President Donald Trump was so eager to pull the plug in Afghanistan that in mid-November, shortly after the election, he impulsively signed an order to withdraw U.S. forces by year’s end. Pentagon officials tell me the unpublicized order was quickly reversed, after strenuous protests from Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other military leaders. They argued that there hadn’t been sufficient debate about the consequences of dropping to zero by the end of December.
The order underscores the chaotic nature of national security policymaking in Trump’s administration. It was drafted by retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, a longtime critic of the Afghanistan mission, who was then serving as a special adviser to acting defense secretary Christopher Miller. Asked about the order this week, Macgregor responded in an email: “I cannot comment at this time.”
But Trump’s ill-considered move also illustrates the problem bedeviling President Biden as he confronts a May 1 deadline to withdraw completely from Afghanistan negotiated by his predecessor. Trump had a troop-withdrawal plan for the United States’ longest war, but not a peace plan.
Biden is now rushing to fill the diplomatic vacuum, guided by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Zalmay Khalilzad, who is continuing in the role of special envoy that he held under Trump. They have crafted an ambitious plan to work with the United Nations, Russia and Turkey to shape a power-sharing interim government and a cease-fire before the May 1 deadline, if possible.
For all the window dressing of the February 2020 agreement with the Taliban, Trump’s aim in Afghanistan could be summed up in two words: Get out. Officials tell me Trump had demanded back in December 2018 that U.S. troops quit Afghanistan, as well as Syria. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned in protest; the Pentagon delayed implementing both orders, fearing significant damage to U.S. security interests.
Trump kept pushing on the Afghanistan pullout. He tweeted on Oct. 7, 2020, “We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!” National security adviser Robert O’Brien had said earlier that day that troops would be reduced from 4,500 to 2,500 by early 2021. That cut was formally ratified a month later, but Trump never got to zero; the number of troops in Afghanistan remains 2,500.
The Biden team is rehabilitating a diplomatic process that, despite Khalilzad’s efforts, never had much support from Trump. Biden’s dilemma, simply put, is that if he meets Trump’s withdrawal deadline, the Kabul government is likely to collapse into a chaotic civil war. What’s needed is an additional agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government for sharing power and a cease-fire.
Blinken embraced a wily strategy, which can be read between the lines of a three-page letter he wrote to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that was published last week by Tolo News in Kabul. By stressing that Biden is indeed “considering the full withdrawal of our forces by May 1st,” the letter pressured Ghani to make significant concessions, perhaps including resigning as president before his term expires in 2024, to allow a new interim government.
Blinken decided to embrace a much broader cast of peacemakers, rather than continue the United States’ solo diplomacy. Major powers like Russia and China might not want the United States to win in Afghanistan, but they didn’t want it to lose, either. Blinken decided to give them a piece of the action.
What’s ahead is a three-step process to get regional and international buy-in. First, the United Nations is expected to convene a quick meeting of foreign ministers — probably from the United States, Russia, China, Pakistan, India and Iran. This group would give its blessing to cease-fire negotiations and political transition talks between the Afghan parties.
Next would be a round of talks in Moscow, starting March 18, organized by Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan. He would convene what the Russians call the “enlarged troika” group, which includes Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan and Iran.
The last round envisaged by Blinken would be meetings in Turkey, perhaps beginning in early April, between Taliban and Kabul government representatives. The goal, Blinken said in his letter, would be to “finalize a peace agreement.” If that transitional framework and cease-fire could be achieved, the United States might begin a slow walk toward the exit.
Afghanistan would still remain the problem from hell. Political turmoil, a renewed threat of terrorism and human-rights issues lie ahead, no matter what happens over the next several months.
Still, to end its longest war, the Biden administration is willing to take the calculated risk of including some of its most problematic adversaries — Russia, China and Iran — and to let the mercurial regime in Turkey organize the wedding festival. Its canny approach recalls an old saw: “If you can’t solve a problem, expand it.”
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