After 20 years of military engagement, the U.S. war in Afghanistan is at a crossroads.
U.S. President Joe Biden faces a crucial choice of whether to stick to a May 1 deadline for troop withdrawal negotiated by the previous administration with the Taliban.
Washington is reviewing a controversial U.S.-Taliban deal signed early last year aimed at ending the two-decade conflict. Under that agreement, foreign forces are due to depart in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which pledged to negotiate a peace settlement with the Afghan central government.
Biden is believed to be mulling several options, each fraught with risks and threats.
He could pull out the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops by May as agreed, even though that might lead to the collapse of a weak and corrupt Afghan government and ignite a civil war.
Biden could negotiate a brief extension of the deadline or unilaterally decide to remain for a limited time, either of which might simply delay a possible Taliban takeover.
Or Washington could decide to extend its war indefinitely, maintaining a small counterterrorism force along with NATO allies to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS).
“This is a policy nightmare for the Biden administration,” says Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Washington-based Wilson Center. “It will need to pick the least-bad option.”
Complicating Biden's decision is the Taliban’s failure to reduce violence or prevent Al-Qaeda from operating on Afghan soil, key conditions of the U.S.-Taliban deal.
Intensifying Taliban violence has exacerbated mistrust and hampered the on-and-off peace talks between Afghan government representatives and the Taliban in the Gulf state of Qatar -- another crucial part of the U.S.-Taliban deal.
Meanwhile, the Afghan government and the Taliban are gearing up for a violent spring, with U.S. military officials warning that the upcoming fighting season could be bloodier than in the past.
Leave By Deadline
A U.S. military pullout would advance the peace process, at least in theory.
The Taliban has said it will agree to a cease-fire and a power-sharing deal with the Afghan government once all foreign forces leave -- the militant group’s core demand.
But observers say a full military withdrawal would hand the Taliban a battlefield advantage that could encourage it to continue fighting instead of seeking a negotiated end to the war.
The Taliban controls or contests around half of the country, more than at any time since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
Kugelman says if the United States does leave by the deadline, it will need to use heavy diplomatic pressure "in the region and beyond to build pressure on the Taliban to hold back from any temptation to walk away from the negotiating table."
Afghan officials fear the Taliban could simply wait out the United States and forcibly attempt to take control of the country after a complete pullout.
Observers say a U.S. exit would severely weaken Afghanistan’s security forces, which rely heavily on U.S. air support, intelligence, and logistics to keep the Taliban at bay.
“If the U.S. were to fully withdraw its forces, the Taliban would hold a slight military advantage over Afghan forces that would likely increase in compounding fashion over time,” says Jonathan Schroden, a security expert with the U.S.-based nonprofit research and analysis organization CNA.
“Afghan forces could likely hold on by themselves for only a short period of time, perhaps a year or two,” he adds.
Under that scenario, the internationally recognized government in Kabul would collapse, likely triggering fresh carnage reminiscent of the devastating civil war of the 1990s.
Pulling in regional powers and triggering further chaos in the region, a new civil war would be hard for the world to ignore, observers warn.
If U.S. troops leave and the Taliban seizes power, significant inroads in women’s rights, free speech, and competitive elections would also be reversed.
Negotiate Withdrawal Extension
The United States could negotiate a short extension of the withdrawal deadline -- anywhere from six to 12 months.
Observers speculate that this is likely given that the new U.S. administration is conducting a lengthy policy review and peace talks that were planned in March only started in September due to delays and disputes between the Taliban and Afghan government.
The Taliban has rejected the idea of even a brief extension, but a consensus is building in Washington for a delay.
The Afghanistan Study Group, a bipartisan, congressionally mandated panel, recently urged Biden to keep U.S. forces beyond May “in order to give the peace process sufficient time to produce an acceptable result.”
There is also support among Western allies. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on February 16 that the alliance will not withdraw its troops from Afghanistan "before the time is right.”
NATO defense ministers made no final decision on whether or when to withdraw troops from Afghanistan during a virtual meeting on February 18.
There are 7,500 non-U.S. NATO troops in Afghanistan. But their presence relies on U.S. logistics and infrastructure.
Kabul also wants a slower withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and the possibility of renegotiating the terms of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal that excluded the Afghan government and which is seen by critics as skewed in favor of the militants.
There has been a flurry of diplomatic activity in recent weeks. General Kenneth McKenzie, head of the U.S. Army Central Command, visited Pakistan on February 19 and held talks with its powerful army chief over the possibility of a withdrawal extension.
Pakistan is the Taliban’s main foreign sponsor and has been credited with bringing the militant group to the negotiating table.
Russia's special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, also held talks with Pakistani officials in Islamabad on February 19.
