The sooner America’s national security elite accepts that US leverage over the Taliban has eroded, the better its chances of a successful withdrawal - for all parties involved - will be.
“To leave or not to leave?”
That is the question for the Biden administration, which has less than three months to go to until the Afghanistan troop withdrawal deadline. A flurry of proposals has come out of the Beltway in recent weeks aiming to provide an answer.
Most notable among them is a report by the high-powered Afghanistan Study Group (ASG), whose co-chairs include retired General Joseph Dunford — a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The study group recommended emphasising the conditionality of the February 2020 US-Taliban accord, disavowing its May 2021 withdrawal deadline, and committing to an “independent, democratic, and sovereign Afghan state.”
Some have argued that the ASG’s recommendations reflect the ties of its members to the defence industry, strongly suggesting they have a material interest in continued war. But economics, politics and psychology better explain how the study group came to its recommendations.
The group’s members are simply too politically exposed to endorse an imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan that could hasten the fall of Kabul. Some ASG members may return to political life, perhaps as cabinet officials or ambassadors — positions that require Senate confirmation. The potential reputational costs of facing accusations of responsibility for a fall of Saigon-like scenario are simply too high.
Beyond personal considerations, the ASG report — and recommendations made along similar lines by former senior officials like Madeleine Albright and Richard Haass — point toward a broader phenomenon animating US strategic culture post-9/11: the inability of America’s national security elite to come to terms with the hard reality that US leverage over the Taliban is simply eroding with time.
The Taliban's resiliency
Successive US administrations have thrown the kitchen sink at the Taliban: multiple troop surges, a brutal air war and relentless night raids, support for rebel factions, and the assassination of their leaders.
The Taliban have not only been resilient, but they have also grown stronger. The power balance may now be shifting decisively in their favour.
Since the end of US combat operations in Afghanistan in December 2014, the Taliban have steadily expanded their territorial control — even with a residual US military presence and the heightened use of air power during Donald Trump’s first three years in office.
Today, the Taliban, according to one independent Afghan assessment, control over half of the country’s territory. Yet the elite of America’s strategic community remains fixated on trying to get the Taliban to agree to a US counterterrorism presence. They advise reverting to the same old tactics to press the Taliban and finagle a revision to the US-Taliban deal.
The US military presence along with the pursuit of power are the two reasons why the Taliban fight. They will, of course, not countenance a residual US military presence. The iconoclastic Trump was able to secure a deal with the Taliban only because he possessed the will to put the full withdrawal option on the table.
For all his flaws, Trump was able to see the futility of the Afghanistan war and hone in on what America’s core interest is: preventing the resurgence of transnational terrorism from Afghanistan.
While the Biden administration inherited an inconvenient withdrawal timeline, the broader deal was more or less the best America could get. Any unilateral attempt to discard the agreement or revise its terms risks a further escalation of the war, drawing America deeper into it once again. And in the process, the Taliban will simply get stronger and the writ of the Afghan state will continue to erode.
A realistic path forward
There is a potential alternative to a full withdrawal this spring and an indefinite military presence.
In November, I proposed that the Biden administration seek a formal arrangement with the Taliban – a standstill agreement — that would keep the deal in place but revise the final withdrawal deadline. Some advisors to the ASG — subject-matter experts and former mid-level officials — have made a similar recommendation this month.
The formal justification for a standstill agreement would be to provide the Taliban additional time to fulfill their counterterrorism commitments. But it would also give Afghans space to negotiate a political transition and ceasefire amongst themselves. The window of opportunity for a standstill agreement, however, is closing.
Afghans deserve an end to their four decades of war. But reaching that end state requires flexibility and realism on the part of America’s strategic community and the disavowal of its self-serving political correctness when it comes to speaking about Afghanistan publicly — a political correctness that is at odds with actual US policy toward the country.
Former US officials invariably speak of supporting Afghan “democracy” and “sovereignty,” but while in office embraced unelected warlords and expanded the use of unaccountable CIA-run Afghan militias whose operations are kept secret from the “sovereign” Afghan government.
Despite the meaningful gains in Afghanistan’s republican era, America’s Afghan political project is a failure. The Economist Intelligence Unit classifies Afghanistan as an “authoritarian regime” in its latest Global Democracy Index. Every election in the country has been rigged and drives the country further apart along ethnic lines. In the 2019 presidential elections, voter turnout plunged to less than 20 percent.
For Afghanistan, the most realistic pathway toward peace would involve the formation of an interim government coinciding with a comprehensive ceasefire and a full US withdrawal.
That would require President Ashraf Ghani to step down. Since his path to power has come through another rigged election, his departure from office would by no means weaken “democracy” in Afghanistan and could even lead to more legitimate rule.
The status quo in Afghanistan, however, will only lead to more bloodshed and, ultimately, a dishonourable exit for the United States.
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