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With clock ticking before exit deadline, U.S. appears poised to postpone troop withdrawal from Afghanistan

Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, bottom right, speaks at the opening session of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, on Sept. 12, 2020.
Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, bottom right, speaks at the opening session of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, on Sept. 12, 2020. (Hussein Sayed/AP)
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The United States appears poised to extend its troop presence in Afghanistan beyond a May 1 deadline agreed to last year with the Taliban, as it races to secure an interim peace deal that could end America’s longest war and allow President Biden to move toward an elusive foreign policy goal.

Deliberations about the fate of the 2,500 U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan grow increasingly urgent as the administration ­approaches the deadline. The Trump administration in February 2020 agreed to the May withdrawal following negotiations with the Taliban.

While the Biden administration cautions that no decision has been made on extending the troop presence, officials and experts point to several signs that the administration is likely to postpone a full withdrawal — potentially with Taliban acquiescence — to buy more time to advance a power-sharing proposal they hope can break an impasse in talks between the militants and the Afghan government.

Laurel Miller, who served as a senior official for Afghanistan in the Obama and Trump administrations, said it would be “unfathomable” to pull out American forces — let alone thousands of other NATO troops — in the next 60 days without stoking insecurity and jeopardizing chances for an eventual deal that could allow the United States to withdraw without fearing that Afghanistan would again become a terrorist haven.

As the days tick by, Miller suggested, the increasing likelihood of a U.S. extension is apparent to the Taliban, which, along with its backers in Pakistan, may be inclined to support a revised timeline.

U.S. proposes interim power-sharing government with Taliban in Afghanistan

Like Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump before him, Biden has staked out a goal of ending the war, which has cost trillions of dollars and more than 2,000 U.S. military lives as well as those of at least 100,000 Afghan civilians since 2001. Even as Obama considered a troop surge in 2009 and 2010, Biden, his vice president, argued unsuccessfully for a narrower approach in Afghanistan, with a small force focused on terrorist threats.

Now in the Oval Office, Biden must navigate top military advisers’ warnings about the risks of an abrupt exit against his own impulse and growing withdrawal demands from some lawmakers in both parties.

The deliberations come as the Taliban has capitalized on foreign troop reductions to expand its influence in contested provinces and surround cities and towns. Biden administration officials cite the raging violence as one aspect of the Taliban’s failure to comply with the agreement the previous administration signed with the militants last year in Doha, Qatar.

“I think there is some work to do to get them to full compliance,” a senior administration official said earlier this month, noting that the administration believes the Taliban has not fully broken with al-Qaeda. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Some in the Afghan government, aware of their own vulnerability to military defeat by the Taliban, are eager for the United States to remain and pressure the militants to comply with the Doha deal.

Taliban leaders, at least publicly, have called on Washington to withdraw forces as it agreed to, regardless of the change in ­administrations. Mohammad Naeem, spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Doha, said the United States has not officially communicated any change in the exit timeline.

“We have an agreement which is signed by the United States, a superpower,” and backed by the United Nations and the international community, he said. “They have to follow it.”

The leaked U.S. plan to end the war in Afghanistan

As top Biden aides have conducted a review of Afghanistan policy, military leaders have laid out what they see as the risks of a premature U.S. departure, including a likely collapse into civil war, the increased possibility of terrorist attacks targeting the United States, and the reversal of hard-won advances in human rights.

Some military officials also caution that there is now insufficient time to leave by May 1 without significant security and logistical problems. While military personnel and contractors could be evacuated by aircraft, a hasty exit would require the destruction of millions of dollars in sensitive equipment and could be followed by a diplomatic drawdown at the Kabul embassy.

“At this point, we’re inside a planned window for an orderly departure,” a U.S. official said. “The closer we get to May 1st, the more expedited it becomes.”

Speaking to reporters last month, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the United States “will not undertake a hasty or disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan that puts [its] forces or the alliance’s reputation at risk.”

Lisa Curtis, who served as the top White House official for Afghanistan from 2017 to 2021, said the Taliban, one of whose central goals has been the departure of foreign forces, might be willing to relax its May deadline demand if only because its role in the peace process has given the militants international legitimacy.

The group sees benefits in reaching a U.S.-backed deal, which could remove the Taliban from global sanctions lists and bring international support for a future government.

“There would be something to lose for the Taliban if they were to say everything is over — we’re going back to full-fledged war,” she said.

Heightened scrutiny of the troop deadline comes less than two weeks after the United States floated a new interim-government proposal and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, outlined an ambitious diplomatic plan that appeared to envision a foreign troop presence beyond May 1.

Among the planned summits is a U.N.-convened meeting of foreign ministers from Russia, ­China, India, Pakistan, Iran and the United States, which is tentatively scheduled for March 26 and would mark the first U.S.-Iran sit-down in years. Taliban and Afghan leaders are also expected to meet next month in Turkey.

Neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban has yet committed to the Biden administration’s proposed power-sharing arrangement. Ghani has said Afghanistan’s current government can be replaced only through elections.

In calling on Ghani to carefully consider the U.S. proposals, Blinken warned that a full U.S. withdrawal — leading to “rapid territorial gains” by the Taliban — remained a possibility.

Although the administration has vowed to consult closely with allies that have troops in Afghanistan, officials from several European nations said they were not informed in advance about the details of the U.S. proposals outlined by Blinken.

“I wouldn’t call it consultation; it’s selective informing,” said one senior European official, speaking on the condition of anonymity about sensitive diplomacy. An official from another coalition government said they first became aware of Blinken’s letter only after reading about it in the media.

While non-U.S. coalition troops outnumber Americans, they remain dependent on the United States for air, intelligence and logistical support. Coalition members have made clear they will not be able to stay in Afghanistan if the United States withdraws. They also say there is insufficient time before May 1 for an orderly, safe departure of their forces.

George reported from Doha.