Politics

An Endgame in the Endless War

The Biden administration looks for a way to get out—and stay out—of Afghanistan.

A man in camouflage holds a rifle while tanks can be seen in the background.
A U.S. soldier stands guard at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan on Jan. 23, 2018. Shan Marai/AFP via Getty Images

When Americans call Afghanistan an “endless war,” they are generally referring to the conflict that began with the U.S.-led invasion of the country in 2001—an event many of the U.S. troops now there may barely remember, if they were even alive for it. In fact, this understates things. Afghanistan has been in a state of ever-mutating war for more than 40 years, with various levels of American involvement throughout.

Last year, the Trump administration attempted to bring an end to the 20-year portion of the war by striking an agreement with the Taliban for the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops from the country by May 1, 2021. Technically speaking, that deadline is still in place. But at his first press conference as president last week, Joe Biden all but confirmed what’s been obvious for some time: U.S. troops will still be in the country in May. “It’s going to be hard to meet the May 1 deadline,” he said. “Just in terms of tactical reasons, it’s hard to get those troops out.”

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It’s true that such a withdrawal would take months to carry out, but this answer was also somewhat misleading, given that the administration has been in office for more than two months and could have ordered withdrawal preparations immediately had it wanted to.

Biden is a longtime skeptic of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan—almost alone among Barack Obama’s senior officials, he opposed the 2009 troop “surge”—but he also doesn’t particularly relish watching the country collapse, or the Taliban take power, after the U.S. leaves. This has led to a last-ditch effort to forge a peace agreement between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Afghan government. However, Biden also said that he “can’t picture” U.S. troops being in Afghanistan next year, which gives diplomats just a matter of months to end the 40-year war. It’s a tall order.

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“Again we are in this same pattern where it’s U.S. thinking and U.S. timetables that are determining what’s happening in Afghanistan,” says Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. “It’s a bit like the U.S. government shedding responsibility for the china shop they have broken.”

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In fairness, the Biden team was left in an agonizing position by its predecessor. In February 2020, the Trump administration’s negotiators reached what was optimistically called the “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” with representatives of the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. Under the deal, the U.S. committed to a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, and until now it has been following that timetable. Around 2,500 American troops remain in the country, and under the deal, they are to be out on May 1. (There are also about 6,500 troops from other NATO countries, who would likely follow the Americans to the exit.) In return, the Taliban pledged to refrain from attacking U.S. troops and to “send a clear message” that it was cutting ties with terrorist groups like al-Qaida. It has mostly stuck to the first part of the deal—no Americans have been killed in combat in Afghanistan in the past year—but not the second. There’s been no public disavowal of al-Qaida, and Afghan forces killed one of the group’s senior commanders, who was allegedly being sheltered by the Taliban, in October.

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The Taliban also made vague commitments in Doha toward a reduction of violence, which has definitely not happened: The number of attacks by the group increased significantly late last year, and they’ve been much deadlier. The deal called for peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government to begin in March of 2020, but because of various disagreements, they didn’t start until September, by which time both sides had one eye on the U.S. presidential election and little incentive to give ground. Now, the clock is ticking.

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Afghan officials claim the country’s military can hold its own without U.S. support, but it’s barely doing that now. According to Long War Journal’s map based on open-source reporting, the Taliban now fully control 75 of the country’s 398 districts and partially control 187 of them. The government controls most of the urban centers, though the Taliban have been making inroads, even in Kabul. The fear is that if the government falls, it could hasten a return to either the Taliban’s harsh theocratic rule or the kind of all-consuming civil war that wracked the country in the 1990s. Two decades of gains for Afghan women could be lost, ethnic and religious minorities could face persecution, a new refugee crisis could begin, terrorist groups like al-Qaida and ISIS would exploit the chaos for their own gain. Biden is no doubt thinking about the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, and their return three years later after the rise of ISIS. Another precedent could be the collapse of the Soviet-backed Afghan government a few years after Russian troops left in 1989.

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The current U.S. troop commitment might seem like a small price to prevent such a scenario, given the lack of casualties in recent months. Until recently, more U.S. troops were deployed in D.C. to maintain order in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. The U.S. has far larger troop presences in Japan, South Korea, and Germany, decades after fighting ended in those countries. The difference in Afghanistan is that if the deadline passes and American troops are still in the country, they could once again come under attack. “Come May 1st, if we are still here, I think it’s game on for the Taliban,” one U.S. officer recently told the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins. The administration is coming under increasing lobbying pressure from members of Congress and some veterans’ groups to bring the rest of the troops home, if not by May 1, then as soon as possible.

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This has led to hopes that the U.S. can help turn the tide at the negotiating table rather than on  the battlefield. Zalmay Khalilzad, the special representative for Afghanistan who stayed on from the Trump administration and has been involved in Afghanistan policy in various capacities since the 1980s, has been shuttling between both sides as well as regional powers ahead of a planned peace conference in Istanbul sometime later this month. (Khalilzad’s attendance at a Russian government–hosted peace conference in Moscow last month was widely seen as a sign that the Biden administration is open to cooperating on Afghanistan with regional powers it’s otherwise at odds with.)

Presumably, priority No. 1 is getting the Taliban to agree to at least some extension of the troop withdrawal date. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also tried to dial up the pressure on the Afghan government with a letter to President Ashraf Ghani—which was quickly leaked—urging him to rapidly move to negotiations with the Taliban on “governance, power-sharing, and essential supporting principles.” The letter warned that the U.S. “has not ruled out any option” including a full troop withdrawal on May 1.

