I have worked in Afghanistan alongside our soldiers and Marines in villages and the countryside, assisted generals in Kabul, observed high-level policymaking in Washington and participated in the peace talks with the Taliban. I am acutely aware of the damage endless war has done to the people of Afghanistan and how it warps society and values.
The peace process has been far from perfect. A successful agreement requires that the Taliban stop supporting terrorists, that the United States withdraws its military presence from Afghanistan completely, and that the Taliban and the Afghan government reach a political settlement. A tall order. The process stumbled from the get-go when the written text committed the United States to withdraw all its military forces by May 2021 — with few firm commitments from the Taliban in return.
Nevertheless, the United States' ability to suspend the withdrawal and to prevent the Taliban from winning on the battlefield gave grounds to believe that over time the Taliban could be compelled to compromise. That’s why Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Zalmay Khalilzad, the special representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, as well as American generals have repeated over and over that the U.S. withdrawal was “conditions-based.”
In February, evidence suggested that peace talks were a better option for the Taliban than war. In Doha, Qatar, Taliban leaders assured us that they knew they needed to talk to the Afghan government and reach a settlement — even if they waffled on whether the settlement should be a compromise or a Taliban monopoly on power. For three years, Taliban gains had been slow. The combination of Afghan forces on the ground, U.S. advisers and air power had held back the Taliban. I remember how high-ranking Taliban leaders in Doha acknowledged the effectiveness of U.S. airstrikes and tried to bargain that they be suspended.
The stalemate persisted as Army Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, drew down from 14,000 troops to 8,600 in June. Then, it was decided to draw down further, even though the Taliban had not budged in negotiations. U.S. numbers declined from 8,600 to 5,000 over the fall.
Through October and November, war yielded renewed gains for the Taliban. The Afghan media detailed sweeping Taliban advances in Helmand, Kandahar and other places that had once been government strongholds. Their successes were partly because of long-standing corruption problems with Afghan military and police leadership, but they could also be linked to reduced U.S. presence and airstrikes.
The military situation will only worsen as U.S. troop numbers drop to 2,500. The Taliban, having advanced this year, will anticipate that they can capture much of the country by force. Afghans across different provinces say young men who had accepted living under the government have heard the United States is leaving and are rallying to the Taliban, anxious to get on the winning side. The Taliban have no need for a negotiated solution in which they have to compromise. Whether the number of U.S. troops is at 2,500 or zero, the Taliban does better by choosing war. Pursuing negotiations is no longer a viable policy option for the incoming Biden administration.
In a different time, the remedy would be straightforward. The Biden administration could reverse the damage that has been done by quickly returning troop levels to 8,600. The Taliban would likely treat negotiations much more seriously. Unfortunately, sending more troops to Afghanistan is a difficult political proposition. The new administration would be accused by critics on both sides of the aisle of reinvesting in the war. What’s more, terrorism is no longer the top strategic threat to the United States. The covid-19 pandemic now kills more Americans weekly than the number who died on 9/11.
As it is, Biden and his team face a stark choice: complete withdrawal by May or keeping 2,500 troops in place indefinitely to conduct counterterrorism operations and to try to prevent the collapse of the Afghan government. There’s no doubt that withdrawal will spell the end of the Afghan government that the United States has supported for 19 years.
Keeping 2,500 troops, on the other hand, offers insurance against terrorist threats but binds the United States to an escalating civil war. The Afghan government will need heavy U.S. airstrikes — with their greater risk to civilians — to survive. Even if we left the Afghan government on its own (which would be counterproductive to fighting terrorism) and focused solely on unilateral counterterrorism operations, the Taliban would attack us anyway. The Taliban are dead-set against a U.S. military presence on Afghan soil. We were in a much better position to wage such a war six months ago when 8,600 troops were on the ground. With 2,500, we would be searching for terrorists while fending off the Taliban with the bare minimum of resources and no end in sight. All the while, the Afghan people would be suffering through more years of destruction.
Under these circumstances, the case for leaving Afghanistan has never been more compelling.