Afghan government officials and Taliban representatives are expected to arrive in Turkey this month to try to negotiate a path forward for their country: For two decades, the United States has struggled to gain the upper hand in Afghanistan’s long-running conflict or successfully secure consensus among its factions. In recent days, Afghan and Taliban forces have exchanged strikes, trying to gain leverage ahead of the talks, which may or may not generate an alternative to the agreement reached last year between the Taliban and the Trump administration. That agreement calls for all American forces to leave by May 1 — weeks away. This violence doesn’t bode well for the possibility of intra-Afghan compromise and reconciliation after the U.S. military leaves.
Those in Washington who want to keep American troops in Afghanistan past the May 1 deadline are likely to portray this latest fighting as a prologue to the violence they warn will follow a U.S. forces exit.
But this view’s premise is gravely flawed. Keeping American forces in Afghanistan isn’t helping bring that nation’s opposing factions closer together. Rather, continuing to stay actively harms the prospects for a meaningful and durable peace. As it stands now, the Taliban negotiates at gunpoint, while the Afghan government negotiates from behind a shield that Washington may remove at any moment. Meanwhile, Afghan soldiers and civilians suffer as the months and years pass with no end to the violence in sight.
The United States’ ongoing intervention in Afghanistan distorts the country’s balance of power: As long as U.S. troops are on the ground, the Taliban will try to wait them out, and the Afghan government will deploy alarmist rhetoric, warning of all-out civil war to convince American and coalition leaders to stay. Afghan government officials have equated the Taliban with the Islamic State, and Kabul dismissed a recently circulated U.S. peace plan.
As long as the Afghan peace process is backstopped by the U.S. military, the two sides may reach a deal that looks good on paper but will likely collapse promptly after American troops leave.
It’s true that if U.S. forces are withdrawn before a settlement is reached, violence might intensify in the short term. The Taliban would likely claim victory, taking credit for pushing out the Americans and potentially subjecting more Afghans to its reactionary rule. Promises of sanctions relief and aid from the United States and its partners could possibly entice the Taliban to some compromise — allowing it to pursue power through international recognition rather than armed dominance of what would become, once again, a pariah state.
There is, understandably, a temptation for the Biden administration to maintain a troop presence in Afghanistan to try to avert greater violence. But doing so could mean another escalation of deadly U.S.-led combat operations, and to little avail. The Taliban isn’t going anywhere. It has a greater stake in the military and political outcome and is working with a very different — nearly interminable — timetable. Whatever chaos might follow after May 1 would likely also ensue if the U.S. military leaves in a year, or 10.
Political scientist Barbara F. Walter outlines three distinct steps for successfully ending civil wars such as the one in Afghanistan: initiate talks; compromise on an agreement; and implement it. Afghans have found themselves stuck at the first step, which should not be surprising given the Taliban’s strongly held ideology and battlefield advantage — an insurgency can “win” merely by continuing to fight, and Taliban recruits, and leaders, have a strong resolve to do just that. The upcoming negotiations are a long-shot attempt to move the peace process forward to the second step — compromise and power-sharing. This will require trust between the Taliban, the government and Afghan citizens in a country traumatized by decades of war, foreign meddling and unpunished abuses.
And any deal that comes out of peace talks in Turkey will likely be an interim one, vulnerable to the same violence and recalcitrant politics that have stymied the peace process up to now. Keeping American troops in Afghanistan while this unfolds will thwart progress toward a mutually acceptable compromise while making those troops vulnerable to a fragile peace. One car bomb, raid, assassination attempt or inflammatory public statement and everything could fall apart. President Biden would then find himself pressured to keep troops in Afghanistan in an effort to stabilize the country, further tanking the prospects for a lasting settlement. A self-perpetuating cycle of violence would continue.
For Biden, either option in Afghanistan — stay or go — presents political risks. And whatever he decides, history will not judge him in a vacuum. Like his two predecessors, the president inherited this imbroglio, and just as no serious historian blames President Gerald Ford for the fall of Saigon, the war in Afghanistan won’t become “Biden’s War” — unless he prolongs it. He should, then, choose the least bad option: withdraw all American troops by the U.S.-Taliban agreement’s May 1 deadline or soon thereafter.
No doubt, Biden will factor public opinion into any decision. And recently, giving cover to any potential decision to remain in Afghanistan, more than one think-tanker has tried to counter the conventional wisdom that Americans are war-weary and want the troops to come home. Some of them may be right when they note that there’s no visible groundswell of support for withdrawal — no campus protests; no antiwar pop anthems topping the charts.
But a lack of mass protests hardly suggests a popular mandate to continue trudging along in Afghanistan. A Eurasia Group Foundation survey released in September found substantial bipartisan support for the details of the U.S.-Taliban agreement that brings troops home by May 1. More than 60 percent of Americans support the terms of the deal, compared with only about 8 percent who oppose them. And if, in fact, the American public has become indifferent to the longest war ever fought in its name, it speaks as much to how Washington sells war as to how or whether the public buys in.
For the Biden administration to hold out hope for a more favorable, U.S.-orchestrated political settlement is an understandably tempting, if unduly rosy, response to a nearly intractable problem. A hole-in-one solution to Washington’s Afghanistan woes in the form of a negotiated settlement followed by a swift U.S. withdrawal would be ideal. But the peace deal that Afghanistan needs cannot be masterminded by an outside broker and, historically, most settlements fail before they are fully implemented.
In order for peace talks to generate a sturdy compromise, they can’t take place under conditions of armed coercion. Some might claim that the presence of American troops simply creates leverage for the Afghan government, a benign thumb on the scale in favor of the “good guys.” But by exerting outside and temporary pressure, the United States distracts Afghans from the urgent work of their domestic statecraft with the more expedient work of international stagecraft. Ironically, it is the presence of U.S. forces — not their departure — that ultimately hampers the prospects for peace in Afghanistan as Biden looks for a way out.