hellbent on withdrawing.
The Taliban leadership’s unwillingness to engage in good faith talks with the government in Kabul appears linked to its view that the United States and its allies are hellbent on withdrawing, and so it need make no concessions. Succeeding in actually getting to peace in Afghanistan will be very difficult in the best of circumstances, but to run for the door would be a serious tactical error and unravel the progress already achieved and whatever opportunity there is for the future.
Worse, it would be a strategic blunder undercutting the U.S. position and investment in Afghanistan and the entire South Asia region, and it would send a terrible signal to U.S. partners, allies and adversaries. Each of these aspects threatens to potentially undermine the security of the American people. Such a decision deserves serious consideration, not a spur of the moment decision.
The first key point is that the United States is not alone in Afghanistan, but has a large coalition of allies. None of these NATO and non-NATO partners with forces in Afghanistan have signaled any desire to cut and run in the face of the threat of the virus. A sudden U.S. withdrawal would come on the back of Washington’s departure from Syria that began without consultation with or warning to its allies. While the Syrian decision was modified to leave some U.S. forces, the message of a second sudden pullout would be clear: The United States cannot be trusted to keep commitments on which other nations have risked the lives of their own forces.
In Afghanistan, a sudden departure that ignores even the withdrawal timeline to which the United States has just committed in its agreement with the Taliban risks creating a variety of disasters. The impact on morale and unity of the Afghan military is likely to be debilitating. It could easily spark a massive shift in power balances in Afghanistan and provoke a split among non-Taliban Afghans along ethnic, political and religious lines that divide the population — leading to a return to civil war as seen in 1990s. This would open space for terrorist networks such as al-Qaeda to once again grow in Afghanistan and for the Islamic State (ISIS) to expand its already-dangerous presence. Iran and Russia are already flirting with the Taliban. A sudden power vacuum could prompt expanded regional meddling and accelerate the descent into renewed civil war.
Iran and Russia are already flirting with the Taliban. A sudden power vacuum could prompt expanded regional meddling and accelerate the descent into renewed civil war.
ver the past 20 years, Afghanistan has made important progress in advancing the rights of women and educating millions of the nation’s youth. This new generation, which came of age during a U.S. presence, would be the likely first victims. These conditions and the vast uncertainty they would bring about could easily spark massive refugee flows. Such refugee flows would likely expand the spread of covid-19 and possibly overwhelm several weak states that border Afghanistan, including Pakistan, with its questionably secured nuclear weapons.
The impact on the morale of the U.S. military also needs to be considered. It is one thing to decide that withdrawal may be essential, something both the Barack Obama and Trump administrations have sought. It is quite a different matter to decide that none of the sacrifices made by U.S. troops weigh in the balance against a sudden medical emergency that, while challenging, does not render the mission less necessary to U.S. strategy.
Further, the signal to U.S. adversaries of an American defeat in Afghanistan needs to be seriously analyzed. In addition, the challenge of how to maintain the ability to fight in the midst of a pandemic is not limited to Afghanistan, as the U.S. Navy is clearly finding out. Russia and China (and others, such as North Korea) would take note that a biological threat is capable of suddenly destroying the United States’ will and ability to fight. The temptation for them to experiment further with this line of approach to future combat would increase.
Many would like to see U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, and there is room for debate on this important question. But to suddenly bolt from Afghanistan because of the danger of the virus would be the worst possible way to reach that goal. The U.S. president has pushed hard to get the United States to the possible start of peace negotiations and a substantial reduction of force that supports U.S. strategic goals. He should adhere to his own stated policy and the commitments of the U.S. secretaries of state and defense that any withdrawal be conditions-based. Responding to covid-19 with an ill-considered withdrawal is not a substitute for a policy in pursuit of U.S. interests. The United States should avoid a costly strategic misstep and sustain what has been a viable strategy to get Afghanistan into a serious peace process and find a sustainable peace.
James B Cunningham is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former ambassador to Afghanistan, Israel and the United Nations. Hugo Llorens served twice in Afghanistan as special charge d’affaires (2016-17) and assistant chief of mission (2012-13), and is a former ambassador to Honduras. Ronald E. Neumann was ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain and Afghanistan (2005-2007) and returns frequently to Afghanistan. Richard Olson was a U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (2015-2016) and previously served at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan (2011-2012) and as U.S. ambassador to the UAE and to Pakistan. Earl Anthony Wayne is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and was deputy ambassador and director for development and economic affairs in Kabul, U.S. ambassador to Mexico and Argentina, and assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs.
…May 11, 2020