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In Afghanistan, many saw this as handing a diplomatic victory to the Taliban by bullying the Afghan government into making concessions based on an American timetable. “The Trump administration very effectively disincentivized the Taliban from making any good-faith effort, and the Biden administration unfortunately, due to its apparent haste, is compounding this,” says Muska Dastageer, a professor of gender, peace, and security at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul. “Any sort of time-bound commitment that divorces the matter of U.S. troop withdrawal from progress in negotiations will fail.”

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Also leaked last month was a draft U.S. proposal for a peace agreement, including a structure for a new power-sharing interim government, which would replace the current government. Given the situation on the ground, it’s now generally accepted that Afghanistan’s future political order will have to include the Taliban. But some experts worry it will be hard to forge an agreement that’s both sustainable and inclusive with the threat of troop withdrawals hanging over the process.

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The administration’s proposal “would have had a greater likelihood of success than now if it had been introduced in October,” says Madiha Afzal, an analyst at the Brookings Institution. “The problem is it’s asking so much, so fast, that it’s unlikely to be effective.”

Since the current American power-sharing plan would necessarily require Ghani to step down, he’s unsurprisingly unhappy with the proposal and has put forward an alternative: The Taliban agree to a cease-fire, and he’ll call for early elections under the current constitutional system.

The Taliban have also expressed skepticism about the idea, with a spokesman telling Al Jazeera that the country has had American-brokered transitional governments before that have not “solved the country’s problems” and that what’s needed is “an Islamic system that is strong and independent.”

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It’s a little unclear what sort of government the Taliban want for Afghanistan. When they previously controlled the country, from 1996–2001, there was no written constitution and they have been vague about their goals beyond the removal of U.S. troops. While the movement’s leaders continue to say reestablishing this emirate is their goal, it’s also widely thought that they accept that this time around they will have to accept some level of pluralism and engage with other political forces in the country.

The U.S. proposal tries to bridge the gap between the two sides by including both elected leadership and rights guarantees for women and minorities as well as a new “High Council for Islamic Jurisprudence” to “provide Islamic guidance on social, cultural, and other contemporary issues.” In an ironic twist, the American government is looking to set up something that looks an awful lot like the government of its regional foe, Iran.

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It’s far from clear if the Taliban would agree even to this limited form of democracy. “I don’t believe anybody knows the answer to that question, and that may be partly because the Taliban don’t fully know the answer to that question,” says Alex Thier, a former USAID Afghanistan specialist and expert on the country’s constitution. “They are not a monolith. They have been a violent revolutionary movement for much of their history. Embracing bureaucracy, the constitution, the rule of law, and certainly equal rights for women and minorities and the right to vote—that’s not something they’ve ever shown the capability of doing. It doesn’t mean they can’t. It does mean that it’s uncertain.”

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Dastageer says: “The ambiguity is not reassuring to a population which still lives with the trauma of what the Taliban did, especially to girls, women, and minorities, when it held power. That record is one we all know and it is a harrowing one.”

While it may often seem as if nothing ever changes in Afghanistan, the Biden team is, to its credit, trying something different from its predecessors. After the initial invasion, the Bush administration, anxious to move on to the project it was actually excited about in Iraq, neglected the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and undermined the Afghan government by funneling money to local warlords to fight terrorists—or at least whoever the warlords said were terrorists—on its behalf. The Obama administration tried to gain military leverage over the Taliban with a troop surge before starting negotiations, but as Biden correctly predicted, that leverage didn’t last. Trump cut the government of Afghanistan out of the equation entirely, negotiating directly with the Taliban.

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“Betting on Afghan peace is always a risky proposition,” says Thier “But I do think there is a moment of opportunity. What is new is that because of the sense of a withdrawal deadline, because of the new administration, and because of some strong signals from the region that there is interest in a more stable Afghanistan, there’s an opportunity that hasn’t existed for a while.”

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American officials often portray Afghanistan as simply ungovernable, and its government as hopelessly corrupt and unable to gain popular legitimacy. There’s some truth to this, but Americans have also played a role in making the country ungovernable. In the 1980s, U.S. funded the Mujahedeen rebels that went on to overthrow the country’s government. Then it invaded to overthrow the Taliban government that eventually replaced it. Then, more often than not, it sidestepped the Afghan government it had helped install. While there’s an argument to be made that the U.S. has a responsibility to help build a more sustainable political order this time around, the question is whether it’s simply too late.

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The hope is that the two sides can find at least enough common ground to agree to a permanent cease-fire that would stop the bloodshed and allow for negotiations and, perhaps, for international troops to withdraw. There are precedents for such agreements. Former insurgent groups including Nepal’s Maoists and Colombia’s FARC have (mostly) reconstituted themselves as legal political parties after signing peace deals bringing an end to long civil wars.

But agreements like these take years to forge. It’s possible that the diplomatic approach might eventually bear fruit, but it’s hard to imagine it happening in time for the U.S. to make a clean withdrawal before the end of 2021.

“If you really want to address the internal problems in Afghanistan, you really need to sit down and have negotiations about the details,” says Ruttig. “It’s better than having a quick fix where we go home and everything starts anew and we have to deal with Afghanistan again in 10 years.”

It’s often been written in recent weeks that Biden has no good options in Afghanistan. He seems, for now at least, to have ruled out both sending more troops into Afghanistan or immediately withdrawing them, hoping the diplomats can deliver a middle ground solution. But if the fledgling peace talks fail, attacks on U.S. troops resume, and the Taliban start to gain ground more rapidly, the choices are only going to get worse.

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