Last week, the Congressionally-mandated Afghanistan Study Group issued its recommendation that the Biden administration abandon the US-Taliban agreement signed last February in favor of a conditions-based withdrawal without a deadline. But any unilateral decision to ignore the May 2021 withdrawal deadline will sabotage an already beleaguered peace process and drag Washington back into a failed counterinsurgency in Afghanistan yet again.
A valid case can be made that the Taliban have not fully lived up to all conditions within the US-Taliban agreement, including fully cutting all ties with al-Qaida. Taliban-inflicted violence is also surging in Afghanistan, including a campaign of targeted killings. The agreement, however, did result in no US combat deaths over the last year. This was not the case for Afghan security forces, which have reportedly lost 20,000 lives in the last two years. Intra-Afghan negotiations are struggling at best and Afghanistan remains violent, but walking away from the US-Taliban agreement all but guarantees a return to the failed US-led counterinsurgency of the last two decades.
The trouble with conditioning a withdrawal on factors such as violence reduction, a political settlement, or even the Taliban’s willingness to take certain counterterrorism steps, is that it forces Washington to wait idly by for actions outside of its control — and that may never come. Instead, the Biden administration should ask itself whether it can accept the consequences of unilaterally violating the agreement by remaining past May 2021. Unless it is willing to once again accept US combat deaths and spend billions on a counterinsurgency, then the answer is an emphatic no.
So, what are President Joe Biden’s options in Afghanistan?
THE SPECTRUM OF ANALYSIS
Most policy proposals that acknowledge the utter failure of the last two decades of US policy in Afghanistan take one of two broad positions.
The first group advocates for bringing home all US troops from Afghanistan by May 2021 in accordance with the US-Taliban agreement. Last November, Carter Malkasian, who served as a senior adviser to the study group, argued that remaining in Afghanistan with the current troop level of 2,500 US troops under existing conditions will lead to an indefinite presence because it “binds the United States to an escalating civil war.” Most proponents of this position assert that the investment in lives, dollars, and time necessary to achieve even a slim chance of stabilizing Afghanistan will require a protracted counterinsurgency with tens of thousands of troops — a strategy that already failed for two decades. This group argues that Washington should accept that it cannot dictate outcomes in Afghanistan. Instead, the United States should bring home all remaining troops by May, and transition to a strategy rooted in regional diplomacy and offshore counterterrorism capabilities.
The second group, which happens to include senior advisers to the study group, such as Barnett Rubin and Laurel Miller, advocates for a one-time negotiated extension of the troop withdrawal deadline with the backing of regional actors and the acquiescence of the Taliban. This position places a premium on achieving a political settlement in Afghanistan, but only if it can be done as part of a multilateral diplomatic effort that involves significant complexity and unpredictability.
[T]he Biden administration should ask itself whether it can accept the consequences of unilaterally violating the agreement by remaining past May 2021. Unless it is willing to once again accept US combat deaths and spend billions on a counterinsurgency, then the answer is an emphatic no.
From the second group’s perspective, Washington can offer the Afghan peace process breathing room by rallying regional actors, such as Pakistan and Russia, to pressure the Taliban into accepting a one-time withdrawal extension. If the Taliban accept such an extension, then it will indicate a genuine willingness to move toward a settlement. If the Taliban reject an extension or progress cannot be made in that one-time window, then the United States should cut its losses and return home rather than fall back into an intractable counterinsurgency.
Notably, the policy prescription of the study group’s Red Team of senior advisers, which offered an alternative to the leadership’s conclusion, most closely resembles this position but differs from the official recommendation.
The study group’s leadership ignores the advice of its advisers and adopts neither of the above positions. Instead, it calls on the Biden administration to commit to the goal of an “independent, democratic, and sovereign Afghan state” that “supports and protects minorities, women’s rights, the democratic character of the state, and a free press but that could include Taliban fighters.” This future Afghanistan should also be “progressively less reliant on international assistance.”
While this is a noble aspiration that may someday come into fruition, the delusion that it can be achieved by an open-ended US military presence marks a return to the failed exercise of nation-building. To save the peace process, the study group calls on Washington to walk away from the US-Taliban agreement that brought the Taliban to the negotiating table in the first place. It then argues that Washington should remain committed to a total withdrawal but adopt a conditions-based timeline rather than one with a deadline. Of course, the Taliban’s number one condition has always been that all foreign troops need to leave Afghanistan. Direct talks with Washington, which the Taliban view as the primary decision maker as opposed to Kabul, combined with the promise of a withdrawal, is what brought them to the negotiating table with the Afghan government in the first place. So the study group assumes either that the Taliban’s position will undergo a 180 and they will continue to negotiate while foreign troops remain without any additional concessions, or that Washington will manage to pressure the Taliban on the battlefield with fewer troops than ever before.
Both outcomes are wildly unlikely.
WHAT SHOULD THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION DO?
The study group report correctly acknowledges that any “successful future US policy in Afghanistan will need to be undergirded by a regional diplomatic strategy.” But the fatal flaw is that the exigency required to engage in the arduous regional diplomacy needed to bring about a political settlement will be eliminated by an open-ended troop commitment. Afghanistan will quickly fall to the bottom of Washington’s regional priority list while neither Kabul nor the Taliban are incentivized to work toward peace. An open-ended troop commitment will leave things at a violent simmer as the status quo of the last two decades returns.
The study group report contains some valid lessons, such as the need to design an “overarching regional diplomatic strategy” — something sorely missing over the last two decades of war. But in many ways, the report functions as a palatable and overly generous restatement of twenty years of failed US policy that does not provide a solution to the situation at hand. If the Biden administration adopts the study group’s policy recommendation, then it is missing a one-time opportunity to end America’s longest active war. In other words, the Biden administration should stick to the US-Taliban agreement and pull out US troops in May.
Adam Weinstein is a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and focuses on South Asia.