By: Salman Rafi Sheikh

It took the White House almost nine days to deny reports of US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw almost 7,000 US troops from Afghanistan. But the delayed denial, under the circumstances of an identical withdrawal threat from Syria, only adds more credence to what the US government is actually in the middle of doing in Afghanistan: looking for ways to get out.

The US-led coalition has been fighting for more 17 years. Even if the withdrawal isn’t happening within a few days or weeks, the ground realities of the war indicate that withdrawal is no longer a question of if it will happen but when and how.

One of the prevailing rumors, as we have previously reported, is to privatize the war by handing it over to Erik Prince’s notorious private mercenary army. The rumor resurfaced soon after reports of withdrawal emerged in the mainstream media, with Blackwater, no longer headed by Prince,  publishing an ad in a gun and hunting magazine, declaring “We are coming.”

Is the destination Afghanistan? We’ll find out soon enough. But the ad does add a lot of substance to the news of withdrawal, which remained a fact for nine full days, leading the mainstream media from all over the world to talk about it and analyse its possible consequences.

Even the US Department of Defense couldn’t actually deny in its latest report on Afghanistan that they are eagerly looking for ways to reconcile with the Taliban and thus set the stage for withdrawal. In its report, the Pentagon even went to the extent of offering the Taliban security of jobs and security for their families in the changed environment.

“Although some members of the Taliban may be weary of fighting and ready to lay down their weapons, they will only rejoin society if they believe their safety and the safety of their families are guaranteed, and if they have an opportunity to earn enough money to provide for their families,” according to a report that the Pentagon sent to the US Congress last week.

This is a precursor to the larger plan of “national integration” the US is preparing, and which, as the Pentagon report claims, the Afghan government has failed to prepare so far.

A reluctant Kabul

Here come the increasing differences between what the US is planning for Afghanistan and what Kabul is: an increasingly reluctant partner in peace.

President Ashraf Ghani has, on the one hand, appointed his own 14-person strong negotiations team to talk to the Taliban. The announcement for this team came days after some Afghan officials had expressed dissatisfaction over the way Zalmay Khalilad, the US special representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation at the US State Department, was ‘appeasing’ the Taliban and was center-staging Pakistan in the overall process.

Kabul’s second counter-move came a few days ago when Ghani appointed two hard-line anti-Pakistan and anti-Taliban officials, Amrullah Saleh and Asadullah Khaled, as interior and defense ministers, respectively. Saleh doesn’t consider the Taliban as more than a Pakistani proxy and believes Pakistan’s ISI a real and bigger threat than even ISIS, known as IS-K in Afghanistan.

The Taliban have, as could be expected, again refused to engage in direct talks with Kabul even though some earlier reports in the Pakistani media suggested that they had agreed to talk to Kabul if Kabul would scrap the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the US, a security agreement covering the US military forces’ activities in Afghanistan as well as the military bases and the future of the forces’ stay in the country.

Kabul’s reluctance is rooted in the fact that a peace plan involving the Taliban as major political players would come at a cost: many of the current political elite would find themselves demoted to political insignificance once the Taliban become political. This reluctance explains why Kabul hasn’t yet developed a “national integration” plan, and why the Taliban, knowing the Kabul elite’s interests, have repeatedly rejected their pseudo offers of ‘unconditional peace.’

The war is unsustainable

Indeed, why would the Taliban accept such offers when they are expanding their powers without having to face any major challenge anywhere? 

According to some latest reports of the Afghanis Analyst Network (ANN), the Taliban have developed their own system of governance in almost 40 to 50 percent of Afghanistan. Many of the Kabul appointed officials work alongside Taliban appointed officials, who report directly to their superiors based in the provincial capitals. In some areas, the Taliban have even appointed their own governors.

Funding Kabul for controlling less than half of Afghanistan is, therefore, neither feasible nor sustainable, for even after spending billions on Afghan security forces, their ability to sustain their gains and roll back the Taliban remains crucially weak.

Government loses have really become unsustainable. The Taliban are killing more Afghan troops annually than the government can recruit. The death rates are staggering, numbering 5,500 fatalities in 2015, 6,700 in 2016, and an estimated (the number is classified) about 10,000 in 2017. The year 2018 has been no different in terms of the losses that the Afghan forces have suffered.

The US military could have come to the Afghan security forces’ aid, and it has many times. As a matter of fact, the US Air Force dropped more bombs on Afghanistan in 2018 than in any other year of the war ever since 2001. But the Taliban’s military and political gains continue to increase as the ANN reports show and as the Pentagon’s own offer of “integration” illustrates.

With war therefore becoming increasingly unsustainable in its 18th year, with dialogue between the US and the Taliban (the latest round took place in Abu Dhabi few days ago) becoming frequent on an unprecedented scale and with news of President Trump potentially deciding to withdraw 7,000 troops, almost half of US troops currently in Afghanistan, it seems that the year 2019 would most likely see a major turn towards the conclusion of the US’ longest ever war.