Published 19:47 January 2, 2019
Updated 15:30 January 4, 2019
Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours, along with China, fear that the immediate withdrawal of US troops announced via Tweet just prior to the Christmas holiday by US President Donald J. Trump could trigger a major regional refugee crisis.
Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China – Afghanistan’s neighbours – fear that the war-torn Central Asian nation, the world’s second-largest source of refugees, according to the United Nations, could see a mass exodus of its population if the US drawdown prompts an emboldened Taliban to launch a new offensive to retake more of the country.
Unofficial estimates indicate that there are approximately 1.4 million undocumented Afghans in Pakistan and over 1.2 million asylum seekers in Iran. Since Trump’s abrupt decision, which shocked his own defence and foreign policy chiefs, European governments have begun to worry that tens of thousands of migrants could make their way to Europe. Since the Taliban has slowly regained territory from Afghanistan’s beleaguered armed forces, Turkish border guards intercepted 90,000 Afghan refugees.
Trump’s announcement includes plans to withdraw half of the 14,000-strong US force from Afghanistan in the coming months. The US once had more than 100,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan after first launching combat operation in the country in October 2001, following the September 11 attacks that were carried out by the Arab-led radical Salafist group Al-Qaeda that was based in Afghanistan while the Taliban was in power.
The Taliban, which emerged in the wake of the decade-long occupation of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and was largely made up of ex-Mujahadin fighters that were originally trained by the Americans, British, and Pakistanis to combat the Soviets and their Afghan Communist allies.
After the Soviets’ defeat and a devastating civil war between rival factions, Afghanistan was left in ruins and the Pashtun-speaking, non-Arab Taliban in power. Their brand of strict Sharia Law earned significant backing from radical groups from the Arab World, including from the Al-Qaeda, led by Saudi-born millionaire Osama bin Laden and the firebrand Egyptian Islamist Ayman al Zawahiri.
Over 2,400 US servicemen have been killed in the 17-year war, with another 20,000 having been wounded in what is by far the longest military engagement in American history. The war has left almost a quarter of a million Afghans dead or wounded and forced up to 2 million people into exile.
After being nearly completely destroyed by American-led forces in November 2001, the Taliban has returned in force since the last major American withdrawal in 2014. Up to 40% of the country is now back under the control of Taliban forces
Trump’s announcement comes just as the US is trying to broker a deal between the Taliban and the democratically elected Afghan government. Washington’s special envoy, former Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, met with the Taliban’s representatives in November to discuss issues around future troop withdrawals and ceasefire proposals.
The talks also while neighbouring Pakistan makes plans for a 1,400 kilometre-long border fence and is in the process of recreating an armed 50,000-strong paramilitary force that will be used to target the refugee flow.
Cap: Afghan men gather around a fire in Jalalabad, January 1, 2019. Due to the lack of electricity, the majority of people in Afghanistan use coal and wood as the only energy supply for warming their houses and cooking during the winter season.