Photo: US Institute of Peace

US diplomat says unilateral troop reduction discouraged Taliban from agreeing to political settlement

Molly Phee, an American diplomat and former deputy to Zalmay Khalilzad during the Doha talks, has said that the US’s unilateral decision to reduce its military presence in Afghanistan played a critical role in discouraging the Taliban from agreeing to a political settlement with other Afghans.

According to Politico, which revealed details of a behind-closed-doors House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing held in the summer of 2022, Molly Phee said: “It is my judgment that the unilateral decision to reduce troops to 4,500 without explicitly tying this move to a requirement for the Taliban to act significantly weakened the prospect for successful intra-Afghan negotiations as the Taliban appeared to conclude that President Trump was intent on withdrawal regardless of their conduct.”

Molly Phee said in her testimony that the US had not left a mechanism in place ensure the enforcement of its deal with the Taliban. 

“There was very weak enforcement of the U.S.-Taliban deal, ultimately sinking the low-probability process,” she stated. 

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Molly Thee further added that the Taliban’s expectations had hardened with the unilateral reductions in troops by the US. By the time President Biden took office, the US would have faced renewed Taliban attacks if they had attempted to insist on the conditions in the agreement and delay their complete withdrawal.

According to Politico, John Bass, the former US ambassador to Afghanistan, also said that there was a lack of information regarding the measures for troop withdrawal.

John Bass said: 

“We did not know whether U.S. forces would be zeroed out. We did not know how rapidly U.S. force reductions would occur, we did not know if the president would keep our embassy open, or retain some U.S. counterterrorism forces in-country,” Bass told the lawmakers, adding “our main policy efforts not only didn’t reinforce each other, they all contradicted each other, which were amplified by President Trump’s periodic statements supporting rapid force reductions.”

On 8 March, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held its first public hearing as part of the investigation into the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The hearing included emotional testimonies from US Marine Corps Sergeant Tyler Vargas-Andrews, who was based at Kabul airport during the withdrawal, and Francis Hoang from Allied Airlift 21, who was part of a group organizing charter flights for evacuees.

The Biden administration’s chaotic retreat from Afghanistan has been harshly criticised by some in the US, with the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, who recently attacked the Biden for “willful failure” on Afghanistan.