The US will withdraw troops from Afghanistan by September 11 2021, ending a 20 year long war that was unsuccessful in defeating Taliban forces. The Taliban remains a central power within the country and violent insurgencies continue to escalate dramatically. If the US aims to reduce violence and achieve political stability in Afghanistan, it should rely on diplomatic and economic sources of influence, rather than military combat and force.
US Withdrawal from Afghanistan
President Biden began his withdrawal of American troops on May 1st in the Kandahar airfield, following through with his promise to end America’s longest war and bring American troops back home. The base was stripped of sensitive technology, weapons, and equipment, marking the end of a 20 year military intervention, which at times has produced successes, but for the most part, is considered an economic and political failure. The decision will keep the remaining 2,500 to 3,500 US troops in the country beyond the May 1st deadline, breaking the past agreement President Trump had made with the Taliban in February 2020. The Doha deal under the Trump administration previously promised the full removal of troops by May 1st in exchange for certain concessions by the Taliban to accelerate intra-Afgan deals, release Afghan prisoners, and assurances that it will not allow its members or other groups such as al-Qaeda to operate in Afghani territory. Biden extended the removal to the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and unlike his predecessor, the withdrawal will not be conditional upon the application of concessions or assurances promised by the Taliban.
The Taliban is angered by the extension of the removal, and as a result has promised to renew attacks and refuses to cooperate in any peace talks or negotiated settlements until the removal is fully complete. Zabihullah Mujahid, Taliban spokesman, said on Twitter that “this violation in principle has opened the way” for his forces to “take every counter-action it deems appropriate against the occupying forces”. Late removal is being met with a reactionary and punitive attitude, and Mujahid promises- “those whom failed to comply with the agreement will be held liable.” As such, the Taliban has taken Biden’s extended withdrawal as an invitation to attack violently on forces after a year of relatively low level assaults.
Recent actions by the Taliban reflect their removal and commitment to dishonor the guarantees of the previous deal. Since Biden declared the extension, Taliban violence targeted towards civilians and government forces has escalated dramatically. In the final week of April at least 76 government forces and 47 civilians were killed, and in the first week of May 140 pro-government forces and 44 civilians were killed by Taliban insurgencies. This is the most robust acceleration of violence and the highest death toll since October. The fighting was concentrated in the provinces of Baghlan, Farah, Kunduz, herat, Takhar, Helmand, Ghazni and Badakhshan, and the most lethal assault took place in Logar province, where a truck bomb exploded in front of a guesthouse holding a group of students preparing for their upcoming exams. On May 9, the Taliban bombed a girls school, killing more than 50 people, mostly students, and wounding more than 100.
Challenges to Peace
The objectives of the 20 year war, which aimed to suppress the Taliban’s influence in Afghanistan, have failed completely. As US forces leave, the Taliban remain a powerful local actor, challenging the authority of the Afghani government, furthering human rights abuses, and waging a violent war that has killed hundreds of thousands. As the US withdraws militarily, it leaves behind a broken society and an increasingly violent threat which Afghan security forces must combat alone now. Afghanistan’s security forces face grave levels of government corruption, constant attacks, and high casualty rates that have surpassed 66,000 since 2001. They have failed to keep control of weapons given to them by the US, and even with the aid of American troops, have proven unable to reduce the territorial claims of the Taliban. The Taliban on the other hand, is well equipped and skilled, garnering economic support from various regional actors. As US forces leave and their protective military presence diminishes, the Taliban possesses a capacity to enact military force more than ever before.
The Threat assessment from the US Director of National Intelligence released in April admitted that the potential of a peace deal “remains low during the next year”. The report stated that “The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan Government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.” Furthermore, it states that, “Afghan forces continue to secure major cities and other government strongholds, but they remain tied down in defensive missions and have struggled to hold recaptured territory or reestablish a presence in areas abandoned in 2020.”
The question facing American policy makers at this juncture is if Afghani forces, which face various systemic issues, can successfully protect themselves without American troops on the ground and American aircrafts from the air.
American National Interest
The current focus of the administration is to complete the withdrawal of troops by September 11. Various fears and dilemmas will emerge from Biden’s decision to withdraw forces. The primary fear is that withdrawal will be met with widespread violence, that the Afghan forces will not be able to deter this violence, and that this will lead to a full collapse of the government. The recent escalation within the past weeks suggests that this fear is rightly founded, although further developments will reveal whether or not government security forces can handle these threats effectively. Following removal then, the american interest will shift to support a transition which does not embolden the Taliban to these dangerous levels of unchallenged violence. The US has asserted its commitment to continue to support Afghani Security forces through economic and technological aid, although the success of these efforts is widely contested and unknown.
General Iloyd Austin is fairly confident that with US aid, Afghan security forces have the capacity to challenge the Taliban’s violent threats. “We will remain partners with the Afghan government, with the Afghan military, and certainly we hope through our continued support, the Afghan security forces can be effective. They have a pretty significant capability, but it’s going to, we expect that this will be a challenge.”
