Setting Conditions for the Right Outcome in Afghanistan
January 29, 2021
The Trump administration began a negotiated peace process with the Taliban and the Afghan government. The Biden administration should continue the peace process but send a different signal about the United States’ long-term commitment to a stable outcome. The new administration has a key NATO meeting in February that will signal its intentions about how quickly, how many, and under what conditions the remaining U.S. troops will be drawn down. The Trump administration’s erratic and too rapid draw down in the last year weakened the hand of our diplomats and Afghan partners. It also left allies who have lost troops in Afghanistan and shared the burden with us wondering about U.S. reliability.
The Biden administration should at the very least seek a delay of six months on a full troop withdrawal and ultimately until the Taliban have met certain conditions. The goal should be a removal of U.S. troops when conditions on the ground are met. It is not in the United States’ long-term interest to have troops in Afghanistan indefinitely, but the United States wants to ensure that the social, economic, and political gains are preserved as best as possible while preventing terrorist groups from using Afghan soil to train and prepare another 9/11 style attack on the United States.
The U.S. military presence was arbitrarily and too hastily reduced from 4,500 troops in November to 2,500 troops on January 15—the lowest number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan since 2001, and as of December, lower than NATO’s contribution. As part of a deal struck with the Taliban last February, the Trump administration pledged to reduce U.S. troop levels to zero by May of 2021, under certain conditions. While low troop numbers in Afghanistan may sound like a U.S. victory, going to zero will only weaken the country’s fragile democratic structure and create new opportunities for terror and conflict, and make it more likely we would have to return. Now is not the time to pull the plug on Afghanistan, even though recommitting or extending troop presence in Afghanistan also has its challenges.
Throughout 2020, political figures and other U.S. officials from both sides of the aisle rightly and continuously criticized President Trump for undermining U.S. negotiating positions in Afghanistan. By removing U.S. troops from the country, as well as pressuring the government of Afghanistan to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, the deal with the Taliban has increased the group’s overall power and confidence without them having to make substantive concessions. Bipartisan congressional support for Afghanistan reflects an understanding in Congress about the gravity of this issue.
Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell openly criticized Trump’s attempt to remove troops from Afghanistan in November, stating “The consequences of a premature American exit would likely be even worse than President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, which fueled the rise of ISIS and a new round of global terrorism. It would be reminiscent of the humiliating American departure from Saigon in 1975.” Similarly, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi also criticized the deal, stating “This hasty withdrawal does not appear to have a strategic plan that adequately anticipates contingencies, especially related to terrorism and the protection of our military, diplomats, and development presence . . . We can ill afford to lose the hard-won gains in the pillars of security, economic development, and governance made in Afghanistan.”
The Taliban has called on President Biden to uphold Trump’s deal and reduce troop levels to zero by May of 2021, despite clear evidence they have not complied with all the conditions on their side amid a horrific upsurge of violence. Moving forward, the Taliban may not have as receptive a counterpart as they did with the Trump administration. During a debate in January of 2020 Biden stated, “I think it’s a mistake to pull out the small number of troops that are there now to deal with ISIS.” Although recently Biden has given little insight into what his exact plans for Afghanistan are, the current president has previously stated he supports a consistent U.S. military presence of up to 1,500 to 2,000 troops, primarily to counter the Islamic State and other related terror threats. His secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, addressed his concern with a full withdrawal from Afghanistan stating the United States should “retain some capacity to deal with the resurgence of terrorism, which is what brought us there in the first place.”
The Biden administration needs to recommit to a stable outcome in Afghanistan and use all leverage available to press the different stakeholders to hammer out a workable peace agreement. In mid-February, there will be a critical NATO Defense Ministerial meeting to make decisions on the future of NATO and the United States’ presence in Afghanistan. One of the important topics will be examining the current collective troop levels of the NATO members. Currently, there are 38 other allies in Afghanistan providing troops and burden sharing with the United States. As of 2019, the Afghan government itself has a military force of 272,500 troops, which means most of the fighting is carried out by the Afghan army, not foreign troops, but it relies heavily on financial and other support from its international partners. President Biden should send the secretary of defense a clear message and commit to continued U.S. troop presence and effective capabilities as long as is needed to secure our strategic partnership with NATO and Afghanistan.
As the United States looks to the international stage for support, it will find that regional powers are invested in the peace process. China, Russia, and Pakistan have all individually expressed their support for ending the war in Afghanistan while respecting the country’s independence and autonomy. The United States needs to be mindful of its delicate international relationships.
While the Biden administration is deciding on next steps, the Taliban continues to wage a campaign for military victory. The group is working to cement control over the population through a campaign of terror aimed at civil society, women leaders, and the media, especially in cities. Beyond the Taliban, a premature U.S. withdrawal would also leave room for more than a dozen terrorist groups to expand their presence within the country, including the Islamic State.
