The new Pentagon plan for accelerating the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan will speed a Taliban takeover and renew risks of major terror attacks on the U.S. homeland, retired Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster said Sunday.
“I think it’s abhorrent what we’re doing, and I hope that a Biden administration will reassess based, again, on what’s in it for us,” McMaster, who also served as national security adviser to President Donald Trump, said on CBS’ “Face The Nation” program.
“If the Taliban establishes control of large parts of Afghanistan, gives safe haven and support base to terrorist organizations who want to commit mass murder against us on the scale of 9/11, we will be far less safe and vulnerable to these groups,” he said. “And I think what happened is the prioritization of withdrawal over our interests led to us actually empowering the Taliban.”
President-elect Joe Biden has said that he is committed to ending the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan in his first term, but has avoided giving a timeline.
“Any residual U.S. military presence [in Afghanistan] would be focused only on counter-terrorism operations and supporting local partners,” he said in response to a September survey by the Military Officers Association of America. “For the time being, we will also likely need to maintain a residual presence in Iraq and Syria, with our coalition partners, to prevent a re-emergence of ISIS.”
McMaster spoke a day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met in Doha, Qatar, with Taliban representatives in an effort to break the deadlock in peace negotiations with the Kabul government.
In a Twitter post following the meeting Saturday, Pompeo said, “I commend both sides for continuing to negotiate and for the progress they have made. I encourage expedited discussions on a political road map and a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire.”
The Pompeo meeting began hours after a rocket attack in Kabul that killed at least eight and wounded more than 20, according to Afghanistan’s Tolo news agency. An offshoot of the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, according to the Site Intelligence Group, which monitors ISIS statements.
The attack was the latest incident in escalating violence; the U.S. has launched airstrikes in recent weeks to beat back Taliban offensives against Kandahar and the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah in southwestern Helmand province.
Army Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan; Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command; and U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad have all repeatedly said that the Taliban must cease attacks to allow the peace process to proceed.
Abdullah Abdullah, head of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, on Saturday told The Associated Press that the current level of violence in Afghanistan argues against the withdrawal plan announced Nov. 17 by Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Christopher Miller.
“This is the decision by the U.S. administration, and we respect it,” Abdullah said. “[But] our preference would have been that, with the conditions improving [on the ground], then this should have taken place.”
The initial U.S. plan was for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan by May 2021, if conditions allowed. Abdullah said final decisions on the U.S. troop presence are up to the new Biden administration.
At a Pentagon briefing last Tuesday, Miller said that the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan will be reduced to 2,500 in Afghanistan and 2,500 in Iraq by Jan. 15, five days before Biden’s inauguration.
“[The withdrawals are part of] President Trump’s plan to bring the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to a successful and responsible conclusion and to bring our brave service members home,” said Miller, a retired Army colonel and Special Forces veteran of several tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. “With the blessings of providence in the coming year, we will finish this generational war and bring our men and women home.”
The withdrawal announcement drew support as well as opposition from both sides of the aisle in Congress.
In statements shortly after Miller’s announcement, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called the withdrawal plan “the right policy decision,” while Rep. Mac Thornberry, the ranking committee member, said the Taliban had met no conditions “that would justify this cut.”
In his “Face The Nation” remarks, McMaster warned that a hasty pullout risks a return to the brutal rule exercised by the Taliban before they were ousted from power by the 2001 U.S. invasion.
“What does power sharing with the Taliban look like?” he asked. “Does that mean every other girl’s school is bulldozed? Does that mean there are mass executions in the soccer stadium every other Saturday?”
— Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.
While the Trump administration may feel confident that Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven for al-Qaida, experts who testified before the House Armed Services Committee on Friday warned that withdrawing troops without a peace agreement amounts to a gradual surrender and could lay the groundwork for terrorist networks to once again make a home in the country and begin plotting against the U.S. anew.
The hearing, long scheduled, was notably absent of current Pentagon or White House officials, but came three days after Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller announced that the drawdown would proceed right past the 4,500 benchmark completed earlier this month and on down to 2,500 in January.
The question came down to whether an Afghanistan withdrawal would, in the short or long-term, lay the groundwork for another transnational terrorist attack on the U.S.
