The burden of Biden’s choice of whether to honor a May 1 withdrawal deadline negotiated by the previous administration with the Taliban was obvious while I was traveling here with Gen. Frank McKenzie, the U.S. Central Command leader who’s responsible for this region. McKenzie met Friday with Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, who’s concerned about whether the new administration has a clear plan for what’s ahead in Afghanistan, where war has destabilized neighboring Pakistan for three decades.
Pakistan’s military leaders “would not be unhappy” if the United States extended its departure date, one Pakistani military official said in an interview after the Bajwa meeting. He urged that “there has to be a responsible withdrawal,” rather than a chaotic pullout that could affect Pakistan and other countries in the region.
McKenzie said while traveling here that the United States was at a “fragile point” now, as the May 1 deadline looms. He wouldn’t specify which option he favors. But other senior officials in Washington have told me that military leaders agree with a recommendation this month from retired Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He said the United States should maintain its 2,500 troops, alongside about 5,000 NATO allies, and hunker down for a long support mission.
Biden’s military and intelligence advisers have presented him with three unpleasant alternatives: leave May 1 as previously agreed, even though this would probably mean the fall of the Kabul government and a return to civil war; stay for a limited period, perhaps negotiated with the Taliban, which would delay its eventual takeover; or stay for an undefined period, which could mean a long continuation of what’s already the United States’ longest war.
Every pathway has risks. The Kabul government, headed by President Ashraf Ghani, may be too corrupt and fragile to survive, no matter what the United States does. Pakistan and other neighbors will protect their interests, regardless of U.S. policy. And the Taliban may be so convinced that victory is near that it will escalate attacks, regardless of whether its leaders agree to extend the deadline.
If Biden tries to negotiate a limited stay, the Taliban may demand a steep price, perhaps in release of prisoners or other concessions. If Biden instead unilaterally decides to remain, the Taliban is likely to resume attacks on U.S. forces, which it has halted for the past year. The United States would retaliate, and the cycle of violence would again resume.
Maintaining a counterterrorism presence outside Afghanistan may sound like an attractive option. But experts caution that it may not be feasible militarily. A robust counterterrorism force would require drones over Afghanistan, but neighboring countries probably wouldn’t provide bases, meaning the drones might have to fly from the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia, hours away.
Leaving now would carry a reputational risk for the United States. The Taliban’s success would embolden jihadists and perhaps rejuvenate their movement, which has been in retreat. Allies in the Middle East, Europe and Asia would be shaken. And there would be an unmeasurable cost to American credibility. This last argument was a rationale for the United States’ prolonged but ultimately unsuccessful war in Vietnam, so it’s disheartening to see it invoked again.
Another intangible: If American troops leave and the Taliban regains power, there would be a severe cost in human rights — especially for the women of Afghanistan who have had far greater freedom since the Taliban was toppled in 2001.
Biden is obviously torn over this agonizing choice. A decade ago, as Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden presciently warned that the United States should limit its commitment. But he now hears advisers’ warnings that an abrupt withdrawal could destabilize the region, embolden jihadist enemies and allow al-Qaeda to reestablish havens from which, in 18 to 36 months, they could again plot attacks on the U.S. homeland.
Biden’s heart must tell him to end this long and fruitless war, just as Donald Trump pledged to do. But his head (along with his advisers) cautions that quitting now could come at a severe cost to his country’s reputation and national interest.
Analysts often weigh costs and benefits when making hard decisions. The cost of keeping a small but sustainable force in Afghanistan appears relatively low, measured against the benefit of checking terrorists, supporting NATO allies and giving the Kabul government a fighting chance.
But it’s Biden who will have to write a letter of condolence to the family of the first American who dies on his watch in this terrible war. He needs to have a compelling explanation of why such a sacrifice makes sense.