With news of a breakthrough in Afghan peace talks, USIP’s Scott Smith warns that future troop withdrawal should “switch from a time-based deadline approach to a conditions-based approach” because if the Taliban believe withdrawal is inevitable, “they have no incentive to compromise.”

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Tim Farley: It was just a couple of weeks ago, that the Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller made the announcement:

Chris Miller (From Recording): By January 15, 2021, our forces, their size in Afghanistan will be 2,500 troops. Our force size in Iraq will also be 2,500 by that same day,

Tim Farley: We wanted to focus more on Afghanistan, but it's good to get the perspective of the broader picture. Joining us on POTUS is Scott Smith, the senior expert for Afghanistan peace process at the United States Institute of Peace. He's tweeting @Scott_S_Smith. Scott Smith, welcome. Thanks for being here today.

Scott Smith: Thanks, Tim. Good morning.

Tim Farley: What is the mission of the troops who are in Afghanistan? And would that mission be changing if we have this drawdown of troops? What are they there for right now?

Scott Smith: Well, the troops are primarily there to, as they say, advise, train and assist the Afghan troops that are bearing the brunt of the fight right now against the Taliban. Our troops don't really accompany Afghan troops anymore in the way they used to. They're not out in the field. But they are training, they're backing them up. They're advising them, they're helping with logistics, and all of the things that make an army function, it's just the Afghan army that we're making function. And we're not fighting with them. At the same time, some of our troops are also involved in the counterterrorism operations we've been doing for quite a long time. But the majority, that main part of the mission is to train, advise and assist.

Tim Farley: I was, you know, I was kind of wondering if it was sort of like, you know, the very small in stature crime boss surrounded by as big goons, if we're the big guns, just to make sure that the crime, and not to say that Afghanistan is criminal, but you know what I'm saying the strong man around just to be there in case somebody tries a little mischief.

Scott Smith: There's a little bit of that. But let's, I don't know if I would go all the way with that metaphor. But to use the term that is used by the military, they're sort of providing enabling support. And as I say, they're what allows the Afghans to go out and do the fighting. And here's something which I think is, has been missed maybe in the general discussion about our true presence, which is the degree to which the mission has shifted. It really was one where in some parts, we were the lead in the fight, then we were with Afghans in the fight fighting, you know, along beside them. And now we've really taken this sort of more support, backing role than before and this is a major shift. And that's sort of what's allowed the troop numbers to go down significantly in the way that they have over the past few years.

Tim Farley: I wonder, just out of curiosity, because obviously, we've been hearing about Afghanistan since 9/11 and I just wonder, does the U.S. have a larger troop presence in other countries in the world or is this the number one place where we have troops?

Scott Smith: No, I don't think it is the number one place that we have troops. And again, the number right now is not entirely clear, because we were at 4,500. And then we're supposed to be somewhere between there and 2,500. If the Acting Secretary is correct, as you said at the top of the show, I think there's 3,000 around there in Iraq. And of course, who knows, I don't know the numbers for places like Germany and Korea where we have a presence, but it's not as kinetic, was not as active in environment as it isn't Afghanistan.

Tim Farley: Scott Smith is with us with the United States Institute of Peace. All right. So here we are now this administration makes this decision after election day, which means it is now going to be handed off to the next administration. How does that complicate things when you have a government in transition?

Scott Smith: Well, it complicates things, mostly because we have a peace process going on between the Afghan government and the Taliban. And I was just getting literally minutes before I came on the air here, tweets from Doha, where the negotiations are taking place, saying that there's been finally a breakthrough to a months-long impasse over the rules of procedure under which these negotiations will take place. So the two sides have been negotiating among themselves, what are the rules that we're going to use as we move forward. So this means that finally, with this breakthrough, the way has been opened to begin negotiating the difficult substance of a political agreement that will finally end the violence. Hopefully before that, there will be a ceasefire or some kind of reduction in violence, but what many of us have been arguing is that as long as the Taliban think that we are going to withdraw, regardless of what happens in these peace talks, they have no incentive to compromise. So I can't help but think that the fact that there is, again, on these early reports, the possibility of a breakthrough is fast, because the Taliban realize that it won't be so easy and that there will be a more conditions-based approach to the way we calibrate our troop withdraw to what is happening in the peace talks, because having our troops there is a major leverage point.

