In December 2019, Congress established the Afghanistan Study Group and tasked it with identifying policy recommendations that “consider the implications of a peace settlement, or the failure to reach a settlement, on U.S. policy, resources, and commitments in Afghanistan.” The Study Group’s report, released on February 3, 2021, concluded that there is a real opportunity to align U.S. policies, actions, and messaging behind achieving a durable peace settlement to end four decades of violent conflict in Afghanistan. This new approach would protect U.S. national interests in Afghanistan and the region by reducing terrorist threats, promoting regional stability, and protecting important gains in human rights and democratic institutions that have been made in Afghanistan. Active regional diplomacy could help generate a consensus among Afghanistan’s neighbors that all would benefit in both economic and security terms from supporting and sustaining peace in Afghanistan rather than fueling conflict through proxies.
Ultimately, concluding a sustainable peace agreement will be the responsibility of the Afghan parties to the ongoing negotiations, but the United States can play a key role in determining if this opportunity is taken. A responsible, predictable, and coherent set of U.S. actions could greatly increase the chances of a peaceful resolution to forty years of conflict; a rash and rushed approach could increase the chances of a breakdown of order in Afghanistan that threatens the security and interests of the United States and its allies.
The Study Group began its work in April 2020, shortly after the United States and the Taliban signed the Doha agreement that led to the current negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Those negotiations have created a pathway to peace, one that the Study Group believes can allow the return of our men and women in uniform under conditions that honor the sacrifices that have been made and that protect U.S. interests. But if that opportunity is to be fully exploited, there needs to be a significant revision of U.S. policy.
The most important revision is to ensure that a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops is based not on an inflexible timeline but on all parties fulfilling their commitments, including the Taliban making good on its promises to contain terrorist groups and reduce violence against the Afghan people, and making compromises to achieve a political settlement.
Other elements of this policy revision are:
- An immediate diplomatic effort to extend the current May 2021 withdrawal date in order to give the peace process sufficient time to produce an acceptable result.
- A recognition that, in addition to conducting counterterrorism operations and supporting the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, a key objective of the ongoing U.S. military presence is to help create conditions for an acceptable peace agreement. The February 2020 Doha agreement and the subsequent troop reductions clearly demonstrated that the United States is prepared to withdraw from Afghanistan. It should not, however, simply hand a victory to the Taliban.
- Continued basic support, with other donors, for the essential institutions of the Afghan state, including security institutions, while continuing to message our Afghan partners that this support is not open-ended and is conditioned on progress in the peace talks. A key consideration of the Study Group was that while we support the values of the Afghan government and recognize that its collapse could create significant problems for the region and beyond, U.S. decisions about America’s presence in Afghanistan cannot be held hostage to the divisions, ineffectiveness, corruption, and shortsightedness that the Afghan government has too often displayed.
- Continued support for courageous members of Afghan civil society who have been instrumental in securing essential gains in rights, education, and health and who have been and will continue to be key in supporting a sustained peace.
- A reemphasis on diplomacy and negotiation, including a regional diplomatic strategy implemented over the longer term. There is broad regional support for a U.S. withdrawal that is responsible rather than precipitate and chaotic. Many countries in the region, especially Pakistan, have influence over the Taliban and other participants in the peace process. They should actively use this influence to make the peace process successful because they will ultimately benefit from its success.
- The harnessing and coordination of international support for a post-agreement Afghan state. Donors who, with us, have helped rebuild Afghanistan over the past twenty years are willing, based on certain conditions, to also sustain support for a post-agreement Afghan state. These efforts must be unified and coherent.
By focusing on the single objective of achieving an acceptable peace agreement that ends the conflict between the Taliban and the Afghan government, U.S. messaging, policies, and actions can finally be aligned. The purpose of the U.S. troop presence should also be clear: not to pursue an endless war but to support a peace process that will allow American troops to return home under conditions that guarantee our national interests.