US pullout from Iraq will embolden Taliban in Afghanistan

The US pullout from Iraq, which will be perceived as withdrawal under pressure, will have a fallout in Afghanistan, writes Lt Gen PC Katoch (retd) for South Asia Monitor

Afghan soldiers

Al Arabiya News reported on February 10 that US troops have begun to withdraw from 15 military bases in Iraq. Sky News and Bloomberg also reported this. It may be recalled that on January 3, General Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s Quds Force Commander, was killed in a US drone strike at Baghdad airport in Iraq. Iran soon retaliated with missile strikes against US bases in Iraq. Iran claimed 80 US troops were killed in those strikes, but US President Donald Trump had said, "All of our soldiers are safe and only minimal damage was sustained at our military bases.” 

However, reports of US casualties in the Iranian missile strike started emerging gradually. Initial reports suggested that 37 US troops were suffering from traumatic brain injuries (TBI). Trump tried to downplay the injuries by saying, "I heard that they had headaches, but it's not very serious." The Pentagon said nearly 70% of the injured service members had been sent back to their duties.

Reports have emerged that the number of TBI casualties among US troops hit by Iranian missile attacks has risen to 109, giving the impression of deliberately admitting large number of casualties incrementally – in the same way that China is confessing to casualties from the coronavirus outbreak. Reports of rising numbers of US casualties are causing concern in the US.

In a symbolic blow to American prestige, on January 5, Iraq’s parliament passed a resolution stating, “The government commits to revoke its request for assistance from the international coalition fighting Islamic State due to the end of military operations in Iraq and the achievement of victory. The Iraqi government must work to end the presence of any foreign troops on Iraqi soil.”

After the resolution, Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi asked US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to send a delegation to Baghdad to prepare for withdrawal of American troops. The US State Department rebuffed the request by saying that any US officials going to Baghdad during a state of heightened tensions would not discuss troop withdrawals but instead discuss “appropriate force posture in the Middle East.”

The scale of US troop withdrawals from Iraq is unclear. Will it be total, leaving only the embassy, or will it manage to leave some troops as training instructors for supporting Iraqi forces despite the atmosphere of heightened tension? It will also depend on what plans Trump has of the US posture in the Middle East. It remains to be seen what Trump has in mind for dealing with Iran in the run up to the US presidential election in November.

There are already reports that the US has ceased operations against ISIS in order to use them against Iran. Instability and violence in the region is therefore likely to rise. But the US pullout from Iraq, which will be perceived as withdrawal under pressure, will have a fallout in Afghanistan. 

In December 2019, the Taliban had agreed to a 10-day truce with reduction in violence and follow up discussions if they reached a deal with US negotiators in peace talks in Doha. Ironically, the US has not included the Afghan Government headed by President Ashraf Ghani in its talks with the Taliban.

The Afghan Government responded by Sediq Sediqqi, the presidential spokesman, telling the media that the Afghan people and the government reject the proposed reduction in violence by the Taliban as an ambiguous term with no legal or military parameters, adding,  "any suggestion the Taliban have shared with the US must include a ceasefire, as it is the demand of our people” and that “the peace process would not achieve any results without the role of the Afghan government". 

The Taliban remain resolute in attacking government and US troops, whether in or outside the ‘green zone’. In a recent incident, two US soldiers were killed and six others wounded when an individual in an Afghan army uniform opened fire on them with a machine gun in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. It is unlikely that the US will pull out completely from Iraq but it goes without saying that the US thin-out from Iraq, perceived to be under pressure from Iraq, will further embolden the Taliban, while, at the same time, a US pullout from Afghanistan would harm their geopolitical clout immensely, whether or not Trump goes in for another round of hostilities against Iran.

(The writer is an Indian Army veteran)

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