President Biden announced Wednesday his intention to complete the withdrawal of all American military forces from Afghanistan by September, 20 years after the terrorist attacks that led to American armed forces first going there. He based his decision on three considerations: that the United States has other priorities at home and abroad — above all, increasingly tense relations with China; that it makes little sense to maintain an indefinite troop commitment to one country when terrorism is a global phenomenon; and that there is no reason to believe that the conditions many have set for U.S. withdrawal, namely a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban, will ever be met.
The first two of these assessments are unconvincing: Indeed, the United States has a range of priorities, but it can meet them without withdrawing the roughly 2,500 troops (with other coalition forces following suit) from Afghanistan. And, yes, Afghanistan is hardly the only place where terrorists could train and carry out attacks against U.S. interests, but the historic support of a neighboring state, i.e. Pakistan, makes Afghanistan more lethal than other venues where nonstate actors operate without meaningful state support or cover. As outlined in the Afghanistan Study Group report presented to Congress this year (one of us, Meghan, was a member of the study group), experts assess that al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and other groups that have operated in Afghanistan could reconstitute and pose a threat to the American homeland 18 to 36 months after a U.S. withdrawal.
We agree that the prospects for a peace agreement are dim but believe the third argument misses the point. The most basic rationale for continued U.S. military presence is not to bring about a peace agreement or a military victory. Rather, it is to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a terrorist safe haven, something more likely to materialize if the Taliban comes to control much of the country’s territory.
The first aim of U.S. policy moving forward should be to see that this does not happen. This will require long-term economic and military aid for the government, some of it conditioned on political and institutional reforms. The collapse of the government, and the Afghan military — in time, a genuine prospect without the presence of coalition troops — would be an invitation to the Taliban and other groups to use Afghan territory to advance terrorist aims. The Biden administration also needs to secure an alternative arrangement in the region that allows it to project power and advance counterterrorism operations if necessary.
The United States should also make clear that it expects the Taliban to live up to the commitments contained in the February 2020 agreement it signed with the United States. In this deal, the Taliban pledged that it would not “allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qaeda, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.” Given how the Taliban has selectively implemented its responsibilities as laid out in the agreement, it should not be allowed to argue that the four-month delay in the U.S. departure constitutes an abrogation of the document.
The second goal of American policy in the wake of the withdrawal announcement should be to support efforts to pursue peace, but not at the expense of the Afghan government. This will require a recalibration of the U.S. approach, which right now places too much pressure on the Afghan government to yield power to a national unity government. Ultimately, any lasting peace in Afghanistan will involve some sustainable division of power, territory and resources among Afghans — including the Taliban. Washington must be careful not to weaken the Afghan government — which remains central to constraining the activity of terrorist groups — in the somewhat fanciful hope of brokering a viable coalition government in the near term.
A third goal of U.S. policy should be to support and protect Afghan civilians and civil society as best as possible, even after a U.S. military departure. Delivering humanitarian aid and other support will present an enormous challenge — particularly if Afghanistan becomes mired in full-blown civil war, or if the government in Kabul were to fall. In that event, the U.S. Embassy would probably be shuttered, and international humanitarian agencies would have to leave or operate at tremendous risk. There are, however, local organizations and international ones with local staff that deserve financial and other support for their operations under any conditions going forward. The number of Afghan refugees, likely to increase dramatically if the situation worsens, will also require significant assistance, particularly if they are not to trigger a new flood into Europe.
A fourth prong of U.S. policy going forward should be to foster greater responsibility for the outcome in Afghanistan among regional powers. There is an opportunity to do this, as few of Afghanistan’s neighbors wish to see the country plunge back into civil war. In particular, the United States should seek meaningful cooperation with China on Afghanistan, urging Beijing to use its leverage with Pakistan to keep the Taliban true to the February 2020 agreement and encouraging a cease-fire among fighting parties in Afghanistan. China has some incentive to do this, lest Afghanistan become a source of instability, particularly within Xinjiang.
Although prospects of a formal peace agreement are remote, the United States should craft, with regional and other actors, the contours of an enticing aid package, offering incentives to local parties to move in that direction. The Taliban will have achieved its main goal of a complete U.S. withdrawal without making any concessions. But its leaders know that it cannot effectively control Afghanistan without external assistance — providing such a “reward” package could constitute at least some leverage. Even though countries may be less likely to want to invest resources in Afghanistan now, given its potential downward trajectory, all six of its immediate neighbors, as well as India, have a stake in its future.
A fifth objective should be to mitigate the damage of the withdrawal outside Afghanistan’s borders. Few global leaders will see the U.S. departure for anything other than what it is: an American failure. Many will see it as indicative of American retrenchment, thinking that Biden’s tone and tenor differ from Trump’s but that his policies, at least in Afghanistan, are not markedly different. Iran is the country most likely to celebrate an American departure, and the Biden administration needs to be prepared for Tehran to up its regional meddling as a result. Russia, already testing the Biden administration by amassing its troops on the border of eastern Ukraine, could also be emboldened.
Finally, the Biden administration needs to put in place contingency plans for a Taliban takeover of the country. This would involve working with its allies in Europe and others in the region to prepare for a significant wave of new refugees that could result from a resumed civil war. Previous conflicts in Afghanistan have produced millions of refugees, primarily in Iran and Pakistan. Washington should, at a minimum, be prepared to offer sanctuary to those Afghans who risked their lives during the past two decades to work directly with the U.S.-led coalition and now stand targeted. And it will need to think about what such instability and Taliban ascendance in Afghanistan mean for stability in nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Those hailing the end of a “forever war” would be wise to temper their jubilation. If anything, this war is about to enter a new phase. Even without any ground troops there, Afghanistan will still warrant American attention and resources, given history, our responsibility to the Afghan people and the security risks involved. If the American withdrawal leads to an eventual collapse of the Afghan government or ushers in full-fledged civil war, the Biden administration could find itself needing to devote more attention to the country than it would have if the president had decided to maintain the relatively modest number of troops we have in Afghanistan now, for the long haul.