It appears the coronavirus pandemic may have provided the leverage President Trump needs to finally get all American troops out of the over eighteen-year quagmire in Afghanistan.
A new report this week by NBC has cited multiple senior officials to say the president “complains almost daily” that the US still has troops in Afghanistan, and that they are at risk for the spread of coronavirus.
According to NBC: “His renewed push to withdraw all of them has been spurred by the convergence of his concern that coronavirus poses a force protection issue for thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and his impatience with the halting progress of his peace deal with the Taliban, the officials said.”
The historic peace deal signed between the US and Taliban at the end of February was based on a roadmap that would see the complete withdrawal of US and NATO troops from the country 14 months from the signing. It also called for a near-term massive US troop reduction to 8,600 within 135 days of signing – contingent on the Taliban’s fulfillment of its commitments under the agreement.
Trump is not satisfied with the progress, and his generals appear divided on his recent increased verbalization to get out. But they apparently share his concerns over local outbreaks impacting troops stationed there:
U.S. officials worry the virus could become rampant in Afghanistan, given its lack of health care and testing and its shared border with Iran, which has been hit hard by the pandemic.
“Afghanistan is going to have a significant coronavirus issue,” a former senior U.S. official said. “It hasn’t really manifested yet but it will.”
On the other hand they argue that should coronavirus be a driving reason to pullout of central Asia, then it makes the American military’s presence in places like hard-hit Italy even harder to defend.
“They said the president’s military advisers have made the case to him that if the U.S. pulls troops out of Afghanistan because of the coronavirus, by that standard the Pentagon would also have to withdraw from places like Italy, which has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, officials said,” according to the NBC report.
Meanwhile, an investigative report at the beginning of this month in The Intercept said Afghanistan’s health ministry is bracing for possibly “millions” of COVID-19 cases.
The end result could be simply that the remaining tens of thousands of US troops be confined to a couple major bases to ride out the pandemic, yet without withdrawing.
Among the most significant obstacles that remain to the peace deal relates to ongoing Kabul national government talks with the Taliban. Both sides have to accept the terms of the US deal as it relates to how it impacts their interactions, such as mass prisoner swaps, still subject of major contention.