President Biden’s announcement that U.S. troops would withdraw by September 11 has many Afghans and observers warning of a quick collapse of the Afghan state and a new phase in the country’s civil war. Without minimizing the challenges ahead, the United States should avoid any self-fulfilling prophecy of imminent collapse by insisting that the only future for Afghanistan is one that advances the gains of the past 20 years. As troops begin to depart, it is an opportune time to examine three forms of leverage the United States has to promote a political settlement.
No Troops Doesn’t Have to Mean State Collapse
In 2014, the United States and its coalition partners drew down their military forces in Afghanistan as a result of the transition in security responsibility from international to Afghan forces. At the time, I was serving in eastern Afghanistan and was on the receiving end of countless dire warnings from Afghan counterparts of state collapse and criticisms of American abandonment.
Yet, in 2018, I returned to work in an Afghanistan that looked much like the one I had left in 2014. Millions of donor dollars continued to pour into the country, supporting the security forces and the development of health, education, the private sector and women’s empowerment, among other things. There had been no state collapse though state institutions were fragile. Fighting between Afghan government forces and the Taliban was fierce, but the Afghan people had recently celebrated a nationwide Eid cease-fire, catalyzing Afghans’ demands for an end to conflict with the Taliban.
Significantly, the United States was entering a new transition, having accepted we were not going to “win” militarily in Afghanistan. Finding a political solution, most notably through Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s mission as special representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, became the main effort. Khalilzad broke new ground in reaching agreement with the Taliban on counterterrorism commitments, leading to the launch of direct negotiations between an Islamic Republic team and a Taliban delegation in 2020.
Now, President Biden has decided the United States will withdraw its remaining troops in Afghanistan, in coordination with its international partners. There will still be a military requirement to preserve security gains, achieved at tremendous cost in human lives and fundamental to meeting our counter-terrorism requirements, but Afghanistan will no longer host an international force.
While it is right to analyze the risks of military withdrawal, as many have done, the implosion of the Afghan state does not have to be an automatic outcome of troop withdrawal. I would argue the state collapses only if Afghans and international partners allow it to collapse. For Afghans, this is a time to unify and strengthen their positions — with each other, with regional partners who have an immediate interest in a stable Afghanistan and vis-a-vìs the Taliban. International donors should take note of the Soviet experience, which saw the Afghan state collapse not as a result of troop withdrawal but because Moscow cut funding for state institutions and security assistance.
Sources of Leverage
How can the United States help advance a political settlement without boots on the ground? What sources of leverage can it employ?
First, are Afghans themselves. Afghanistan in 2021 is younger, healthier, better educated and more urbanized than it was in 2001, due in part to international investments in health, education and infrastructure. Women likely outnumber men. The internet connects Afghans to each other and to the world. Indeed, ties to the international community today — the result of 20 years of partnership — are one of Afghanistan’s strengths. Afghans have considerable power that is not being fully utilized, largely because too many Afghan leaders continue to put narrow self-interest ahead of the national good. We should continue to press Afghan leaders to do more to unify around a national dialogue that makes clear the Afghan government’s commitment to safeguard the investments of the past two decades. We should also champion Afghan civil society, particularly women and youth, even as we support their own efforts to convince the Taliban that Afghans are focused on future opportunity not past isolation, and will not relinquish their hard-won rights.
Second, is the money. The United States, European Union and other donors provide hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance. Humanitarian assistance reaches impartially into both government- and Taliban-controlled territory. On-budget assistance to government institutions supports service delivery: The Ministries of Public Health and Education are two of the most effective recipients of international assistance, serving millions of Afghans. International support to civil society empowers women, girls and minorities. Private sector development is the engine of Afghanistan’s future growth — revitalizing Afghanistan’s rich agricultural heritage and exporting it to markets in Central Asia and India.
The Afghans representing the Islamic Republic in peace talks know how far the country has come in the last 20 years and how much is due to international support and sacrifice. They also know how much more help is needed for Afghanistan to become more self-reliant. The Taliban, on the other hand, may at best be dimly aware of how much has changed in the intervening 20 years, particularly in Afghan cities, and will need a continuing education on the realities of building a secure and prosperous country. They should already be aware education and health care are services their constituents have come to expect — and will continue to expect from whomever is in charge. Frank conversation between the Taliban and the government (and with donors) on how Afghanistan’s development needs can be met in the coming years should be a diplomatic priority.
Third, are recognition and sanctions relief. In the U.S.-Taliban agreement, the United States commits to work with the U.N. Security Council and others, including the Afghan government, to remove sanctions. From a practical standpoint, the United States and many donors cannot currently provide assistance if it benefits the Taliban. In order for the Taliban to achieve the recognition they crave and unlock assistance, they will have to respect the progress made on issues like women’s and minority rights, education and democracy.
Beyond looking at leverage, there is other work for the United States to do, even while the future of talks is uncertain. Discussions have occurred among the United States, donor countries and international financial institutions like the World Bank since at least 2018 about how to support a peace settlement. There are three assistance scenarios for which it is prudent to plan. All three could be affected or influenced by available leverage.
- Localized “cease-fires”: Either as part of a negotiation process or as a confidence-building measure if talks stall.
- The nationwide cease-fire included in the U.S.-Taliban agreement: Afghanistan will need additional resources — almost certainly both more money and more people — to reach areas of the country previously out of reach or underserved. This phase could last a considerable amount of time and could involve international monitoring, possibly from the region.
- A comprehensive settlement: An end to the conflict will have new requirements (e.g., refugee returns, possibly) as well as expanded access for programs that may have underperformed due to violence or the threat of violence.
It is no secret that change is hard. U.S. leverage relies on diplomatic engagement with Afghan interlocutors at the local, national and international levels. A settlement that ends the fighting also begins a long, arduous process that will be traumatic in its own ways: changes to the labor market, new ethnic tensions, integration of wartime fighters into the economy, management of unsustainable expectations. The development community can incentivize peace by equating it with economic opportunity and improved quality of life. The diplomatic community can support change, even as it keeps the pressure on both parties to end the conflict and agree on a political settlement.
The Biden administration has said it will continue to assist Afghanistan and the Afghan government. Secretary of State Blinken has promised the full weight of American support in the peace talks. He has warned the Taliban that if it wants to be internationally recognized it must engage in the peace process. He has also said U.S. assistance comes with conditions. These are powerful expressions of commitment and should be taken seriously.
Karen Decker is a U.S. Department of State foreign service officer and currently a visiting fellow at USIP. She served three times in Afghanistan, most recently as deputy chief of mission from 2018-2020. These are her personal views.