January 27, 2021

IntelBrief: Afghanistan: The Biden Administration Faces Tough Choices

U.S. soldiers, part of the NATO- led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) (AP Photo/Hoshang Hashimi, File)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • One of the most significant foreign policy challenges that the Biden-Harris administration will inherit is what to do about Afghanistan.
  • The United States has few good options in Afghanistan, and the best-case scenario for Washington seems increasingly unlikely to occur.
  • Voices within the U.S. national security community have been pushing for ‘responsible withdrawal,’ although it remains an ill-defined concept.
  • The Taliban is cognizant of the Biden team’s weak hand and could simply be waiting out the United States, as they have for two decades.

One of the most significant foreign policy challenges that the Biden-Harris administration will inherit is what to do about Afghanistan. Historically, President Biden has favored a lighter footprint than many of the most influential voices on the issue, including those like General David Petraeus, who favored a counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy that demanded more comprehensive engagement and more troops. Biden has been one of the most vocal proponents of a counterterrorism approach, which relies on fewer troops, a prominent role for special operations forces, and exquisite intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. But the debate of ‘counterinsurgency versus counterterrorism,’ while relevant during the Obama presidency leading to the surge of troops in 2009, is now moot. In 2021, the United States is pushing for a deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban, while struggling to formulate a force posture that does not risk derailing ongoing peace talks, but also does not leave a power vacuum that can be filled by transnational terrorist groups like al-Qaeda.

The United States has few good options in Afghanistan. The best-case scenario for Washington seems increasingly unlikely to occur. The Biden administration would have to convince the Taliban to accept an extension of the current May 1 U.S. troop withdrawal, achieve an acceptable reduction in the current level of violence, and facilitate a sustainable power sharing agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. And even if that comes to fruition, following the withdrawal of U.S. troops at some future date, the Taliban would have to honor its pledge to break from its relationship with al-Qaeda. Many counterterrorism analysts find it highly unlikely that the Taliban would sever ties with al-Qaeda, which is one of several terrorist groups active in the region, which also hosts the Haqqani Network and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and a fledgling ISIS presence (“ISIS-Khorasan”). Militants from some of the organizations maintain links to groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, just across the Durand Line. 

Even if the Taliban did break from al-Qaeda, though unlikely, Afghanistan would still face a threat from the Islamic State Khorasan Province and hardliners who disapprove of the peace process. And while the ISIS affiliate has suffered setbacks in Nangarhar and Kunar provinces, respectively, its fighters are still capable of launching spectacular attacks, including strikes directly in the heart of Kabul and throughout other parts of Afghanistan. Recent high-profile attacks last year included the deadly siege of a maternity ward in Kabul in May 2020, an assault on a Jalalabad prison in August 2020, and an attack at Kabul University in November 2020. The group’s relentless sectarian campaign is reminiscent of that pursued by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al-Qaeda in Iraq during the mid-2000s. Though currently smaller in comparison with more established terrorist networks in the region, ISIS-K could seek to play a spoiler role in the ongoing peace talks between the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban. 

The Afghan government and the Taliban are still at odds over what form of government Afghanistan should follow if a power-sharing agreement is reached. Prominent voices within the U.S. national security community have been pushing for ‘responsible withdrawal.’ However, as Laurel Miller argued recently in Foreign Affairs, that position essentially avoids taking a position and is little more than a “conveniently malleable concept that holds out the promise of ending an ‘endless war’ while continuing counterterrorism operations.” It also glosses over the fact that Washington is not the only country with a vote in how things play out. Regional players like China, Iran, Pakistan, India, and Russia all have their own designs on Afghanistan, with differing priorities and objectives and for most of those countries aforementioned, an overarching desire to see the U.S. withdraw its military. Already in Central Asia, Russia and China are dominating regional security and counterterrorism cooperation, with multilateral or other partners less able to engage meaningfully. It is widely accepted that Pakistan has supported the Taliban through its intelligence service, the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), and would likely increase its support to the Taliban to shore up its influence following any potential peace deal. As tensions with India rise, and if Sino-Indian relations deteriorate, insecurity and instability in South and Central Asia can be further exploited by terrorist groups.

Lost in much of the recent debate on Afghanistan is that for any chance of lasting stability, President Ashraf Ghani needs to be viewed as a legitimate political voice. A U.S.-engineered rush to the exits will weaken Ghani’s position and strengthen his political rivals. Violence in Afghanistan during political negotiations has not abated. For its part, the Taliban have continued to launch attacks against Afghan security forces and are believed to be responsible for a wave of assassinations against journalists, NGO workers, and human rights activists. Militarily, the Taliban have benefited from the negotiated release of 5,000 imprisoned militants. With the United States far less active in countering the insurgents the Taliban have demonstrated more offensive capabilities and mount a larger concentration of forces in cities and along major roadways. If the United States does withdraw completely and Afghanistan devolves back into civil war, Washington will need to find a way to work closely with countries in the region on counterterrorism cooperation, while also retaining the capability to launch strikes from bases outside of the country. Moreover, it will be important to find ways of protecting what human rights and civil liberties gains have been made, as they were a strong component of U.S. rhetoric justifying a large presence in the region. Leaving partners in civil society and women’s groups vulnerable to revenge by the Taliban will further discredit the US in the wider region.

Public support in the United States for a continued presence in Afghanistan has been declining for years. To date, the United States has lost 2,400 troops in combat and, according to some estimates spent more than $2 trillion prosecuting the war, with little to show for that investment of blood and treasure. The Taliban is cognizant of the Biden administration’s weak hand, and could simply be waiting out the United States, bringing to mind a saying apparently popular among Taliban commanders: “You have the watches, but we have the time.”