Is Trump handing over Afghanistan to Pakistan?

US media have reported that President Donald Trump is planning to withdraw half of American troops from Afghanistan. Analysts say the move would give the upper hand to the Taliban and their ostensible backer, Pakistan.

The Trump administration is reportedly planning to withdraw nearly 7,000 US troops – roughly half of the American military presence in the country – from Afghanistan.

US media claims that these soldiers could be heading back home within months.

These reports emerged after President Donald Trump announced Thursday that the "Islamic State" militant group had been defeated in Syria and thus the Middle Eastern country no longer required US troops there.

But the Taliban – the strongest militant force in Afghanistan – have not been defeated yet. On the contrary, their control over Afghan territories has increased manifold in the past few years. If this is the case, why must Washington reduce its presence in the war-torn country?

The US has intensified efforts to find a political solution with the Taliban in the past few months, with Zalmay Khalilzad, the US' special representative for Afghanistan, holding several high-profile talks with Taliban leaders in Qatar.

Read more: Direct talks with Taliban: 'US exploring all avenues,' State Department tells DW

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DW News | 28.11.2018

US & Afghanistan call on Taliban to negotiate

A victory for Pakistan?

These talks are being facilitated by Pakistan, whose prime minister, Imran Khan, maintains that the Islamist group can't be defeated through war.

However, both Kabul and Washington have been skeptical of Islamabad's long-term motives in Afghanistan. Afghan and US officials have repeatedly said that Pakistan backs some factions of the Taliban that destabilize the Afghan government. By doing that, the powerful Pakistani military hopes to minimize Indian influence in Afghanistan and a return of the Taliban in Afghan politics, they say.

Pakistan's military and civil establishment, analysts say, still consider the Taliban an important strategic ally, who they think should be part of the Afghan government after the NATO pullout.

Observers say that the Pakistani military hopes to regain the influence in Kabul it once enjoyed before the United States and its allies toppled the pro-Pakistan Taliban government in 2001.

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Pakistan's Afghanistan policy hasn't changed since the US toppled the Taliban regime in 2001, but the Trump administration's stance toward Islamabad has wavered in the past few weeks, experts point out.

The potential US troop reduction would likely to give an upper hand to Islamabad in dictating the future political setup in Afghanistan.

Siegfried O. Wolf from the Brussels-based South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF) told DW that he was convinced that several elements within the Pakistani security apparatus still believe that the Taliban could be used as a strategic tool to counter Indian presence in Afghanistan.

Read more: 'Father of the Taliban' killed in Pakistan

Militant Haqqani Network - a brief history

Remnants of the Afghan war against Soviets

The Haqqani Network was formed by Jalaluddin Haqqani, who fought against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In 1995, the Haqqani Network allied with the Taliban and the two groups captured the Afghan capital Kabul in 1996. In 2012, the US designated the group a terrorist organization. On September 4, 2018, the Taliban announced that Jalaluddin passed away after a long illness.

Militant Haqqani Network - a brief history

An Islamist ideologue

Jalaluddin Haqqani was born in 1939 in the Afghan province Paktia. He studied at Darul Uloom Haqqania, which was founded in 1947 by the father of one of Pakistan's most prominent religious leaders, Maulana Sami ul Haq. Darul Uloom Haqqania is known for its alleged ties with the Taliban and other extremist groups.

Militant Haqqani Network - a brief history

Jalaluddin Haqqani as Taliban minister

Jalaluddin was made minister for Afghan tribal affairs under the Taliban rule. He remained in the post until the US toppled the Taliban regime in 2001. After the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, Jalaluddin was considered the most influential militant figure in Afghanistan. Jalaluddin also had close links with the former al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden.

Militant Haqqani Network - a brief history

Where is the Haqqani Network based?

Security experts say the command center of the group is based in Miranshah city of Pakistan's North Waziristan region along the Afghan border. US and Afghan officials claim the Haqqani Network is backed by the Pakistani military, a charge denied by Pakistani authorities. Washington says the group's fighters launch attacks on foreign and local troops and civilians inside Afghanistan.

Militant Haqqani Network - a brief history

The Haqqani heir

It is believed that Jalaluddin Haqqani died in 2015, but his group denied those reports at the time. The network is now headed by Sirajuddin Haqqani, Jalaluddin's son. Sirajuddin is also the deputy chief of the Taliban.

Militant Haqqani Network - a brief history

Who is Sirajuddin Haqqani?

Although there isn't much credible information available about Sirajuddin Haqqani, security experts say he spent his childhood in the Pakistani city of Miranshah. He studied at Darul Uloom Haqqania, situated in Peshawar's suburbs. Sirajuddin is believed to be an expert on military affairs. Some analysts say Sirajuddin's views are more hard line than his father's.

Militant Haqqani Network - a brief history

Anas Haqqani's death sentence

One of Jalaluddin's sons is Anas Haqqani, whose mother hailed from the United Arab Emirates. He is currently in the custody of the Afghan government and is facing the death penalty. The Haqqani Network has warned Kabul of dire consequences if Afghan authorities hang Anas Haqqani.

Militant Haqqani Network - a brief history

How big is the Haqqani Network?

