The Taliban’s tactic of running out the clock on the U.S. troop presence may bear fruit after the announcement on Tuesday that U.S. forces will reduce to 2,500 by January 15. The Trump administration successfully created leverage by engaging directly with the Taliban to meet their paramount goal of a U.S. withdrawal in exchange for genuine peace talks and counterterrorism guarantees. This strategy brought about unprecedented negotiations between Afghan government representatives and the Taliban in Doha. A walk down a conditions-based path to peace, long and winding as it may be, had begun. 

U.S. troops in a helicopter above Helmand Province in Afghanistan Sept. 26, 2019. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
U.S. troops in a helicopter above Helmand Province in Afghanistan Sept. 26, 2019. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

But at each step along the way, the U.S. government made concessions in the form of accelerated troop reductions with seemingly little of value in return. As the current administration’s term winds down, plans for a troop withdrawal have sped up again, and the Taliban’s dream of biding its time until the United States leaves moves closer to reality. If the current trajectory continues, they can anticipate retaining their military capability to continue battling the Afghan government without taking difficult steps to eliminate al-Qaida safe havens.

Whither The U.S.-Taliban Agreement?

A review of the terms of the U.S.-Taliban agreement—which is the basis for withdrawing combat troops—shows that several important conditions have not been met. The agreement makes clear that four elements within it are interrelated: the U.S. troop withdrawal timeline, Taliban counterterrorism commitments, the start of direct talks including the Afghan government, and reductions in violence. The agreement is vague about how exactly the latter two issues affect the troop timeline. Still, the overall premise is to facilitate a political solution to the underlying causes of the war that preserves the rights of the Afghan people and the integrity of the state. A rapid, unconditional withdrawal puts that outcome into serious jeopardy.

On the positive side, the Taliban did technically begin talks with a delegation that includes Afghan government representatives as well as other political and civil society leaders, including four women. The Taliban have also refrained from attacking U.S. troops and suicide attacks are down in urban centers. 

On the other hand, the Taliban have increased the use of violence against Afghan forces and have not demonstrably broken with al-Qaida or other dangerous terrorist groups. Moreover, the slow pace of talks make it unclear whether the Taliban have any intention to reach a political compromise with the government and other political actors, or whether their strategy is to simply step up the war after U.S. forces are gone.

Taliban attacks on Afghan forces are not directly addressed in the U.S.-Taliban deal. But the militant group agreed to discuss terms for a comprehensive cease-fire as the first agenda point of the peace talks and U.S. negotiators described a clear, shared understanding that the trajectory of violence would head down once negotiations began. Instead, disagreements over rules of procedure have prevented the topic of violence reduction from even reaching the negotiation table, and the needle has risen steadily on the pace of Taliban, and Afghan government, attacks.

It is more difficult to assess the degree to which the Taliban have delivered on their counterterrorism commitments under the U.S. agreement because intelligence information on this is classified. But a U.N. Security Council report in May claims that al-Qaida retains a presence in Afghanistan. And the U.S. Department of Defense Indo-Pacific Security Affairs representative David Helvey testified to the U.S. Congress on September 22 that the Taliban “are not fully compliant, so we have work to be done there.” The Taliban have attacked our mutual enemy ISIS. But ISIS retains the capability to commit mass terror attacks in Afghanistan—as it did this month in a horrendous attack against students at Kabul University—and poses a continuing threat to the United States that the Taliban and the Afghan forces have proved unable to eliminate. 

Finding a Path to Peace

There are foundations to build on for the United States to still achieve its core objective, aptly stated on August 9 by the lead U.S. negotiator, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad: “The United States seeks a sovereign, unified, and democratic Afghanistan that is at peace with itself and its neighbors and does not pose a threat to the world.”

First, the incoming Biden administration should make clear that it supports a continued peace process to achieve a political settlement of the conflict that is inclusive and sustainable. It should affirm that there is no viable military solution to the conflict on any side and that there is no need for a continued combat troop presence once a durable settlement is in place. Continuing the nascent talks is a better path to securing U.S. interests than restarting the whole process, stepping up the fight, or pulling out.

The next administration should also make it clear that Washington’s paramount interest in Afghanistan is to protect the homeland from future terrorist attacks and that the United States will not fully withdraw troops until adequate counterterrorism commitments have been met.  This can likely be done through strict enforcement of the conditionality already contained in the U.S.-Taliban agreement. If agreed conditions are not fully met, the troop timelines can be extended.

The trickiest balance to strike is how to support the Afghan government and protect the gains of the last 20 years, which include women’s rights, while also applying pressure for all sides to make compromises that enable a durable peace. So far, neither the Taliban nor the government are eager to give up deeply held positions despite the incredibly high levels of violence and pain suffered by Afghan civilians.

U.S. military and financial assistance is a double-edged sword in this regard. It keeps the state from collapsing, but also insulates the government from political compromise and gives the Taliban an essential cause to fight against. Finding a balance that attains political equilibrium is essential to U.S. security interests, however, because the alternatives of a deadlier civil war or an outright Taliban victory are likely to produce even greater terrorist havens in the future.  Ultimately, an inclusive, pluralistic Afghanistan that includes the Taliban but gives all citizens the right to choose their leaders is the desired end state shared by the vast majority of Afghan citizens as expressed in surveys and the most recent consultative loya jirga.

Finally, the incoming Biden administration must continue to engage regional countries to support a peace process and exert their own pressure on all sides to seek a lasting political accommodation. As much as Washington differs with China, Russia, and Iran on a range of foreign policy issues, they all share similar goals of a peaceful Afghanistan that is not dominated by the Taliban, does not harbor terrorists, and does not host U.S. troops. None of these actors wants to see a premature exit of U.S. forces that leaves chaos without an enforceable peace agreement. Although Pakistan provides support to the Taliban, it too has a strong interest in avoiding an Afghan state collapse that would devastate the economy and send refugees across the border.

It is difficult to argue for more patience and persistence as the solution for America’s longest war. But important breakthroughs have been made over the past two years that can be built upon. Peace talks have begun, major regional interests are aligned, and the United States can still achieve a good outcome in Afghanistan if it applies pressure where it is needed and predicates troop withdrawal on results rather than timelines.

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