Kabulov's trip came after a Taliban delegation held talks with Russian officials in Moscow on January 28, part of the group’s recent diplomatic blitz as it awaits Biden’s next move.
The Kremlin has been accused of undermining the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, fueled by Moscow’s desire to be an international power broker and its rivalry with the West.
Moscow has said it had established contacts with the Taliban because of the common threat posed by IS militants in Afghanistan. But Washington has accused Russia of arming the Taliban, which it denies.
In the past two years, Moscow has hosted international conferences on the Afghan peace process, inviting Taliban leaders and Afghan opposition members to Russia.
In return for any extension, the Taliban is likely to demand additional concessions, including the release of thousands more fighters jailed in Afghanistan and the lifting of international sanctions against the group’s leaders, observers say.
It is unclear what a short extension -- if designed to allow more time for regional engagement and progress peace talks -- could achieve.
The likelihood of Afghan and Taliban negotiators striking a peace settlement in the coming months appears to be slim, considering the glacial pace of the talks and the huge gulf between the sides.
Meanwhile, U.S. efforts to build regional support to pressure the Taliban to stick to the peace process is a tall order, considering the number of U.S. adversaries and rivals in the region.
Biden could also opt to unilaterally extend the military withdrawal for a limited time.
But observers say that risks the Taliban tearing up its deal with the United States, ending the intra-Afghan peace talks, and resuming attacks on U.S. forces -- following a year without a single American death in combat.
“This means that U.S. policymakers, in addition to trying to restart the peace process and training and advising Afghan troops, would be dragged back into a war that they badly want to end,” says Kugelman.
“And the violence, already sickeningly high, would intensify even more because the war against U.S. forces would be back on.”
Observers warn of a political risk for Biden if he decides to stay in Afghanistan without a deadline extension: U.S. troops would be more likely to die, potentially affecting public opinion in the United States.
If the United States does not withdraw or renegotiate the terms of the U.S.-Taliban deal, observers warn that militant violence can skyrocket.
Taliban forces are estimated to have surrounded 16 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals.
“Either the Taliban will try to seize multiple provincial capitals as they have in the recent past, with the hopes of capturing one or more of them but at least making a splash in the media,” says Schroden, "or the Taliban will lay siege to those cities and conduct sporadic attacks into them in order to undermine government control."
"In either case," he says, "they'll look to advance their narrative of government incompetence and inevitable Taliban dominance.”
The Biden administration has said it supports a negotiated end to the war and retained Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan who negotiated the deal with the Taliban.
But it is unclear if the agreement satisfies Biden’s core strategic aim: to ensure foreign terrorist groups cannot launch attacks on the United States from Afghanistan.
The U.S.-Taliban deal does not include an explicit Taliban commitment to break off ties with Al-Qaeda.
The U.S.-Taliban agreement only states that the Taliban “will 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.”
The deal effectively outsources American counterterrorism interests to the Taliban, a longtime foe.
The militants have been under criticism by Afghan and U.S. officials for maintaining their ties to terrorist groups, in particular Al-Qaeda. The Taliban has denied the accusations.
“We believe that the top leadership of Al-Qaeda is still under Taliban protection,” Edmund Fitton-Brown, coordinator of the UN's Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and Taliban Monitoring Team, said earlier this month.
According to the UN monitoring team’s report last month, there are 200 to 500 Al-Qaeda fighters across about 11 Afghan provinces.
In a bid to assuage Washington’s doubts, the Taliban on February 23 issued a statement that called on its members to avoid recruiting or harboring foreign fighters.
Biden has long seen the war in Afghanistan through a counterterrorism lens. Before assuming office, he said Washington should pull out of the country, save for a relatively small number of troops -- “several thousand” -- to fight Al-Qaeda and IS militants.
“The only thing we should be doing is dealing with terrorism in that region,” Biden said while campaigning in February 2020.
The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and ousted the Taliban after that group refused to hand over Al-Qaeda leaders who were behind the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States that killed nearly 3,000 people.
Analysts say Biden could threaten to hold up the withdrawal of the remaining U.S. troops if there is no indication, or insufficient evidence, that the Taliban has ended cooperation with Al-Qaeda.
If Biden’s concerns are not addressed, he could retain a small counterterrorism force that would remain in Afghanistan beyond a military pullout, although the existing U.S.-Taliban deal includes no provision for a continued American military presence.
“The problem is that if he opts for this policy, the peace process will likely fall apart, given that the Taliban has insisted that every U.S. soldier must go,” says Kugelman.
“And this means that a small force equipped for counterterrorism, with a focus on IS and Al-Qaeda, would also have to confront a Taliban insurgency that has never been stronger.”