–US Defence Secretary Mattis resigns, says ‘worldview’ different from that of President Trump
–Reports suggest 50 per cent withdrawal of US troops on the cards
–NATO stressed commitment for Afghanistan mission
–Afghans, diplomats surprised by Trump plan
WASHINGTON: US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis resigned on Thursday after President Donald Trump decided to pull out troops from Syria and Afghanistan much to the chagrin of his allies and administration.
Mattis decided to leave his post after he failed he to convince Trump to change his mind, saying “his worldview was different from that of the president”.
“My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues,” Secretary Mattis wrote.
“We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances,” he added.
“Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defence whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”
Secretary Mattis, however, said that he would stay till February 28 to allow sufficient time for a successor to be nominated and confirmed.
‘EARLY CHRISTMAS FOR TALIBAN’
The Afghan pullout comes as the US spearheads international efforts to end the war with the Taliban, which was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.
The Afghanistan move stunned and dismayed foreign diplomats and officials in Kabul who are involved in an intensifying push to end the 17-year conflict.
“If you’re the Taliban, Christmas has come early,” a senior foreign official in the Afghan capital told AFP on the condition of anonymity.
“Would you be thinking of a ceasefire if your main opponent has just withdrawn half their troops?”
The decision apparently came after Khalilzad met with the Taliban in Abu Dhabi this week, part of a flurry of diplomatic efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table with the Afghan government.
They are believed to have discussed issues including the group’s longstanding demand for a pullout of foreign troops and a ceasefire.
“That decision has been made. There will be a significant withdrawal,” the American official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Trump made his decision on Tuesday, the same time he told the Pentagon he wanted to pull all US forces out of Syria and as talks were ongoing in Abu Dhabi.
Critics suggest the president’s twin foreign policy decisions on Syria and Afghanistan could unspool a series of cascading and unpredictable events across the Middle East and in Afghanistan.
The US has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan working either with a NATO mission to support Afghan forces or in separate counter-terrorism operations.
The Wall Street Journal reported that more than 7,000 troops would be returning from Afghanistan.
Mattis and other top military advisers last year persuaded Trump to commit thousands of new troops to Afghanistan, where the Taliban are slaughtering local forces in record numbers and making major territorial gains.
Trump at the time said his instinct was to get out of Afghanistan.
Foreign observers and officials said Trump’s move had handed the Taliban a major propaganda and tactical victory, without the militants having to make any concessions.
NATO STRESSES AFGHAN COMMITMENT
The NATO alliance stressed its continued commitment to its support mission in Afghanistan on Friday as Washington prepared to withdraw thousands of US troops.
NATO´s spokeswoman Oana Lungescu would not comment on US President Donald Trump´s plan to bring home a chunk of the 14,000 US troops deployed in Afghanistan.
But she said NATO foreign ministers met as recently as this month to express “steadfast commitment to ensuring long-term security and stability in Afghanistan.”
“Our engagement is important to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for international terrorists who could threaten us at home,” she said.
“We have seen the reports. For any comments, I refer you to the US authorities,” Lungescu said.
Trump has often been at loggerheads with fellow NATO leaders, accusing European allies like Germany of not pulling their weight in terms of defence spending.
But in July, at a NATO summit, all members agreed to extend funding for the embattled Afghan security forces until 2024.
For many NATO members, the most reassuring figure in the US administration was defence secretary and former Marine Corps general Jim Mattis, who dramatically resigned on Thursday.
“Secretary Mattis has made a key contribution to keeping NATO strong and ready to deal with the significant security challenges we face,” Lungescu said.
“He is widely respected as a soldier and a diplomat… We are grateful for the iron-clad commitment of the United States to NATO. US leadership keeps our transatlantic alliance strong.”
AFGHANS, DIPLOMATS SURPRISED BY REPORT OF TRUMP PLAN TO PULL OUT TROOPS
Afghan officials and America’s Western partners reacted with unease on Friday to reports that the United States planned to withdraw more than 5,000 of its 14,000 troops from Afghanistan, after tentative steps toward peace talks.
However, with the plans still unconfirmed and further meetings expected in Saudi Arabia in early January, it was unclear whether a ceasefire was close and whether the news heralded a wider settlement.
“The withdrawal will certainly affect overall operations but we will have to wait and see which units are going to go home first. It is too early to say anything for now,” said a senior Afghan government official.
“Depending on how the Taliban react, the government might ask forces to reduce operations,” he said.
But Haroon Chakansuri, spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani, said the withdrawal would not affect overall security because the role of US forces has been to assist and advise Afghan troops.
With the insurgents in control of large stretches of the country and chronically understrength Afghan forces suffering thousands of casualties a month, even a partial US withdrawal could reduce the incentive of the Taliban to strike a deal and erode the willingness of Afghan troops to fight.
“We all know the morale of the Afghan forces has hit an all-time low, they are under-equipped, poorly paid and they lack coordination. We train them to the best of our abilities,” said a Western diplomat from a Resolute Support member.
A withdrawal of so many US troops would represent an abrupt shift in US strategy announced a year ago, which saw thousands of troops sent to Afghanistan and air strikes intensified to put pressure on the Taliban to talk.
But for months, diplomats have joked grimly about a “Tweet of Damocles” hanging over Afghanistan — the fear that Trump could take to social media to announce the United States was pulling out.
With the reports from Washington still unconfirmed, there was no comment from the headquarters of the NATO-led mission in Kabul but the news appeared to have caught some allies by surprise.
“The US has not consulted us on the withdrawal and today we will start meetings to discuss it,” said one Western diplomat in Kabul.
“It will take a while and there are some countries who are ready to exit. So they could be the first to leave.”
Another senior diplomat in Kabul said countries with military or development commitments might now make plans independent of US strategy.
“Each country has to answer this one question: Should we stay in Afghanistan?” the diplomat said.
A senior security official working for an international organisation said Afghan officials would be shaken by the news.
“We’re keeping a watch on how Afghan elites, policymakers react to this … Many have been sharing their exit plans with us and now we could see them implement them,” the official said.