Defense Analysts Caution Against U.S. Troop Withdrawal in Afghanistan

November 20, 2020 by Tom Ramstack
Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller speaks at the Pentagon in Washington. (Defense.gov via AP)

WASHINGTON — Defense analysts warned Congress Friday against the U.S. troop withdrawal in Afghanistan announced this week amid indications that radical Islamists could resume terrorist attacks.

They said further proof is needed that Taliban fighters would not try to seize control of Afghanistan before the Trump administration’s plan to cut troop numbers in half becomes a good idea.

“Absent a peace deal, the further withdrawal of U.S. forces will likely continue to shift the balance of power on the ground in the military campaign in favor of the Taliban and other militant groups, including al-Qaeda,” said Seth Jones, a senior adviser at the public policy foundation Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The House Armed Services Committee called the hearing in response to a Defense Department announcement days ago that the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan would be dropped from about 5,000 to 2,500 by Jan. 15, only five days before the next presidential inauguration.

The announcement drew surprise from U.S. allies who worry that the Taliban and al- Qaeda might seek to establish another “caliphate” throughout the Mideast, perhaps using it as a base for terrorism against Western nations.

Without adequate U.S. air support, training and weaponry, the Afghan military would be unable to withstand an onslaught by the Taliban, according to three defense analysts who testified to the congressional committee.

The Defense Department appears to be switching to a small task force that seeks intelligence rather than military strikes for counterterrorism.

Jones and the other analysts called the revised strategy unrealistic.

“The drawdown will have an impact on the U.S. ability to train, advise and assist the Afghan national defense and security forces in the middle of the war against the Taliban,” Jones said.

Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said American troops provided a “critical bargaining chip” in the Afghan government’s peace negotiations with the Taliban. The negotiations have made little progress since September.

“We should be prepared to withdraw those troops entirely in exchange for negotiating concessions from the Taliban precisely in order to increase our ability to get such concessions,” Biddle said.

The congressional witnesses said ongoing Taliban violence demonstrates the need for caution.

In an example this month, small arms fire from Taliban fighters near the Afghani provincial capital of Kandahar escalated within days to heavy artillery. Thousands of the fighters then moved into the region.

They were expelled by intense U.S. air strikes followed by an Afghan military counterattack. The commander of the national police in the region later said the air strikes were the only reason the Taliban were pushed out.

The nearby Kandahar Airfield that helped with the air strikes is scheduled to be closed during the U.S. troop withdrawals in the next two months.

Members of the House Armed Services Committee generally agreed the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan helped to halt the worst of Islamic terrorism. However, they also said the American public wants the U.S. military engagement to end after 19 years in the region.

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., chairman of the committee, said he favors a smaller U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, especially considering it could fuel a backlash of anti-American sentiment.

“We would be in a better place if we did not have to have our troops in foreign countries,” Smith said.

However, he worries that a troop withdrawal might lead to a return of terrorism similar to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

“It is not debatable that threat is there,” Smith said. “The question is, where do we go from here?”

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, added, “The terrorist threat has not gone away. It is one of the challenges of our time that we have to worry about this wide range of threats.”

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