Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal conundrum
US President Joe Biden’s maiden speech on foreign policy last week did not mention Afghanistan, but it is well understood that the long war there will demand the attention of the president and his new team. The situation is simply not stable and the agreement negotiated by the Trump administration a year ago that would permit the withdrawal of all US forces by May could well unravel.
That agreement was only between the US and the Taliban or, as the text of the agreement frequently and awkwardly states, “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban.” The agreement requires the Taliban to prevent any security threats to the US in exchange for the complete withdrawal of American forces. The US presence is already down to 2,500 troops. The second half of the agreement requires the Taliban and the government in Kabul to engage in peace talks, which are intended to lead to a cease-fire and a political road map for Afghanistan’s future.
The intra-Afghan talks began in Doha in September last year, with the government of President Ashraf Ghani a reluctant participant. So far, the parties, including civil society, have negotiated over procedures for substantive talks, but the process has reached an impasse. As is often the case in delicate transitions from civil war, the violence gets worse as each party seeks to strengthen its position before serious bargaining over power-sharing begins.
Taliban leaders insist that they are not solely responsible for the surge of violence against the government’s assets and institutions, and the recent assassinations of prominent civil society figures. They blame Daesh or other groups. But, if true, that only reveals the failure of the Taliban to follow through on its commitment to the US to clamp down on its Islamist allies, especially Al-Qaeda. Nearly 20 years after the US struck Afghanistan to defeat Al-Qaeda and oust the Taliban from power, it feels like this war has come full circle. If this process of military drawdown and intra-Afghan peace talks fails, Afghanistan could return to civil war, with the Taliban well positioned to return to power.
It is easy to blame the Taliban for the current state of affairs, but regional experts find equal blame with the corruption of political elites in Kabul, and the stubborn refusal of President Ghani to acknowledge that a political transition will mean a change at the top. He posits that he alone embodies the sovereignty of Afghanistan, yet the Taliban’s fight against Kabul has been premised on questioning the legitimacy of Ghani’s government, which, in the Taliban’s view, was imposed by foreign powers.
The US Institute of Peace (USIP), which has long been active in Afghanistan, assisting in governance reform and conflict prevention, this past week released a bipartisan report with some recommendations for the new administration. The report calls for a pause on the May deadline for the withdrawal of US forces and advocates a return to a “conditions-based” approach, rather than fixed deadlines, to determine how the US brings this longest war in its history to a close.
The report reflects an establishment view in Washington that believes both that the US has a moral and security interest in continuing to help the country, and that the final withdrawal should be on terms that do not look like defeat. The report conveys a heart-felt belief that the decades of US involvement have improved conditions for many Afghans and have helped build a foundation for a more peaceful and modern country.
It is understandable that US diplomatic and military leaders cannot face the prospect of withdrawing as a defeated great power, but that is the true pattern of Afghan history and it is the narrative already promoted by the Taliban. The conclusion of the agreement was, for them, a true victory and their commitment to making peace with the politicians of Kabul may not be as deep as the American negotiators intended. In fact, several of the advisers to the USIP project have signaled that there is no real rationale for delaying the withdrawal and that conditions could worsen if the parties believe the US is no longer complying with its own agreement.
One small indicator of the likely path for the Biden administration was the decision to retain Zalmay Khalilzad as special envoy. It was he who negotiated the February 2020 agreement, and he has built a wary trust with the Taliban. Ghani, on the other hand, sees the American negotiations, and Khalilzad in particular, in adversarial terms. In a recent conversation organized by an American nongovernmental organization, Ghani took pleasure in referring to Khalilzad as an employee of the state who will be instructed by the Biden team, rather than the important player in US-Afghan relations that he has been since the 1980s.
If this process of military drawdown and intra-Afghan peace talks fails, the country could return to civil war.
When Biden was vice president, he was ready to reduce the US entanglement in Afghanistan and cautioned against the surge of US forces that Barack Obama eventually approved in 2009. So one might imagine that his preference would be to stick to the military drawdown and scale back US involvement, while retaining important political and development activities in the country. But there are also signs that the new administration may agree to delay the May deadline for the final withdrawal. It may be persuaded by the argument that staying longer provides much-needed leverage on the Taliban to fulfill its obligations in the agreement.
It may also reflect some broader trends in Biden’s foreign policy. The president’s theme of “America is Back” would not be served by an abrupt and ignominious withdrawal, which may leave NATO allies in Afghanistan in an untenable position. It would be understandable for the new team to want to take time to consult with allies, in contrast to former President Donald Trump’s unilateral decisions in 2020 about pulling troops out of Iraq, Afghanistan and Germany.
In the end, Biden may reluctantly lean toward extending the US presence in Afghanistan, in the perhaps futile hope that conditions on the ground will improve. At the State Department, he pledged to “begin restoring American engagement internationally and earn back our leadership position, to catalyze global action on shared challenges.” A slower exit from Afghanistan might serve that larger goal.
- Ellen Laipson, a former vice chair of the US’ National Intelligence Council, is currently director of the international security program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Virginia. She is a former president and CEO of the Stimson Center in Washington. Copyright: Syndication Bureau