Last week, the United States reiterated its “enduring partnership” with Afghanistan during a visit of Afghan leaders to Washington. It pledged continued security and humanitarian assistance to Kabul as Afghanistan faces a rising tide of Taliban violence amid the withdrawal of international forces and stalled peace talks with the hard-line Islamist group.
Experts say the visit of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, head of the country’s High Council for National Reconciliation, achieved a renewed commitment for their country as Afghan forces rapidly ceded ground to an emboldened Taliban in the countryside.
“The Washington discussions have at least shifted attention to what can be done in the short term,” says Marvin Weinbaum, director of Afghanistan and Pakistan studies at the Middle East Institute think tank. “Whatever encouragement the Afghan government may have gotten from the assurances received in Washington, those understandings are likely to do little to compensate for the loss of American and NATO troop support.”
A Crucial Few Months
Weinbaum says the Biden administration has not offered a concrete replacement for the contractors vital for maintaining aircraft for the Afghan forces. Without this support, the Afghan Air Force will likely be grounded.
This, he says, shows the administration has been focused on shoring up diplomatic and financial support for Kabul. Afghanistan’s fate hinges on its ability to militarily reverse the Taliban’s momentum, which has seen the insurgents overrun some 70 of the country’s nearly 400 districts since the final withdrawal of U.S. and allied troops began on May 1. Nearly all foreign forces have now left.
“The fate of the Afghan regime could be decided militarily -- if U.S. intelligence sources have it right -- in a matter of months,” he noted, referring to a U.S. intelligence assessment that warned of a quick collapse of the Afghan government.
According to a fact sheet issue by the White House on June 25, U.S. Congress has already appropriated some $3 billion for the current fiscal year while President Joe Biden has requested another $3.3 billion for 2022. Kabul will reportedly also be receiving dozens more Black Hawk helicopters, air support programs, and a promise that some contractors will remain.
Asfandyar Mir, a South Asia specialist, says Washington will continue to have major counterterrorism interests in Afghanistan after the U.S. troop withdrawal.
“There is a sense that an Afghan government, however weak, is a better option than all other alternatives available,” he told Gandhara. “So, I expect the assistance to the Afghan government to continue beyond 2022 even if the numbers come down from the current level.”
Forging Afghan Unity
He says that in the long term, Biden’s emphasis on unity among Afghan leaders will remain a key prerequisite for Washington’s support. “Overall, it suggests the U.S. government wants to continue working with the republic and would like to see it pull itself together, reduce infighting in the face of the Taliban’s gains,” he said.
Weinbaum agrees. “As the invitation to Washington implies, the U.S. administration is now squarely putting its money on Ghani and his regime,” he pointed out. But he says a longer-term financial commitment will hinge on what happens in the next year.
“If the Kabul government and its security forces are able to hold on, there will be some obligation to provide continued assistance, at least at currently promised levels,” he predicted. “Should the regime begin to unravel, assistance will depend on what follows.”
He says Washington will be closely watching whether Afghan elites coalesce around the current government or a new disposition of power that could stabilize the country. But it will also be looking out for a worst-case scenario.
“If instead Afghanistan enters a period of anarchic civil conflict, all U.S. funding, except humanitarian, will almost certainly disappear,” he noted. “In the event of a Taliban-dominated regime emerging, getting Congress to go along with any forms of assistance will be a hard sell.”
Mir, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, however, sees Kabul gaining a lot of political mileage from the Afghan leaders’ recent trip to Washington, where they secured renewed pledges of support both from the U.S. administration and the Congress.
“Through a meeting with President Biden and getting him to publicly say that the U.S. government supports the republic, President Ghani signaled to the Afghan political elite and the Taliban that for now the Biden administration is politically committed,” he told Gandhara. “This [visit] was important to get Congress to keep paying attention to Afghanistan at least in the near term.”
In a major boost to Kabul, Washington is unlikely to link its future aid with progress in the now stalled peace talks with the Taliban.
“[Kabul] has repeatedly yielded during intra-Afghan talks with nothing to show aside from more intensive fighting,” Weinbaum noted. “There is no evidence that the U.S. will condition its support of the government on its making progress toward reconciliation with either the Afghan factions or the Taliban.”
Mir draws a similar conclusion. He says the visit sought to strengthen the Afghan government by emphasizing unity within its ranks to fend off Taliban advances while also presenting a united front during possible delicate peace talks.
“If the Biden administration was looking to abandon the Afghan government, it wouldn’t be making this effort to shore up and steer the fractious republic,” he said. “For now, Washington’s only viable policy option is the republic.”
Mir also says Kabul benefits from the United States’ backing as often-interfering neighbors hedge their bets in the wake of U.S. withdrawal.
“This visit sends a signal to the region that despite various concerns America still stands in the corner of the republic,” he said. “The republic will have to be a lot more resilient on the battlefield to compel a reconsideration of the region’s hedging,” he added. “American political support will not be sufficient.”
But Marvin says the visit is unlikely to alter the perception of Afghanistan’s neighbors, who have spent years or even decades attempting to mold the Afghan war and the county’s volatile politics to their liking by supporting the Taliban or its opponents.
“It might convince them, more than they had previously believed, of the U.S.'s determination to prop up the Kabul regime for as long as possible,” he concluded.