SUNDAY TIMES WEB DESK: Although there has been increasing acceptance in Kabul that US President Donald Trump was impatient for progress in ending the 17-year war, comment from a US official that he was planning to withdraw at least 5,000 troops, coupled with the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, came as a surprise.
Mattis has been widely seen in Afghanistan as a guarantor of US engagement, and his departure would inevitability raise worries in the minds of many Afghan officials.
The news followed a two-day meeting in Abu Dhabi between US special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban representatives at which the two sides discussed the withdrawal of international forces and a ceasefire in 2019.
However, with the plans still unconfirmed and further meetings expected in Saudi Arabia in early January, it was unclear whether a ceasefire was close and whether the news heralded a wider settlement.
“The withdrawal will certainly affect overall operations but we will have to wait and see which units are going to go home first. It is too early to say anything for now,” said a senior Afghan government official.
“Depending on how the Taliban react, the government might ask forces to reduce operations,” he said.
But Haroon Chakansuri, spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani, said the withdrawal would not affect overall security because the role of US forces has been to assist and advise Afghan troops.
The United States has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan as part of a NATO-led mission, known as Resolute Support, and a separate US counter-terrorism mission largely directed against militant groups like Daesh (Islamic State) and al Qaeda.
In addition, some 8,000 troops from 38 other countries in Resolute Support provide training and support for Afghan forces.
The Taliban are fighting to oust foreign forces and defeat the Western-backed Kabul government.
With the insurgents in control of large stretches of the country and chronically understrength Afghan forces suffering thousands of casualties a month, even a partial US withdrawal could reduce the incentive of the Taliban to strike a deal and erode the willingness of Afghan troops to fight.
“We all know the morale of the Afghan forces has hit an all-time low, they are under-equipped, poorly paid and they lack coordination. We train them to the best of our abilities,” said a Western diplomat from a Resolute Support member.