Beyond the short term goal of protecting Afghani forces from Taliban violence and human rights abuses, the US is aimed at creating long lasting peace within the nation’s borders and establishing a stable political system. Antony Blinken, in a statement released last month to CNN, reaserted Bidens intention to remain diplomatically engaged in the region. He said, “we are not disengaging from Afghanistan, we’re remaining deeply engaged in diplomacy in support for the Afghan government and its people, development, economic assistance, humanitarian assistance, and support for the security forces.” The US then, will continue to support Afghanistan’s government through economic and humanitarian aid, as well as through it’s diplomatic channels.
In order to achieve political stability and lasting peace, the US is aimed at encouraging the Taliban and Afghani government to achieve a negotiated peace settlement for peaceful non-violent coexistence. The success of this is contingent upon continued negotiations between Afghanistan and the Taliban, which were put into motion in September in Doha, yet have accomplished very little. Neither side has agreed on a plan, and with the Taliban refusing to attend talks, the current potential for an agreement seems bleak. All in all, the US is positioned first, to support the military in fighting insurgencies, and second, to encourage parties to begin negotiations and create a peace deal. With a negotiated peace deal, further efforts must be made to ensure successful implementation and continued stability.
Options moving forward
In order to achieve the aim of reducing Taliban led violence and create a stable political system in Afghanistan the US may choose to engage in a variety of strategic options. The first is to invest in a militarized counterinsurgency strategy of Afghani security forces aimed at defeating the Taliban. The second option is to pursue a negotiated settlement between the parties.
The first option is to support Afghanistan’s security forces so that military capacity can rise to a level that mimics practices of the past 20 years. The idea here is to support military operations of the government financially so that they possess similar technological and developmental competence in fighting Taliban led-violence. This includes investing in recruitment and training, and providing weapons and technology. The option presented may also involve leaving a small amount of US troops, but for the most part, as Biden has promised, US military personnel will not engage in the conflict as it did before.
This pathway provides the greatest assurance that Afghanistan’s Security forces will not be defeated by the Taliban, and avoids the complete collapse of the government. Still, by applying similar levels of combat pressure, it risks resorting to the same militaristic strategies of the past 20 years. If increased military capacity didn’t produce a decisive victory with the aid of US troops, it would seem that it won’t be able to achieve this without them either. This strategy ignores the fact that the Taliban can and has countered the effects of military power, and that resounding victory is unlikely. Rather than producing a full fledged defeat, military strategies have only succeeded in producing a stalemate and in preventing full governmental collapse. In fact, the past two decades have revealed that a combat centered approach produces disappointing results that do not successfully address the roots of the conflict. With military victory unlikely, this strategy fails to address the root causes of the war which include “ideological differences, high rates of violence, weak governance, extensive corruption, ethnic cleavages, and insufficient economic development”. It is difficult to imagine how a military response which is not assured to defeat the other side completely can ever address these roots.
The second option is to remove troops by the September deadline and pursue a negotiated settlement. If the Taliban cannot be defeated in a military victory, then perhaps the second best pathway to peace is to provide a space where both the government and the Taliban can coexist within a stable political system. Various hurdles exist in achieving this. In the past, negotiations have not been successful as the leverage that US troops provided to the Afghanistan government was not enough to pressure the Taliban to make any concessions or attempt negotiations. The high rates of Taliban-led violence on army outposts, civilian lodgings, and provinces have been the greatest deterrent to both sides coming together to achieve a common goal, as neither side is willing to communicate and concede to the other. Further, far-reaching corruption in the Afghani government has postponed and stalled diplomatic efforts. Still, without the pressure of foreign troops, the potential of a political settlement may increase significantly. The conflict of interests which results from third party intervention crowds and complicates attempts at negotiations. If the US were to leave fully then, the US created tensions that prevent conference and mediation would diminish.
Reaching a peace settlement will not be likely unless the Taliban and Afghanistan agree to some form of a power sharing arrangement. In order to achieve this power sharing dynamic, each side must trust the other. This is difficult to achieve though because “each side fears that the other will attempt to capture the state, exclude them from power and resources, and use the instruments of state power to repress them.” In order to encourage a negotiation then, the US must find a way to get both parties to overcome their distrust- first by providing economic incentives to form a deal, second, by offering the resources and mediator personnel required for negotiations to commence, and third, by holding both parties accountable. Rather than using military force as leverage, they should use economic aid to encourage both sides to make concessions. The hope here is that with the full deployment of US troops, the Taliban, who has been most apprehensive to beginning negotiations, will be more open to attend the talks. Finally, efforts must be made to discourage corruption in Afghanistan’s government as this has stalled and dragged out attempts to make negotiations in the past. These issues cannot be solved through military power, and the US must rely on other forms of pressures in order to achieve anti-corruption efforts.
All in all, the 20 year war in Afghanistan has proved that military force cannot fully defeat the Taliban’s stronghold in Afghanistan. Moving forward, the US could attempt to balance the security threats posed by the Taliban by supporting Afghanistan Security Forces, but this will not produce long lasting assurances of peace. Rather then, the US should focus its economic efforts and other forms of diplomatic leverage in order to encourage Afghan and Taliban leaders to meet and discuss potential power sharing arrangements, form trust between the parties, and ensure that both sides comply with any agreed upon arrangements.