December 22, 2020

IntelBrief: Echoes of Mistakes Past: Afghanistan on the Biden Administration Agenda

US soldiers carry the flags after a Changing Command ceremony of Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan at the General Staff College in Kabul, Afghanistan (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Few foreign policy issues present as much of a sense of urgency for the Biden administration as the future of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.
  • Too often the focus is on the U.S. and its commitments, without recognizing that the Taliban has failed to uphold its end of the deal.
  • The Biden administration should reconsider any further troop drawdown in light of the Taliban’s refusal to halt attacks against major population areas.
  • Despite public fatigue with America’s longest war, premature withdrawal for the sake of withdrawal in Afghanistan harkens to parallels in the U.S. drawdown from Iraq in 2011 and the rise of the Islamic State.

As the Biden administration prepares to take office, few foreign policy issues present as much of a sense of urgency as U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. During his four years in office, President Trump repeatedly pushed to draw downAmerican involvement in South Asia, his views starkly at odds with prominent figures in his administration. Among the critics of his position was former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who favored a more robust U.S. presence. By the time he leaves office in a few weeks, Trump will have reduced the U.S. troop presence to merely 2,500. This comes even as Afghanistan is seeing a massive spike in the number of insurgent attacks each month, according to reports from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). There are also growing concerns that the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) could expand its influence in Afghanistan and attract Taliban fighters disgruntled with the prospect of negotiations. Thus, the Biden administration faces a tough choice—whether to continue reducing U.S. involvement in Afghanistan despite such tactics, or to become more engaged as the Taliban and the Afghan government work to reach a political agreement in the Intra-Afghan negotiations.

It remains unclear exactly which path the Biden administration will pursue in Afghanistan, especially as a number of other pressing foreign policy challenges will also dominate the agenda. Such competing challenges range from deciding whether to seek to reenter the Iran nuclear deal and how to approach North Korea, to meeting the geopolitical challenges from strategic competitors like China and Russia, and resolving tensions in the Middle East. Moreover, events in Afghanistan will impact regional security in South and Central Asia, which may raise further challenges for the U.S. This will all be set against the backdrop of the yet-unknown social, political and economic impacts of the pandemic, and questions about the trajectory of transnational terrorism and violent non-state actors. The United Nations maintains a presence with a modest political role, but is not mandated for a more muscular role beyond that. According to the terms reached in talks between the United States and the Taliban ahead of ongoing Intra-Afghan negotiations, Washington is slated to remove U.S. military forces by May 2021, less than six months from now. Yet, entirely too much of the analysis about negotiations in Afghanistan focus on what the United States has promised to do, without recognizing that the Taliban has failed to uphold its end of the deal. In some instances, the Taliban has not been asked to make any meaningful concessions in return for guarantees from the U.S. Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad. In a future Afghan government dominated by the Taliban, there are legitimate concerns over the rolling back of hard fought political, social, and gender rights achieved over the past two decades.

Given public fatigue with America’s longest war, a growing chorus of policymakers and pundits are arguing for a complete U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan irrespective of the situation on the ground. Still, others believe that a withdrawal, especially a hasty withdrawal absent concrete concessions from the Taliban, would bring Afghanistan full circle. The Biden administration should reconsider any further troop drawdown in light of the Taliban’s refusal to halt attacks against major population areas, which it committed to do per the terms of its agreement with the United States. Adding insult to injury, serious doubts remain about whether the Taliban will actually enforce its pledge not to cooperate with transnational terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. Afghanistan could revert to the state of the country on September 10, 2001—a safe haven and sanctuary for transnational terrorist groups intent on striking the United States and its allies. Biden has long argued for an alternative to counterinsurgency via a policy sometimes dubbed ‘CT-lite’—focused on small and agile counterterrorism forces specifically dedicated to countering al-Qaeda and groups of its ilk. No matter what ultimately happens in negotiations with the Taliban, the Biden administration’s approach to Afghanistan will also have to consider options for dealing with ISKP and consequential regional insecurity.

The United States has maintained a presence in Afghanistan for nearly two decades—there is no need to rush for the exits now. There is little appetite among the U.S. population or within most sectors of the U.S. government and military for continuing so-called ‘forever wars.’ However, premature withdrawal for the sake of withdrawal backfired in the case of Iraq in 2011, leading to the rise of the so-called Islamic State, and subsequently, enabling several of its global affiliates. This occurred during Biden’s tenure as Vice President, and both he and his top advisers will be on guard against similar missteps. The incoming administration will also need to consider how to respond to encroaching influence from regional players—Iran, India, Russia, China, and Pakistan, to name a few—as these countries reinforce support to proxies and patrons in an effort to increase their respective influence. Regional diplomacy will be key to preventing Afghanistan from collapsing altogether. Without the credible threat of hard power in the form of counterterrorism capabilities and support to Afghan forces, Washington will lack the leverage necessary to facilitate a peaceful next stage in Afghanistan. Similarly, such hard power signals will prove critical to jostle for position among the key stakeholders preparing for the next chapter of the ‘great game’ in South Asia.