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Unconditional U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan A Major Victory For Taliban, Analysts Say

Mullah Baradar (left), the Taliban's deputy leader and chief negotiator, at an international peace conference in Moscow on March 18

The Taliban failed to end its cooperation with Al-Qaeda, the terrorist network behind the deadly September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States that triggered the invasion of Afghanistan later that year.

The Taliban also failed to hold meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government over a peace settlement, refusing to budge from their maximalist positions.

And the Islamist group failed to reduce violence, instead unleashing a yearlong campaign of targeted killings against government workers, activists, and journalists.

Yet despite reneging on all of the key promises it made to the United States, the extremist group was able to secure its core demand from Washington: the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan.

U.S. President Joe Biden on April 14 announced that the remaining 2,500 American troops in Afghanistan will be out by September 11, without setting any conditions. NATO quickly followed to announce that all of the roughly 7,000 troops under its command will also leave the war-torn country by that date.

“The Taliban has achieved its most important goal without having to give up much at all,” says Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Washington-based Wilson Center. “That's how it's been all along in this very flawed U.S.-sponsored peace process.”

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about the withdrawal of the remainder of U.S. troops from Afghanistan from the Treaty Room in the White House in Washington on April 14.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about the withdrawal of the remainder of U.S. troops from Afghanistan from the Treaty Room in the White House in Washington on April 14.

The administration of President Donald Trump signed a controversial bilateral peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020 that excluded the Afghan government. Many observers said Washington made too many concessions to the Taliban without getting much in return in inking the agreement.

The deal set a hard timetable for a full foreign-troop withdrawal in exchange for vague counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban. The deal did not include an explicit Taliban commitment to break off ties with Al-Qaeda nor a mechanism to verify the militant group’s compliance with that condition.

The Taliban also pledged to negotiate a peace deal with the Afghan government, although the U.S. pullout was not contingent on signing an agreement to end the war.

By withdrawing by mid-September, the United States has unilaterally extended the deadline in that deal. But the Biden administration said it expects the militant group to abide by its commitments.

Peace Process Dead

The prospects of the Afghan government and the Taliban striking a peace deal were slim before Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces.

Intra-Afghan peace talks that began in September made little progress, hampered by deep mistrust, soaring militant violence, and a huge gulf between the sides on key issues.

Afghan security forces conduct an operation against suspected militants in the Sherzad district of Nangarhar Province on March 8.
Afghan security forces conduct an operation against suspected militants in the Sherzad district of Nangarhar Province on March 8.

Although talks were deadlocked, Biden’s announcement of a complete military withdrawal from Afghanistan has likely killed the sputtering peace process, observers say.

“The Trump administration disincentivized any good-faith efforts from the Taliban,” says Muska Dastageer, a lecturer at the American University of Afghanistan. “The Biden administration has taken it a step further.”

The presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan was Washington and Kabul’s main source of leverage in peace talks with the Taliban. But with a complete withdrawal secured, the Taliban has little motivation to make concessions, analysts say.

It was likely not a coincidence that the Taliban backed out of a high-level international peace conference on Afghanistan in Turkey just hours after news of Biden’s decision broke on April 13.

Washington had hoped to use the April 24-May 4 summit to hammer out a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

“If these conditions remain fixed -- Biden's withdrawal plan and the Taliban's intransigence -- I don't see intra-Afghan peace talks progressing,” says Dastageer. “At least not with the outcome being a positive-sum midpoint agreeable to both sides.”

Other Levers Of Influence

Biden’s withdrawal announcement has deprived Washington of its main bargaining chip. But observers say Washington has other levers of influence, including international aid to the destitute country and official recognition.

“It’s important for the Taliban to recognize that it will never be legitimate and it will never be durable if it rejects the political process and tries to take the country by force," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a visit to Kabul on April 15.

Observers say Washington is betting that the Taliban will be reluctant to seize power and rule as an international pariah, as it did from 1996 until being overthrown by the U.S.-led forces in 2001.

Afghan Army soldiers secure a military base that was previously in use by U.S. soldiers, in the Haska Meyna district of Nangarhar Province on April 14.
Afghan Army soldiers secure a military base that was previously in use by U.S. soldiers, in the Haska Meyna district of Nangarhar Province on April 14.

Only three countries -- Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates -- recognized the Taliban during its short rule. The repressive regime generated most of its funds from Islamic taxes on citizens and handouts from its few allies, including Al-Qaeda. The group failed to provide basic needs to the people and Kabul lay in tatters after the brutal civil war from 1992-96.

Kugelman says the legitimacy card is important, but questions whether international recognition is still important to the Taliban now that it has secured the foreign troop withdrawal that it long sought.

“Its recent actions -- refusing to reduce violence, refusing to attend peace conferences, staging target killings against civil society, implementing harsh policies in areas it controls -- do not reflect well on it overseas and don't suggest it's interested in building more legitimacy and credibility,” he says.

If the Taliban is committed to negotiating a political settlement that gives it a degree of power, then aid can be an important tool of leverage, says Kugelman.

“But if the Taliban is content to try to seize power by force, which would deny it any chance of getting foreign aid, then aid can't really be a potent leverage tool,” he adds.

Path To War

The NATO withdrawal will weaken the Afghan government at the negotiating table as well as on the battlefield, despite Washington's pledge to continue funding government forces.

Afghanistan’s 300,000-strong army and police force have relied on U.S. air support, intelligence, and logistics on the ground to keep the Taliban at bay.

Observers say the withdrawal will hand the Taliban a battlefield advantage that will encourage it to continue fighting instead of seeking a negotiated end to the war.

The withdrawal will prevent the United States from cooperating directly with Afghan forces on the ground. Washington has said it will retain counterterrorism capabilities after its pullout, but those assets will be repositioned outside of Afghanistan, a move experts say will limit the U.S. ability to act against threats that arise in the country.

The Taliban controls or contests around half of the country, more than at any time since leaving power in 2001, although the government controls the capital, Kabul, the provincial capitals, major population centers, and most district centers. The Taliban rules large swaths of the countryside.

Davood Moradian, the director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, a Kabul-based think tank, says there are two possible scenarios after the withdrawal.

The first would mirror the Soviet Union’s decision to support the communist Afghan regime even after it withdrew its forces from Afghanistan in 1989 following a disastrous, nearly decade-long occupation.

With military and financial assistance from Moscow, Afghan President Najibullah’s government survived for three years and collapsed only after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of its support.

The second possible scenario, says Moradian, would be reminiscent of the Taliban’s capture of Kabul in 1996 following a devastating civil war with the mujahedin, the anti-Soviet Islamist factions that seized the capital after Najibullah’s regime collapsed.

The Taliban eventually seized some 90 percent of the country, with the internationally recognized mujahedin government pushed back to a small pocket of territory from where it led a resistance to Taliban rule. The Taliban’s rule ended with the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001.

“I cannot see any scenario where negotiations would lead to a political settlement,” says Moradian. “It appears that the United States and NATO will adopt a version of [the 1989 situation] by sustaining the Afghan government and security forces.”

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.