It’s Time to Prepare for U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan

There are no good choices, but staying on is the worst.

Soldiers unload bags at a U.S. base.
U.S. Army soldiers retrieve their duffel bags after they return home from a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan at Fort Drum, New York, on Dec. 10, 2020. John Moore/Getty Images

When the Biden administration took office, it faced two unpalatable policy choices in Afghanistan: withdraw all remaining U.S. troops by May 1, as stipulated in an agreement inked with the Taliban in Doha a year ago, and risk increased destabilization or stay beyond the deadline and watch the Taliban tear up its accord with Washington and scuttle a nascent peace process between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

The Biden administration has sought to circumvent this Catch-22 situation by pursuing two alternative options. One is to negotiate a brief extension of the May 1 deadline, thereby buying U.S. President Joe Biden time to produce more favorable conditions—especially reductions in violence—for peace negotiations and an eventual U.S. withdrawal. The other is to propose a new peace plan that establishes a violence reduction accord and accelerates negotiations on a political settlement—all in a matter of weeks.

Both initiatives are worth trying, but each one will be highly difficult to achieve. Additionally, given the large amount of policy bandwidth required to achieve just one of these ambitious goals, devoting extensive energy to both of them actually makes success more unlikely for either of them. Accordingly, if Washington isn’t successful, it should plan for a withdrawal as soon as is logistically possible.

Unfortunately, recent reports indicate that Biden is considering keeping troops in Afghanistan until November—with no indication that the Taliban has agreed to that or that the administration has even pitched an extension to the Taliban. Neither Kabul nor the Taliban has committed to the peace plan.

The Biden administration confronts a constellation of bad options, but unilaterally staying on well beyond May 1 is the worst.

The Taliban has long insisted its core goal is the removal of all foreign forces. It would demand a lot in return for a withdrawal extension, such as the release of Taliban prisoners and steps to remove United Nations sanctions on the group—both unmet U.S. commitments in the Doha deal—and a new interim Afghan government that President Ashraf Ghani has categorically rejected.

If U.S. and Afghan officials say yes, they would lose critical future bargaining chips in exchange for an extension that’s likely to be at most several months, since the Taliban won’t agree to anything more. Unless a Taliban cease-fire is part of the package, Washington and Kabul are unlikely to give up so much.

And if Washington tries to work around a resistant Ghani with this move, it risks provoking a serious diplomatic crisis with Afghanistan and a fresh political crisis in Kabul—and at the worst possible time.

Meanwhile, the administration’s new peace plan features elements that neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban will like. It calls for the interim government that Ghani rejects. It also calls for an eventual cease-fire, free and fair elections, and a new constitution that protects women’s rights—all elements the Taliban has either rejected or refused to endorse. Getting Kabul and the Taliban to agree on these issues—and especially in so little time—is a very tall order. On March 23, Reuters reported that Ghani has rejected the new peace plan and will be announcing a counterproposal that calls for new elections within the next six months. That’s an unrealistic option, given the difficulty of preparing for and holding polls in so little time and in such a violent environment.

Accordingly, if, as expected, these long-shot plans fall short, Washington should plan to depart as close to May 1 as possible—not because it’s a good option but because staying on unilaterally would be even worse.

Indeed, the Taliban would declare its deal with the United States and its talks with Kabul null and void. The best chance yet to end 40 years of conflict, starting with the Soviet invasion, would be squandered. The United States would be dragged back into a war that it badly wants to exit. A U.S. mission focused on training, advising, and counterterrorism would find itself back in the crosshairs of a ferocious Taliban insurgency. Afghanistan’s horrifying violence would escalate and as always, civilians would pay the biggest price.

There would also be domestic political costs for Biden. He has long opposed an extended U.S. military presence because he believes the U.S. public wouldn’t support it. Indeed, if the United States stays beyond May 1, its troops would be in greater danger, fresh infusions of war funding would be needed even as the United States continues to focus on recovering from pandemic-induced economic strain, and the specter would loom of an eventual U.S. withdrawal under Taliban fire. Public opinion wouldn’t react well to any of this.

