The United States is committed to withdrawing its last 2,500 troops from Afghanistan less than 10 weeks from now, on May 1.That's under a deal the Trump administration made last year with the Taliban. But it's far from certain that will happen. Neither the Taliban, the Afghan government nor the United States has kept all their commitments under the year-old agreement. The Taliban promised to reduce attacks on government troops and officials; it hasn't. The Afghan government promised to enter serious peace talks with the Taliban, but it has dragged its feet. The United States promised to begin lifting international sanctions against the Taliban, but when the war escalated and the peace talks deadlocked, the US held back.
Meanwhile, the Taliban has continued pushing the government's underperforming army out of big swaths of territory. And someone has launched a remorseless campaign of assassinations against judges, journalists and teachers, especially women. The Taliban denies responsibility. American intelligence agencies have told the Biden administration that if US troops leave before a power-sharing settlement is reached between the Taliban and the Afghan government, the country could fall largely under the control of the Taliban within two or three years after the withdrawal of international forces. That could potentially open the door for al-Qaeda to rebuild its strength within the country, according to American officials.
It doesn't take an intelligence agency to predict that the Taliban will play a major role in any future Afghanistan, with or without a power-sharing settlement. The Taliban controls about 20 per cent of the country with as much as 85,000 full-time soldiers. At the same time, the insurgents are active over a much larger stretch as much as 70 per cent of the country and are putting pressure on a number of key cities including Kudus in the north and Kandahar in the south. In other words, there's a good possibility that regardless of power-sharing arrangements, the Taliban will simply take over the country, much as the communists did throughout Eastern Europe in the late 1940s. Given the record of the Taliban's last sojourn in power, the prospect of a reestablishment of their rule is very sobering. But the United States has failed in two decades to defeat the Taliban with the full force of its military. Keeping a few thousand soldiers in the country is not going to change the balance of power on the ground.
'The hawks argue that to leave Afghanistan is simply unthinkable until someday when they have finished winning the war,' writes Scott Horton in his new book Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism. But they lost the war more than a decade ago, and no one who protested against Trump's drawdown had a single coherent thing to say about how staying there is supposed to somehow change the reality of Taliban power in that country.. After promising to end the forever wars during the 2020 election campaign, Joe Biden is eager to enjoy his own 'mission accomplished' moment in Afghanistan. But that pledge comes with a couple asterisks.
For one, Biden would like to maintain a 'counter-terrorism' force in Afghanistan with the permission of the Taliban. Such an agreement would parallel the arrangement in Iraq, where the government allows around 2,500 US troops to focus on suppressing any remnants of the Islamic State Biden has in the past broached the possibility of moving US military bases from Afghanistan to Pakistan where they would continue to serve their counter-terrorism function. It's not at all clear whether the Taliban or Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan would be enthusiastic about these options. At the moment, the United States is paying a relatively low price for its continued presence in Afghanistan. After last year's peace deal, there haven't been any US combat deaths in the country, which means that Afghanistan is basically absent from the hearts and minds of Americans.
The US foreign policy community would like to preserve that status quo as long as possible, particularly given the post-withdrawal prospects of 'ethnic cleansing, mass slaughter and the ultimate dismemberment of the country,' as Madiha Afzal and Michael O'Hanlon of Brookings have written. Similar arguments were made around the proposed withdrawal of the bulk of US troops from Iraq, and yet those worst-case scenarios haven't come to pass. The Biden administration is currently trying to negotiate a spheres-of-influence arrangement in Afghanistan that resembles what Churchill laid out in 1944. The American-backed government in Kabul, according to this proposal, would share power with the insurgent Taliban forces as an interim step until elections can be held under a new constitution.
Such a deal would make it easier for the United States to withdraw all of its 3,500 soldiers from Afghanistan by May 1, as laid out in a peace deal signed in 2020. Even if that withdrawal goes through, however, the institutional apparatus of the larger 'long war' will still be operational. US forces remain in Iraq and Syria, and the Pentagon eyes the civil war in Libya with concern. In all, after drawdown in Afghanistan and Iraq, about 50,000 US troops are stationed in the greater Middle East, with 7,000 mostly naval personnel in Bahrain, 13,000 soldiers in Kuwait and a roughly equal number in Qatar, 5,000 in the United Arab Emirates, and several thousand in Saudi Arabia. US special forces are also scattered across Africa, while the United States is still conducting air operations throughout the region.
But, as in 1944, the preliminary discussion of a power-sharing arrangement in Afghanistan suggests that the active phase of the 'long war' is coming to an end. The specific US adversaries' al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and various smaller global actors have more or less been defeated. Local groups that have battled US forces, like the Taliban, remain powerful, as do adversarial governments like Bashar al-Assad's in Syria, but they don't pose a threat to the US homeland. Larger geopolitical rivalries, with Russia and Iran in particular, continue to shape the conflicts in the region, but the United States has already established an uneven pattern of engagement and containment with this actors.If history is to be replayed, the United States will wind down direct combat in favor of a tense cold war and intermittent 'out-of-area' operations.
The end of this 'long war' against the architects of the September 11 attacks and their supporters is long overdue. The Biden administration is eager to focus on 'building back better' at home, enjoy a post-war economic expansion, and beef up the US capacity to challenge China and, to a lesser extent, Russia. The administration is reassessing its military capabilities to reflect these priorities. All of this begs the question: will it be possible to avoid repeating the 1945 scenario by ending the 'long war' and not replacing it with a cold war? In early February, the Biden administration also announced a Global Posture Review to assess the US footprint. Such a review is much needed. After all, did this massive apparatus save a single one of the more than half a million Americans who have died from COVID-19? Is the Pentagon protecting the United States from climate change? And all that 'forward-based defense' has done absolutely nothing to safeguard US infrastructure from cyber attacks like the Solar Winds hack.
For the time being, the architects of the Global Posture Review are thinking primarily of refocusing 'strategic capabilities' against China in the Far East and Russia in the Arctic. But that just replaces one set of threats with another, which will adjust the footprint without actually reducing it. The peace process is the best option for a decent outcome, even though it's the least likely to succeed," Laurel Miller, a former State Department envoy to Afghanistan, told me. You need a six-month extension to have any possibility of getting it back on track. The best US leverage over the rebels isn't its military presence, she said; it's the ability to show them they will be international pariahs if they seize power by force. We know that they want to have the sanctions lifted, added Barnett Rubin, another former State Department adviser.
We can begin that process as a positive incentive for negotiations The extension should be a one-time experiment, not an open-ended stay, he added. If it doesn't begin to work by Nov.1, then we have to leave. And we have to tell people in advance that that's what we're going to do.That sounds like a sensible answer. After 19 years and more than 2,400 dead, we have no responsibility to continue propping up a government that can't be made to work. But there's still a moral argument for trying to leave the right way for doing what we can to avoid needless chaos on the way out the door. Six months is not forever. It might just be enough time to give peace negotiations a chance.
Rayhan Ahmed Topader is a writer and columnist. He can be reached at: [email protected]
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