U.S. commanders in Afghanistan can hardly be pleased by the decision. Last night President Obama announced his decision to withdraw 10,000 US soldiers from Afghanistan this year and the remainder of the surge troops—more than 20,000—by the end of next summer, even though senior American military planners in Kabul had hoped to have a heavier U.S. footprint on the ground throughout all of next year. The operative plan was that next summer, as security improved further in Kandahar and Helmand provinces (the former Taliban heartland), and as Afghan forces took a more active and aggressive role in defense of that area, U.S. commanders would shift many of the surge forces to the rugged and mountainous east along the Pakistani border. That’s the part of Afghanistan where senior U.S. planners expected “we are going to fight last and longest,” as Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the outgoing commander of military operations in Afghanistan, told The Daily Beast. But now, with the surge troops pulling out by then, no one can say how secure the south will be by next summer—or whether U.S. commanders will have the forces in place for one last push against the Haqqani Network, which poses a serious threat not only to the eastern provinces but also to Kabul itself.
Meanwhile the Taliban are cheering. “This clearly is a defeat for the U.S. in Afghanistan, and the start of the return of the Taliban, [its supreme leader] Mullah Omar, and an Islamic sharia state,” a senior member of the Taliban’s military council told The Daily Beast by cell phone from an undisclosed location, declining to be named for security reasons. “We can’t believe that in the short time of ten years the Taliban are forcing the superpower of the century to pull out its troops.” Although that was clearly a wild overstatement, Obama’s announcement has certainly given the hard-pressed Taliban a psychological morale boost.
They could use one. Over the past 18 months, the insurgents have been blasted and chased out of their former strongholds in the south, losing control over much of the region’s population. In the process some of the Taliban’s best mid-level commanders have been killed or captured. So the thought of an American withdrawal will give the insurgents some comfort. A former Taliban foreign ministry official recalls how his spirits were buoyed when he heard Obama’s speech in late 2009, announcing the 2014 final withdrawal date. Now, with the latest news, “the Taliban’s morale will touch the sky,” he says.
A Taliban field commander in southern Zabul province, Mullah Jamal Khan, told The Daily Beast by cell phone that when he heard the news of Obama’s speech on Thursday morning he immediately went to a nearby mosque and offered “a special prayer of thanks to God.” “My soul, and the souls of thousands of Taliban who have been blown up, are happy,” he says. “I had more than 50 encounters with U.S. forces and their technology,” he adds. “But the biggest difference in ending this war was not technology but the more powerful Islamic ideology and religion.”
Some Taliban are talking as if they’ve already won. “I hold my head high, being part of the force that has defeated the worst enemies of Islam,” says Mullah Yasseen, a 30-year-old fighter in Zabul province. “Our victory has already been written in history,” says the subcommander of a unit of ten southern fighters. Now, he adds, there is no room for any compromise or negotiations: “We would not join any secular regime, nor will we talk to or share power with [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai. We want sharia law, and we will fight to the end to get it.” An official Taliban statement on its website today in reply to Obama’s speech was equally uncompromising. It reads: “The solution for the Afghan crisis lies in the full withdrawal of all foreign troops immediately and until this happen[s] our armed struggle will increase from day to day.”
Afghans who oppose the Taliban are worried. They wonder if their own security forces will be able to keep the insurgents at bay as the America winds down its troop commitment. A senior Karzai aide shares that concern: “The withdrawal announcement will badly hit the morale of Afghans and the Afghan government and re-energize the morale of the insurgency.”
But the insurgents’ victory celebrations are premature. Most of the more than 30,000 surge forces will keep fighting for at least one more year. U.S. commanders have also drawn up plans for American and Afghan forces to be even more active in hunting down the Taliban and searching out their arms and supply caches this coming winter, a time when the insurgents are generally least prepared to fight. And even as the drawdown proceeds, American artillery, fighter-bomber, helicopter gunship, logistical and medevac support will be assisting the vastly beefed-up Afghan security forces, who will number some 350,000 by next year.
On top of that, US Special Ops forces will be the last to leave—and their night raids on Taliban hideouts have been among the insurgents’ worst problems. In fact, it’s likely that a residual US counterterrorism force will remain in Afghanistan for many years to come. The Taliban will quickly discover that the war is far from over, and its outcome has not been decided. But that’s not likely to stop them. Unfortunately for the people of Afghanistan, the future will doubtlessly hold may more months, if not years, of hard fighting.