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Afghan Leaders Downplay Impact Of U.S. Pullout, But Military Officials Fret


Some Afghan military officials expressed concerns about the effect on security forces if the U.S. pulls out a significant number of troops.

A spokesman for Afghanistan's president has downplayed the impact that a potential U.S. troop withdrawal would have on security, while top Afghan military officials warned about the danger to the country's undertrained and poorly equipped forces.

Haroon Chakhansuri, a spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani, on December 21 pointed out that active combat operations had been turned over by a NATO-led coalition to Afghan forces since 2014, with Western troops playing a mainly training and advising role.

"If [U.S. forces] withdraw from Afghanistan, it will not have a security impact because, in the last four and a half years, the Afghans have been in full control," Chakhansuri said.

The spokesman's comments were the first official Afghan reaction to reports in the U.S. media that President Donald Trump is considering a "significant" withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

Western media reports have quoted U.S. administration officials as saying a decision had already been made to withdraw about half of the U.S. troops in the country, although no time frame has been given.

The Pentagon has declined to comment on the reports, but they come shortly after Trump announced that the United States would be pulling all of its forces out of Syria, a move that ignited a storm of criticism from Repubilican and Democratic lawmakers and former government officials.

Some 2,000 U.S. troops are in northern Syria assisting an alliance of Syrian Arab and Kurdish fighters battling against Islamic State (IS) militants. Many critics have said a U.S. departure would be a betrayal to those fighters, who would face the dangers of a Turkish assault. Others say the move would hand a victory to Russia and Iran, which are also active in the country in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The United States has some 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, some of them serving in the NATO-led Resolute Support training and advisory mission, while others take part in separate counterterrorism operations against militant groups.

NATO has so far declined to comment specifically on the reports.

In response to an RFE/RL question, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said: "The Afghan army and police have been fully in charge of the security of Afghanistan for over four years. They are a brave, committed, and increasingly capable force, who have ensured the security of the parliamentary elections earlier this year."

"Earlier this month, NATO foreign ministers expressed steadfast commitment to ensuring long-term security and stability in Afghanistan," Lungescu said.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius, whose NATO-member country is a contributor to Resolute Support, voiced skepticism that even a partial U.S. withdrawal could be supplanted by the remaining members.

"Frankly, I do not believe that we can split forces and rely that something can be done in the absence of an important player. It's difficult really to say," Linkevicius told RFE/RL.

Several high-ranking Afghan military officials, who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said the morale of Afghanistan's struggling security forces was already at a dangerously low level.

The officials said a U.S. withdrawal would represent a defeat and some compared it to the U.S. evacuation from Vietnam, and Russia's 1979 forced withdrawal from Afghanistan after a failed 10-year war.

The Western-backed government in Kabul has been struggling to counter attacks from the Taliban and other militant groups since the withdrawal of most NATO combat troops in 2014.

U.S. officials have been attempting to push the Taliban to the negotiating table with the government in Kabul. Many Taliban leaders insist that U.S. forces depart before substantial peace talks can take place.

"I believe the Taliban will see [a U.S. withdrawal] as a reason to stall, and therefore it disincentivizes the Taliban to actually talk to the Afghan government, which it has refused to do," Bill Roggio, an Afghanistan analyst with the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told AP.

Although U.S. troops have pulled back from active combat operations, Afghanistan's security forces rely heavily on U.S. air power against the Taliban and other insurgent groups, such as IS and Al-Qaeda affiliates.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal, AP, The Wall Street Journal, and Reuters, and Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels
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