Tim Farley: Scott Smith is with us, United States Institute of Peace, senior expert for Afghanistan peace processes. I wonder is the military and the diplomatic corps, are the two in concert for the United States now, on the way that the policy is playing out in Afghanistan?

Scott Smith: Yeah, my understanding is they're very much in concert. Ambassador Khalilzad who's been leading the diplomatic effort on the negotiations, and General Miller, who's been commanding our forces in Afghanistan, are in very close contact. And there are efforts to integrate what happens on the ground with what happens in Doha. But that's separate from the higher-level decisions about troops being withdrawn in a way that appears to be not connected with what's happening with the negotiations.

Tim Farley: To that point, when we have a new administration, and obviously, the new president, Joe Biden will be in charge and, if he gets his way, Tony Blinken will be his secretary of state and on down the line. And one wonders, we think back to when President Obama took the oath of office and his plans with Afghanistan and of course, we're still there. And Donald Trump took over and his plans with Afghanistan, we're still there. And you kind of wonder, it's got to be a little more complicated than just one individual pushing things. On the other hand, is the next administration going to carry on something? Is it going to shift direction? What's your sense of it?

Scott Smith: Well, my sense is that the next administration will sort of take a look at where we are and again, if the breakthrough that happened today does turn out to be true, then it can say, look at we have brokered, we're in the middle of brokering a peace process, it could put an end to this war, which has gone on actually 40 years, right. The war didn't begin in Afghanistan in 2001, it began for the Afghans in actually 1978. So here, we finally have a chance to get the parties to accomplish, to actually sit down and resolve that. But that won't happen if we pull our troops out by May of next year, which is one reading of the agreement that we made with the Taliban in February of this year.

The main reading and the reading, I think that the Biden administration would take is that we said there'd be certain conditions to that withdrawal. And among those conditions will be progress in the peace talks, progress towards a ceasefire. And if we don't see those conditions, then, you know, we'll have to tell the Taliban, sorry, we're not there yet. We're not pulling our troops out until we see progress on these issues. So it will be a switch from a time-based deadline approach to a conditions-based approach, which I think would have an impact on how the Taliban act at negotiating table and force them to be more flexible.

Tim Farley: Are you at all concerned about the U.S. withdrawal bringing all of a sudden other players who would want to make mischief if you will, I'm struggling for an expression to use, I don't know what to say about it exactly but to try to exert influence within Afghanistan or use it as it was used as a sort of springboard for terrorism plots early on? Or is the Taliban going to remain in control of that? Or is that all unclear at this point?

Scott Smith: No, it's very unclear. But the main concern of a lot of us and I think you saw this and the slew of editorials that came out after the decision apparently to bring troops down to 2,500 in January, is that, you know, again, since as I described at the beginning, we are kind of the glue right now that's holding together the Afghan security forces and the Afghan security forces to some degree are holding together the Afghan government. Maybe it shouldn't be this way, after 20 years of support. Maybe the Afghans should be more autonomous, but the reality is they're not.

So our fears, if we pull out our troops, all of that collapses, I don't think you would see an immediate takeover of Kabul or of the country by the Taliban. I don't think they have that force, but I think you would see a disintegration into a wider, much more chaotic civil war that would just be a disaster for the region, a disaster for the Afghan people and something that I'm not sure we would be able to just wash our hands of and say, well, you know, we did our best for 20 years, sorry, it would have repercussions on our allies, it would have repercussions on the humanitarian situation, and it would be a much more complicated situation than the relatively controlled situation that we have now where there's actually an end state in front of us that we can perceive and we can actually help bring about. So that's why some of us, many of us who follow this issue think that it's, you know, a very reckless approach to sort of just pull all the troops out and risk these sorts of repercussions from happening. 

Tim Farley: Scott, I appreciate your time this morning. Thank you so much.

Scott Smith: Thank you. It's always a pleasure, Tim.

Tim Farley: Scott Smith, USIP, United States Institute of Peace senior expert for Afghanistan peace processes on the ongoing negotiations and the latest developments as well as the United States troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. The Twitter handle is @Scott_S_Smith.

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