In fairness, the consequences of a May 1 withdrawal could also be catastrophic: An emboldened Taliban, smelling victory and sensing a tremendous battlefield advantage, could ramp up its efforts to seize power by force, returning the country to an increasingly violent civil war.

But the United States has not been a wholly stabilizing force in Afghanistan. Even with U.S. boots on the ground, the country has suffered through record-breaking civilian casualty figures and a relentless targeted killing campaign against civil society. And the Taliban has advanced across the country. Today, it controls more territory than at any time since U.S. forces entered Afghanistan nearly 20 years ago.

That said, the threat of more violence after a U.S. departure is very real—if not inevitable.

That said, the threat of more violence after a U.S. departure is very real—if not inevitable.

This is why Washington must lead a diplomatic full-court press that enlists regional governments (especially Pakistan, the Taliban’s chief patron, along with U.S. rivals China, Iran, and Russia) and the international donor community to convince the Taliban to agree to a cease-fire once U.S. troops have withdrawn.

There is an irony here that might work in Washington’s favor. Many key regional players are rivals of the United States and would welcome a U.S. military withdrawal. However, their interests are not served by the hastened destabilization that could ensue from a withdrawal. By working with the United States to push the Taliban to agree to a cease-fire, they would be aiming for an outcome that lessens the consequences of destabilization—more violence, increased refugee flows, an intensified drug trade, grim prospects for economic investment—that they so fear. For the Biden administration, which favors multilateral diplomacy with partners and rivals alike to pursue shared interests, this should be a logical strategy to pursue.

Washington should fully exploit its remaining tools of leverage: Refuse to fulfill any of its remaining Doha deal obligations with the Taliban until insurgents commit to a cease-fire. Threaten to withhold hypothetical future aid to the Taliban—the group has indicated it would welcome aid if it gains power in a post-war government—if it doesn’t reduce violence and stay at the negotiating table. A strong message should be delivered: If you reject a global consensus calling for a cease-fire, even after the U.S. troop withdrawal, then you jeopardize the legitimacy and recognition you seek.

To be sure, a withdrawal will complicate Washington’s ability to maintain a counterterrorism capacity in Afghanistan, a top Biden administration goal. Salvaging this capacity without boots on the ground will not be easy. But the United States would have options.

First, it can work with Afghanistan and regional players—China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and the Central Asia states—to establish a new intelligence-sharing mechanism to monitor the location and movements of terrorists. Many of these countries don’t get along with Washington, but they all share its concerns about al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Second, the actual targeting of terrorists in Afghanistan would require the United States to base arrangements in neighboring countries. Pakistan and Uzbekistan are the two most logical candidates. Domestic political factors (sensitivities about the presence of U.S. troops in Pakistan and a ban on foreign military bases in Uzbekistan) would pose immense obstacles. However, both countries have previously hosted U.S. forces, and Washington’s relations with each are—for now—relatively stable. If Washington can somehow get their buy-in, it would only need Kabul’s assent.

And yet, this may all put the cart before the horse. Many proponents of an extended U.S. military presence warn that a withdrawal would cause Afghanistan to become an international terror sanctuary that would threaten U.S. interests and the U.S. homeland. However, the ability of a badly degraded al Qaeda, despite its continued links to the Taliban and other militant groups, to plan and mount attacks on the United States is questionable. So is that of the Islamic State, which has suffered major losses in its strongholds in Afghanistan over the last year.

Before Washington frets about how to maintain a counterterrorism capacity in Afghanistan with no boots on the ground, it must determine if that capacity is actually needed. It should prepare intelligence assessments that ascertain if a full U.S. troop departure would indeed increase the risk of international terrorism—and what factors would need to be in place to generate this heightened risk.

There are no good U.S. options in Afghanistan. But if the Taliban rejects a troop extension and the new U.S. peace plan fails to get traction, Washington should cut its losses, withdraw its remaining forces, and use diplomacy and leverage to mitigate the risks associated with the least bad option.

Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman

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