In Afghanistan, the Choice Isn’t Withdraw or Endless War
A middle path, with a greater role for India, is still possible—and preferable to either extreme.
On March 26, the New York Times published an article that carefully dissected a classified CIA analysis of potential scenarios for the United States’ departure from Afghanistan. The CIA predicted that a hasty American withdrawal could lead to the collapse of the current Afghan government and Taliban takeover. Worse still, al Qaeda or even the Islamic State’s local affiliate, the Islamic State-Khorasan, could witness a resurgence.
But rather than sign on for an indefinite and costly full-scale presence, the United States should look to a middle strategy for securing its interests: a continued but limited U.S. counterterrorism commitment coupled with a greater role for India in assisting Afghan forces to ensure that al Qaeda does not regroup and that the Islamic State does not spread its wings.
It is true that the Taliban’s rhetoric has grown more assertive in recent weeks in its rejection of any U.S. presence beyond the May 1 deadline the sides agreed to last year, but there are still enticements the United States could offer to extend the deadline for the U.S. withdrawal, such as long-sought sanctions relief or prisoner releases. Meanwhile, the United States could quietly start a process of withdrawal without much fanfare—unlike the very hasty withdrawal that former President Donald Trump had in mind—while bolstering the Afghan security forces.
No matter how it is timed, a drawdown will of course result in the Afghan security forces losing important assistance from the United States. In addition to continuing aid, then, Washington needs partners to fill the void. To that end, it could consider eliciting the assistance of the dominant regional power, India, to help train Afghan security forces. This is necessary even after 20 years, because the Afghan security forces are still incapable of standing on their own, perhaps because they have become inordinately reliant on American firepower.
That’s why handing training over to India may have considerable merit. India is eager to play a wider role in the stabilization of Afghanistan, it has the capacity to train Afghan forces, and Indo-U.S. security ties have deepened in the last few years.
An expanded Indian security footprint would no doubt irk Pakistan. However, given the need to cooperate with India on other, broader security questions in Asia, especially to balance an increasingly assertive China, Pakistan cannot be allowed to exercise a veto on U.S. policy choices in the region.
Further, even as U.S. forces head home, the CIA analysis makes it clear that the United States must keep a counterterrorism strike capability in Afghanistan. Keeping counterterrorism units in the country would amount to what international relations scholars refer to as a “costly signal,” a sign that demonstrates that the United States is willing to sacrifice funding and troops to guard its security interests. Continued intelligence collection is essential to ensuring the United States is not blindsided by a terrorist threat emanating from the region. Overall, the continued deployment of such units alongside Afghan forces would ensure that those forces can disrupt any plots and eliminate key terrorist figures.
A U.S. counterterrorism mission, even just an airstrike capability, would probably require some continued goodwill from Pakistan. The United States would likely have to continue to have some bases there, the ability to move personnel and equipment through the country, and overflight permissions. In addition, the United States will look to Islamabad to pressure the Taliban to restrain the jihadi elements living within Pakistan’s borders. Although Islamabad insists that it has limited influence over its longtime client, it still has more than any other external actor.
Getting the U.S.-Pakistan relationship right will be made more complicated by the growing competition between the United States and China, Pakistan’s longtime ally. But continued counterterrorism cooperation may at minimum help keep the already fraught partnership at least partially intact. This would entail modest economic and possibly some military assistance to Pakistan.
There will be those who, understanding these difficulties, believe that it is better for the United States to wash its hands of the whole region. But that would leave the United States dangerously exposed to an adverse turn of events in Afghanistan.
There is significant debate about the current strength of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, with some seeing it as a shadow of what it once was and others arguing that the group remains formidable. But even if the first camp is correct, the haven the group could enjoy under the Taliban if the U.S. military departs could provide the breathing room it needs to resurge. Under similar circumstances, other groups once declared defeated have staged just such a comeback, including the Taliban themselves and the Islamic State of Iraq (the entity that reemerged as the Islamic State). Al Qaeda, an organization that has managed to survive 20 years on the run, is also capable of such a feat.
The next iteration of the group would likely look very different from the one that conducted 9/11, given the losses it has sustained. But that does not mean it would present no threat. Unlike in the pre-9/11 period, al Qaeda in Afghanistan has become more localized, with a significant cadre of South Asian fighters (al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent) that also enjoys close ties with the Taliban.
A U.S. counterterrorism capability with Indian support for Afghan security forces could at least help keep al Qaeda and its permutations off balance. India, in turn, has an interest in ensuring that the government in Kabul, whether it shares power with or is led by the Taliban, does not provide any aid to any militant groups. To ensure such an outcome, the United States could ensure enhanced counterterrorism and intelligence cooperation with India, which is also keen on preventing terrorist attacks staged by anti-Indian groups in the region.
For its part, the Islamic State-Khorasan has weathered pressure from the United States and the Taliban and has proved highly resilient. Although the Taliban will almost certainly remain opposed to the Islamic State, which has tried to discredit the Taliban as a puppet of Pakistan and usurp their position in Afghanistan, without U.S. pressure, the Taliban may focus more on consolidating power in Kabul than on countering the Islamic State.
Although the United States has experienced losses on the magnitude of 9/11 on a daily basis during the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Biden administration can ill afford to be the one under which al Qaeda and the Islamic State stage a global comeback. The administration’s frustration with this seemingly endless war is wholly understandable. However, opting to withdraw from Afghanistan, especially on a swift timetable, is tantamount to granting the Taliban a free pass.
That’s an outcome that is undesirable from two standpoints: ethical and strategic. Ethically it would consign significant swaths of Afghan society, especially women and the many Afghans who worked with the United States over the past 20 years, to a highly dubious fate. It would also be a strategic blunder, imperiling U.S. security in the wake of a precipitate drawdown.
Sumit Ganguly is a columnist for Foreign Policy.