Research institutes and Afghan affairs experts say the group has between three and ten thousand fighters. The network allegedly receives most of its funding from the Gulf countries. The Haqqani Network is also involved in kidnappings and extortion through which it funds its operations.

Militant Haqqani Network - a brief history

Ties with other militant groups

The Haqqanis have close relations with other regional and international terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Taiba and Central Asian Islamist groups. Jalauddin Haqqani was not only close to bin Laden, but also had ties with al Qaeda's current chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.

'Weakening your own position'

It remains to be seen whether President Trump would actually withdraw 7,000 troops from Afghanistan, but the fact that the US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis – one of the main supporters of a strong US military presence in Afghanistan – is leaving his post in February, 2019, has definitely created more uncertainty around the West's Afghan mission.

"If the US actually goes ahead with the troop reduction plan, it would be a manifestation of Trump's 'America First' policy," Thomas Ruttig, an expert from the Afghan Analysts Network, told DW.

"But at a time with Khalilzad is trying to negotiate with the Taliban, the troop reduction does not make any sense," he added.

"This would weaken the positions of both Washington and Kabul in the middle of peace talks," Ruttig emphasized.

But some experts are of the view that a potential troop withdrawal could be a calculated decision by Trump.

"The Taliban have repeatedly stressed that they would only make peace with the Afghan government once US troops leave the country," Wahid Muzhdah, a Kabul-based security analyst and a former Taliban official, told DW.

"Reports of the US troop reduction are probably meant to give some assurance to the Taliban – assurance that the US does not plan to stay in the country forever," Muzhda added.

Read more: Why Taliban won't make peace with Kabul

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US Defense Secretary James Mattis steps down

Alienating Kabul

Attiqullah Amarkhail, a retired Afghan army general, has a different take on the situation. He said that the media reports about a possible troop reduction could be a message for the Afghan government, which is not on the same page with Khalilzad on how to pursue peace talks.

"It sends a message to Kabul that it should back the US plan or face the Taliban on its own," Amarkhail told DW.

President Ashraf Ghani's government is reportedly unhappy with Pakistan-mediated talks between the Taliban and the US. It believes that it will further weaken its position and will leave it out of the future political setup in Afghanistan. That is why Kabul once again stressed that peace negotiations should be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led.

Analysts believe that Pakistan could be the main beneficiary if the Trump administration goes ahead with troop withdrawal.

"It shows that Trump does not care about Afghanistan," said analyst Ruttig.

Read more: US, Pakistani foreign ministers fail to break Afghanistan impasse

The endless battle for power in Afghanistan

Fragile security

Repeated attacks in Afghanistan over the past several months have killed and wounded hundreds of innocent Afghans, and shown the world the fragile and worsening state of security in the conflict-stricken country. The incidents have plunged war-weary Afghan citizens into a state of despair and highlighted the limitations faced by the government in Kabul in ensuring public security.

The endless battle for power in Afghanistan

A long series of attacks

The violent incidents have made Afghanistan once again a staple of international headlines. Outfits like the Taliban and the "Islamic State" (IS) have claimed responsibility for the attacks. The Afghan government is under heavy pressure to restore security and take back territory controlled by a number of insurgent groups, including the Taliban and IS.

The endless battle for power in Afghanistan

Spring offensive

Last week, the Taliban announced the start of their annual spring offensive, dismissing an offer of peace talks by President Ashraf Ghani. The militants, fighting to restore their version of strict Islamic law to Afghanistan, said their campaign was a response to a more aggressive US military strategy adopted last year, which aims to force the militants into peace talks.

The endless battle for power in Afghanistan

Trump's Afghanistan policy

US President Donald Trump unveiled a new strategy for Afghanistan last year, vowing to deploy more troops, on top of the 11,000 already in the country, to train and advise Afghan security forces. Trump also pledged to support Afghan troops in their war against the Taliban and maintain American presence in the country for as long as there was a need for it.

The endless battle for power in Afghanistan

Afghan peace process

Despite President Ghani's offer in February for peace talks "without preconditions," the Taliban have shown no interest, dismissing the peace overtures as a "conspiracy." Observers say it is unlikely that the militant group will engage in any negotiations, as they currently have the upper hand on the battleground. The Taliban now control more Afghan districts than at any other time since 2001.

The endless battle for power in Afghanistan

Pakistani support

Pakistan has been under pressure from Kabul and Washington to stop offering safe havens to militants blamed for attacks in Afghanistan, a charge Islamabad denies and insists that its influence over the insurgents has been exaggerated. Kabul and Islamabad regularly trade accusations of harboring the other country's militants and the harsh language has underscored the strains between them.

The endless battle for power in Afghanistan

Role of the warlords

Apart from the Taliban, Afghan warlords exercise massive influence in the country. Last year, Hizb-i-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar returned to Kabul after a 20-year exile to play an active role in Afghan politics. In September 2016, the Afghan government signed a deal with Hekmatyar in the hope that other warlords and militant groups would seek better ties with Kabul.

The endless battle for power in Afghanistan

An inefficient government

In the midst of an endless battle for power, President Ghani's approval ratings continue to plummet. Rampant corruption in the Afghan government and a long tug-of-war within the US-brokered national unity government has had a negative impact on the government's efforts to eradicate terrorism.