By Sean Van Domelen and Ahmad Mohibi
As the peace process in Doha continues to unfold, the newly-elected Biden Administration will face several difficult decisions regarding the future of Afghanistan. The war’s effects have been felt at every level, and with trust at an all time low, Americans have demanded solutions to the never-ending wars which plague U.S. Foreign Policy and fail to address the plight of average Afghans. However, a full-scale withdraw from the crucial peace talks would prove imprudent and disastrous for all parties. Additionally, renewing Operation Enduring Freedom is no longer a viable option. Thus, a comprehensive grand strategy that accounts for current realities on the ground and capitalizes on upcoming negotiations prior to the May 1st deadline is necessary.
Withdrawal or Reviving Operation Enduring Freedom
Withdrawing from Afghanistan neglects the reality on the ground, namely that even a limited U.S. presence in the region prevents the Taliban from establishing an emirate with its capital in Kabul in a matter of months. It would also entail consequences such as the outbreak of a civil war, fortifying Al-Qaeda’s safe havens, and the emergence of a refugee crisis. The Afghan military is not equipped to handle another Taliban insurgency; the Taliban’s forces have grown precipitously as of late, ascending to a minimum of fifty-thousand fighters. Additionally, they continue to generate hundreds of millions of dollars from the opium trade and enjoy support from select, rural portions of the country. Reviving Operation Enduring Freedom is also not a viable option, having claimed thousands of lives and burned through billions of taxpayer dollars. America will not send its men and women overseas to “get the job done,” when the proverbial goal-post keeps moving farther and farther away. For nearly a decade, the United States has clung to the narrative of training and equipping Afghan forces. This sentiment will not be dislodged, and nor should it be.
Engaging with the Peace Process
Although the Taliban entered negotiations to settle for peace, they failed to uphold their commitments, and talks often collapse due to subsidiary issues such as prisoner exchanges. For example, the original deal included the severing of ties between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, yet the relationship remains intact. The mere mention of peace fueled the narrative that the Taliban had defeated the world’s great superpower, and their refusal to concede even on subsidiary points reflects their vision of victory. With this in mind, the United States must walk a fine line between pressuring the Taliban to accept mutually-agreed upon terms without risking further conflict. Knowing which areas to pressure will require in-depth knowledge of the ever-changing local circumstances and a willingness to negotiate with an emboldened enemy. If the United States does not commit to what will surely be a prolonged peace process, it runs the risk of damaging its credibility and reputation in the long-run. Despite debates regarding ISIS’s presence in Iraq prior to 2014, the premature withdrawal and unwillingness to monitor and support the transition of power directly contributed to ISIS’s success, especially in terms of vital materials such as weapons caches and vehicles. The Biden Administration must take heed of this vital lesson.
A more viable option for Afghanistan, which achieves both the goals of diminishing “boots on the ground” presence and addressing the terrorist concerns, would be to bolster U.S. intelligence operations in tandem with a well-trained Afghan security force to uproot the safe-havens guaranteed by Taliban officials in quasi-independent regions of the country. This option also would remove the leverage held by Taliban forces who frequently bait U.S. diplomatic efforts with promises of abandoning their affiliation with terrorist groups. Additionally, the Taliban successfully managed to not fulfill their promises and place a clock on the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces; they understood that the United States, like many other great nations before it, would grow weary of fighting recurring insurgencies. If the United States leaves without creating conditions for lasting peace, it fails to uphold its promises to the Afghan people and damages its own reputation within Afghanistan. If it remains in country or increases the number of troops, it breaks trust with Americans who have been promised an end to the war.
In the meantime, a core group of U.S. forces will need to remain in the country to create lasting conditions for peace, as diplomacy alone will not solve the endemic problems facing Afghanistan and its people. A further demonstration that the United States will maintain its resolve in supplying and training the Afghan government forces would send the message that negotiations are the only path forward. Currently, the United States has not proven to the Taliban that it can dismantle its forces and build a sustainable government simultaneously. Thus, the negotiations are stuck in limbo; the Taliban understand that they can outlast the military, and if the United States does not intend to strengthen the government’s capabilities, then negotiations represent a means to manipulate the country’s future without sacrificing valuable assets. A true strategic vision for Afghanistan is not Taliban-centric, either. It incorporates Pakistan, China, and others who have stakes in a stable and secure Afghanistan. Pakistan has long refused to provide assistance to U.S. forces in the fight against terrorist entities such as Al-Qaeda, and they are seeking to alter this perception by facilitating discussions and refusing to throw support to either side, which could improve relations with the international community at large.
In short, the problems facing Afghanistan are an American problem, and given the current deadline of May 1st, the United States possesses little time to find a solution that is beneficial for all parties. The United States, despite its unparalleled ability to project power, is not negotiating from a position of strength. Some could argue that an extension of the current deadline would solve the problem. However, extensions often lead to a lack of urgency, and the Taliban need only wait until a new administration arrives or the deal collapses on its own. Finally, a soon-to-be-announced conference may address the possibility for an extension directly.
Sean Van Domelen is a research fellow on Afghan Peace Process, Rise to Peace. Ahmad Mohibi is the founder of Rise to Peace, former Advisor to State Department