“The number of militant groups operating in some capacity in Afghanistan today, not just al-Qaida … still persist,” Seth Jones, who directors the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told HASC chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash. “So what I can’t say is, tomorrow things are going to get as bad as, say, on 9/11. But I think the trajectory is where I’d be concerned.”
And a small counter-terror force, whether it’s 2,500 or lower, the experts said, would not be able to step in if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban, an event that would have a direct effect on the possibility of another terror attack on the U.S. launching from that country.
The decision to continue with the drawdown brought into question whether the Taliban had met the “conditions” Pentagon leaders had harped on for months ― among them, a commitment to rooting out al-Qaida, its ongoing ally, in Afghanistan, as well as a reduction in violence against U.S. troops.
Previously, Pentagon officials had set 2,500 as a benchmark to be carried out only after reassessing the situation following the 4,500 level reached this month. Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper had advocated for that pause, but after his ouster Nov. 9, the Trump administration forged ahead.
Withdrawing troops gives away leverage in current peace talks, a former ambassador to Afghanistan said.
Another expert doubled down on the surrender theory, explaining that this partial drawdown, with no concessions made by the Taliban, is actually worse than pulling troops out of the country wholesale.
“I believe our interests are best served by no further withdrawals without a settlement to end the war,” Stephen Biddle, a senior adjust fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in his remarks.
By drawing down troops without demanding anything equally substantial from the Taliban, he said, the U.S. is giving away its leverage against them and giving them exactly what they have wanted all along, which is the American government out of their affairs.
“Why should they offer concessions when the U.S. keeps giving away what they want for free?” he said.
If the withdrawal is an acknowledgement that a peace agreement isn’t going to happen, he added, it would make more sense just to pull everyone out, rather than waste resources and perpetuate the risk of keeping a 2,500-man counter-terror force on the ground.
Though the Pentagon refused to get into specifics on Tuesday, lawmakers noted that the remaining troops will be largely counter-terror units, of the sort that have been fighting al-Qaida and ISIS within Afghanistan.
That would mean thousands of train-advise-assist troops will be leaving behind unprepared Afghan security forces, as experts have agreed ― including the Pentagon’s own inspector general organizations ― that while the Afghan government will ultimately be responsible for maintaining its own peace, its forces are alone not operationally capable of beating back a resurgent Taliban.
“It seems like the common sense thing to do is to have the absolute minimum presence that we require to meet our goal of stopping that transnational terrorist threat,” Smith said, suggesting a more modest U.S. approach to contain the threat, akin to the ones in Libya, Yemen or Somalia.
Smith’s comments left some room to veer off of the current Trump administration course, which is to complete a total withdrawal by May. The incoming administration under President-elect Joe Biden has not made a statement on whether he has a different road map
Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller announced the next phase of the Afghanistan withdrawal on Tuesday.
“I happen to believe that we need to draw down there because of the cost, because of the impact, and because of the fact that it has become clear that we are not going to be able impose peace upon Afghanistan,” he added.
In the 19 years since the original invasion, more than 2,400 American troops have died, nearly 21,000 have been injured and nearly $1 trillion has been spent on trying to make Afghanistan stable enough to keep terrorist networks from running rampant there.
Further, Smith supposed, the situation in Afghanistan will continue to be unstable, but the only question for lawmakers is whether U.S. presence has any real effect on that, and if the U.S. can live with the consequences of leaving them to their devices.
“Lives are still being lost, money is still being spent, our troops and others are still being forced to be sent over them there, and the American people are saying, ‘For what?’” Smith said. “And if the answer is, we just have to hang in there for another year or two; gosh, if we just send another 5,000 troops, we’ll get to a peace deal ― I don’t think anyone believes that, not in any serious way. … What happens if we pull out? Just a slightly different flavor of chaos, in the minds of most people.” ‘
And should the Taliban attempt again to take over Afghanistan and again create a safe haven for terror groups, would the U.S. be able to respond with 2,500 counter-terror troops in the country?
“It’s a mistake to separate counter-terrorism and the survival of the Afghan government,” Biddle said. “If the Afghan government falls and the Taliban take over, or there’s simply a chaotic civil war, the terror threat from Afghanistan will go substantially up ― and the ability of a handful of American troops operating from a handful of bases … will be very, very limited.”