To date, the Taliban has refused to disavow al Qaeda, and their ongoing views about the status of women and girls remain murky at best. By reducing troop levels to zero, the United States runs the risk of inviting increased terror threats to Afghanistan and compromising human rights. An unstable Afghanistan would also have spillover effects to its neighbors. If there is no U.S. presence, it runs the risk of creating millions of additional refugees in Pakistan and Iran moving towards Europe. The United States could see hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees seeking asylum in the country.
At the same time, withdrawing precipitously from Afghanistan would undermine the political, economic, and social progress made over the last 20 years. Afghanistan has been slowly weaning itself off foreign and military assistance. Afghanistan’s government revenue performance has grown from 8 percent of GDP in 2014 to about 13.5 percent today—a very significant level for a developing country. This increase is a sign that the government works, and that the society is willing to pay taxes to the government in return for public services. While evidence shows that Afghanistan will continue to be aid-dependent at some level for the foreseeable future, local industries such as mining and sustainable agriculture may be able to generate sufficient income to allow their level of dependence on foreign aid to drop much further over the medium term. A precipitous U.S. pullout will collapse the economy and the ability of the Afghan government to pay for its own development, public goods, and security.
In addition to the economy, Afghanistan has continued to make enormous social progress specifically around the rights and education of women and girls. Throughout the 1990s, many Afghan women and girls were not allowed access to an education or health care, and could not hold any kind of employment. Women were also not allowed to appear in public without a male chaperone. Less than 10 percent of girls were enrolled in primary school in 2003 and by 2017, this number had increased to 33 percent. During the same time period, female enrollment in secondary education rose from 6 percent to 39 percent. Female life expectancy also increased by 10 years, from 56 to 66, between the years of 2001 and 2017. Finally, after having a minuscule percentage of women in civil service when the Taliban was in power, by 2020, 21 percent of civil servants were women and 16 percent were employed in senior management levels.
If the United States were to leave Afghanistan completely, this gives the Taliban more room to govern. The Taliban governance structure provides a very unbalanced system of power between itself and Afghan citizens. Based on a series of studies examining three areas under Taliban rule (Andar District in Ghanzi province, Dasht-e Archi district in Kunduz province and Nad Ali district in Helmand Province) it can be argued the Taliban has improved governance, but local populations cannot influence their rule and the Taliban are not held accountable to the people they govern.
The United States has four less than ideal options in regard to moving forward with peace negotiations. A large portion of Afghans stated they support the peace process and 64 percent believe that reconciliation with the Taliban is possible; CSIS has looked at the experience in El Salvador as a model for getting a peace deal. The United States can heed the U.S.-Taliban deal as written and withdraw all troops in May of 2021. This, however, has the potential to ignite a civil war in Afghanistan, leaving the country decimated and broken. The second option is for the United States to negotiate the presence of least 2,500 troops for a period of six months, and then reassess for future negotiations. Third, the United States can extend troops in Afghanistan indefinitely until specific conditions agreed upon by the United States, the Taliban, and Afghan leaders are met. In this scenario, the United States may need to send additional troops if necessary to enforce this conditions-based agreement. The last option includes escalating up to 20,000 troops, breaking off talks, and potentially beginning a renewed drawn-out war with the Taliban. Upholding or breaking the U.S.-Taliban deal is in no way risk free and could involve retaliations from the Taliban and closing the peace process altogether. Considering the four options, choosing the moderate course of action to extend troops into Afghanistan and continuing an effective U.S. military presence is in the best interests of both Afghanistan and the United States until conditions are met and peace is negotiated.
The NATO meeting in February is a chance for the Biden administration to send a strong signal about its approach to negotiations and its commitment to a stable outcome in Afghanistan. Hopefully, the United States is prepared to appropriate resources to support the Afghan military, carry out core missions, and ensure the Taliban meets its side of the February 2020 agreement. Future troop numbers should not be based on politics, but on the United States’ own assessment of required military capabilities, the Taliban’s cooperation, and the international community’s ability to achieve lasting security goals. The Biden administration has the opportunity to retain a strong and effective military force in place and use that as part of the leverage to get the Taliban to really stop supporting al Qaeda and any other terrorists with international ambitions and to negotiate seriously. Separate from security concerns, the United States will continue to have economic, political, and developmental equities in Afghanistan given how poor the country remains even with all the progress that has been made. Nonetheless, as Afghans continue to prove capable of standing up their own security and economy, the United States can stand down, both in terms of troops and in terms of assistance.
Daniel F. Runde is senior vice president, director of the Project on Prosperity and Development (PPD), and holds the William A. Schreyer Chair in Global Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Hannah Davin is an intern with PPD.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.