By Nauman Sadiq, VT Islamabad
After Donald Trump’s surprise announcement in a tweet on December 19 to withdraw 2,000 American troops from Syria after a telephonic conversation with the Turkish President Erdogan on December 14, the decision to scale back American presence in Afghanistan by 7000 troops has also reportedly been made and the announcement is imminent.
It would be pertinent to note here that after Donald Trump’s inauguration as the US president, he had delegated operational-level decisions in conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria to the Pentagon.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster represented the institutional logic of the deep state in the Trump administration and were instrumental in advising Donald Trump to escalate the conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria.
They had advised President Trump to increase the number of American troops in Afghanistan from 8,400 to 14,000. And in Syria, they were in favor of the Pentagon’s policy of training and arming 30,000 Kurdish border guards to patrol Syria’s northern border with Turkey.
Both the decisions have spectacularly backfired on the Trump administration. The decision to train and arm 30,000 Kurdish border guards infuriated the Erdogan administration to the extent that Turkey mounted Operation Olive Branch in the Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin in northern Syria on January 20.
Remember that it was the second military operation by the Turkish armed forces and their Syrian militant proxies against the Kurdish-held areas in northern Syria. The first Operation Euphrates Shield in Jarabulus and Azaz lasted from August 2016 to March 2017.
Nevertheless, after capturing Afrin on March 18, the Turkish armed forces and their Syrian jihadist proxies have now set their sights further east on Manbij, where the US Special Forces were closely cooperating with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, in line with the long-held Turkish military doctrine of denying the Kurds any Syrian territory west of River Euphrates.
Thus, it doesn’t come as a surprise that President Trump replaced H.R. McMaster with John Bolton in April; and in a predictable development on Thursday, James Mattis offered his resignation over President Trump’s announcement of withdrawal of American troops from Syria, though he would continue as the Secretary of Defense until the end of February till a suitable replacement is found.
Regarding the conflict in Afghanistan, on November 9 Russia hosted talks between Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, the members of the Taliban from its Doha, Qatar office and representatives from eleven regional states, including China, India, Iran and Pakistan. The meeting showcased Russia’s re-emergence as a proactive global power and its regional clout.
At the same time when the conference was hosted in Moscow, however, the Taliban mounted concerted attacks in the northern Baghlan province, the Jaghori district in central Ghazni province and the western Farah province bordering Iran.
In fact, according to a recent report by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the US-backed Afghan government only controls 55% of Afghanistan’s territory. It’s worth noting that SIGAR is a US-based governmental agency that often inflates figures.
Factually, the government’s writ does not extend beyond a third of Afghanistan. In many cases, the Afghan government controls district-centres of provinces and rural areas are either controlled by the Taliban or are contested.
If we take a cursory look at the insurgency in Afghanistan, the Bush administration toppled the Taliban regime with the help of the Northern Alliance in October 2001 in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attack. Since the beginning, however, Afghanistan was an area of lesser priority for the Bush administration.
The number of US troops stationed in Afghanistan did not exceed beyond 30,000 during George Bush’s tenure as president, and soon after occupying Afghanistan, he invaded Iraq in March 2003 and American resources and focus shifted to Iraq.
It was the Obama administration that made Afghanistan the bedrock of its foreign policy in 2009 along with fulfilling then-President Obama’s electoral pledge of withdrawing the US troops from Iraq in December 2011. At the height of the surge of the US troops in Afghanistan in 2010, the American troops numbered around 140,000 but they still could not manage to have a lasting effect on the relentless Taliban insurgency.
The Taliban are known to be diehard fighters who are adept at hit-and-run guerrilla tactics and have a much better understanding of the Afghan territory compared to foreigners. Even by their standards, however, the Taliban insurgency seems to be on steroids during the last couple of years.
The Taliban have managed to overrun and hold vast swathes of territory not only in the traditional Pashtun heartland of southern Afghanistan, such as Helmand, but have also made inroads into the northern provinces of Afghanistan which are the traditional strongholds of the Northern Alliance comprising Tajiks and Uzbeks.
In October 2016, for instance, the Taliban mounted brazen attacks on the Gormach district of northwestern Faryab province, the Tirankot district of Uruzgan province and briefly captured  the district-centre of the northern Kunduz province, before they were repelled with the help of US air power.
This outreach of the Taliban into the traditional strongholds of the Tajiks and Uzbeks in northern Afghanistan bordering the Russian client states Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan has come as a surprise to perceptive observers of the militancy in Afghanistan.
It is commonly believed that the Taliban are the proxies of Pakistan’s military which uses them as “strategic assets” to offset the influence of India in Afghanistan. The hands of Pakistan’s military, however, have been full with a home-grown insurgency of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) since 2009 when it began conducting military operations in Swat and Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
Although some remnants of the Taliban still find safe havens in the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan, the renewed vigour and brazen assaults of the Taliban, particularly in the Afghanistan’s northern provinces as I described earlier, cannot be explained by the support of Pakistan’s military to the Taliban.
In an August 2017 report  for the New York Times, Carlotta Gall described the killing of the former Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a US drone strike on a tip-off from Pakistan’s intelligence in Pakistan’s western Balochistan province in May 2016 when he was coming back from a secret meeting with the Russian and Iranian officials in Iran. According to the report, “Iran facilitated a meeting between Mullah Akhtar Mansour and Russian officials, Afghan officials said, securing funds and weapons from Moscow for the insurgents.”
It bears mentioning that the Russian support to the Taliban coincides with its intervention in Syria in September 2015, after the Ukrainian Crisis in November 2013 when Viktor Yanukovych suspended the preparations for the implementation of an association agreement with the European Union and tried to take Ukraine back into the fold of the Russian sphere of influence by accepting billions of dollars of loan package offered by Vladimir Putin to Ukraine, consequently causing a crisis in which Yanukovych was ousted from power and Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula.
Although the ostensible reason of Russia’s support – and by some accounts, Iran’s as well – to the Taliban is that it wants to contain the influence of the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province in Afghanistan because the Khorasan Province includes members of the now defunct Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which is Russia’s traditional foe, the real reason of Russia’s intervention in Syria and support to the Taliban in Afghanistan is that the Western powers are involved in both of these conflicts and since a new Cold War has started between Russia and the Western powers after the Ukrainian crisis, hence it suits Russia’s strategic interests to weaken the influence of the Western powers in the Middle East and Central Asian regions and project its own power.
Finally, although the main reason of the surge in Taliban attacks during the last couple of years is the drawdown of American troops which now number only 14,000, and are likely to be scaled back to 7,000 in the coming months, the brazen Taliban offensives in northern and western provinces of Afghanistan, bordering Iran and Russian clients Central Asian States, lend credence to the reports that Russia and Iran are also arming the Taliban since 2015 in line with their “strategic interests” of containing Washington’s influence in the region.
Sources and links:
 Concerted Taliban onslaughts on Kunduz, Faryab, Uruzgan, Farah and Helmand:
 In Afghanistan, U.S. Exits, and Iran Comes In:
About the author:
Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based attorney, columnist and geopolitical analyst focused on the politics of Af-Pak and Middle East regions, neocolonialism and petro-imperialism.