February 25, 2021

IntelBrief: Biden Administration Seeks Out Least Bad Option in Afghanistan

(AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • As the Biden administration deliberates on its next step in Afghanistan, the deadline for U.S. troops to withdraw is currently set for this May.
  • There are legitimate concerns that a full withdrawal of U.S. troops would result in the Taliban seizing control of Afghanistan militarily and politically.
  • If the U.S. withdraws and Afghanistan devolves into outright civil war, terrorist groups will inevitably take advantage of the collapse of the state.
  • The Afghanistan Study Group warned that a May withdrawal would “hand a victory to the Taliban.”

The deadline for U.S. troops to withdraw from Afghanistan is approaching fast, set for this May, despite high levels of violence. However, few believe the Biden administration will follow through, arguing that the Taliban has not held up its end of the deal to reduce violence. Accordingly, the Biden administration could seek to push back the deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops by another 6 months, perhaps longer. This could be posed as an opportunity for the Taliban to follow through on its commitment to reduce violence. While the talks have been progressing, the Taliban has relentlessly attacked Afghan National Security Forces. An extended deadline would also buy Washington more time to craft a strategy geared toward what Biden administration officials have labeled a ‘responsible conclusion’ to the two-decade long conflict. Any strategy to stabilize Afghanistan will require a commitment from regional partners, another area where U.S. diplomats are scrambling to build consensus.

During his time as both Vice President and Senator, President Biden argued forcefully for a limited American footprint in Afghanistan, pushing back against the influential cadre of top U.S. military officials that favored a counterinsurgency strategy. Biden, by contrast, cautioned against Obama’s troop surge. He instead favored a counterterrorism strategy that was much leaner and focused narrowly on preventing Afghanistan from once again being used as a launching pad for transnational terrorist attacks. At this stage, many worry that a full withdrawal of American troops would result in the Taliban seizing control of Afghanistan militarily, overcoming the Afghan government and Afghan security forces. Since the Taliban has not severed its relationship with al-Qaeda, and has demonstrated no intention to do so, a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan would once again become hospitable terrain for al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups. The image of al-Qaeda militants once again using Afghanistan as a safe haven would be a major propaganda and logistical victory for the jihadists. The optics are amplified by the twenty-year anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001 six months away.

One of the most common criticisms levied against the Trump administration’s deal with the Taliban was that it mostly sidelined the Afghan government; yet, it still committed the United States to withdraw its troops, thus attenuating U.S. leverage. Another major question is what will happen to NATO troops once the U.S. withdraws. Few expect the remaining 8,000 NATO troops to remain in the country without a U.S. presence. The absence of any U.S. or NATO troops could embolden terrorist and insurgent groups. The Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) also maintains a presence in Afghanistan, despite recent setbacks in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces. If the U.S. withdraws and Afghanistan devolves into outright civil war, it could provide IS-K with the operational space necessary to rejuvenate its network and take advantage of the collapse of the state.

The Biden administration kept Zalmay Khalilzad in his role as Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, bringing continuity to the ongoing negotiations. Khalilzad has been vocal in urging for a “conditions-based strategy” when it comes to moving forward with the next phase of the peace talks. One of the most glaring challenges is that the overall level of violence remains high, especially violence against civilians. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), civilian casualties in November 2020 reached record levels since at least 2009 when the U.N. began documenting this metric. The Afghanistan Study Group, co-chaired by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, warned that a May withdrawal would “hand a victory to the Taliban.” The U.S. Depart of Defense (DoD) is reportedly preparing numerous options for President Biden to review, ranging from a complete U.S. troop withdrawal to maintaining current force levels, and perhaps several alternatives for a phased withdrawal. Based on past positions, President Biden may favor a lean counterterrorism-centric strategy for any extended presence in Afghanistan.