U.S. Policy Options in Afghanistan

EPC | 10 Aug 2021

Nearly two decades after the start of U.S. war in Afghanistan, President Biden announced a full withdrawal from the region on April 14. In a speech from the official residence, he had initially set a deadline of September 11 to officially withdraw 2,000 troops and any remaining contractors. That deadline has since been moved up to August, with 90% of the withdrawal already completed to date, because of hastening Taliban gains and increased instability since May.

Insurgents have already captured 200 of Afghanistan’s 471 districts, including key trade routes and crossings along the Tajik and Turkmen borders.[1] This faster than expected military advance of the Taliban will soon put pressure on the Biden administration to find face-saving formulas against accusations that it left Afghanistan at the hand of Islamist radicals after America has spent so much blood and treasure in the country in the last 20 years. Afghanistan’s significance lies not only in the fact that it is America’s longest and most costly “forever war” (during which more than 2,300 US forces died and 20,660 soldiers were wounded, not to mention the nearly $1 trillion Washington expended by 2020). [2]

The fact that U.S. intelligence community has itself made the prediction of the violent defeat of the Afghan government within six month is only increasing the political pressure on the White House.[3] With the end of U.S. air support for the Afghan military, the Taliban is now able to pounce on several provincial capitals simultaneously, max out Afghan Special Security Forces capacity for pushback, and hold several of them. Under such circumstances Kabul might fall to the Taliban quickly — and the city’s streets could see a bloodbath, as two decades of accumulated local resentments over alleged land theft after 2001 turned neighbors and neighborhoods against each other.[4]

The Afghan military is collapsing faster than Biden expected. The White House is rattled by the flight of more than 1,000 Afghan soldiers into neighboring Tajikistan earlier this month, and by the weakness of the commando corps, supposedly the government’s best fighters.[5] The commandos are trying to operate in disparate locations in this large, mountainous country — and without support from U.S. contractors, they are facing a new challenge.

With an obvious upper hand in the battlefield, the Taliban could try to take over the capital Kabul, but there are also signs that the militant group is being tactful about advancing towards provincial capitals too quickly. Instead of capturing cities like Kabul or Mazar-e Sharif from Afghan forces the Taliban appears to have opted for a strategy of strengthening their presence in districts around big cities and put political and military pressure on the government to secede. The Taliban have seized a lot of military equipment in recent months because of their rapid advances and certainly have the power to capture provincial capitals, but they believe time is on their side.[6]

At the heart of short-term US policy options is the question of how to tackle and address the Taliban military gains. Ross Wilson, the charge d’affaires at the US Embassy in Kabul, stated last month that “the thrust of US policy in Afghanistan is to do all the Untied States can do “to improve the odds” for the internationally backed and recognized Afghan government in Kabul to resist the Taliban overhaul.[7]

The nightmare long-term scenario for Washington is a Taliban dominated country providing a haven for Jihadist terrorism targeting the West and US regional allies. The Taliban certainly knows that and will try to avoid a scenario where it will provoke US air power reprisals. This awareness may also explain why an Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan is not likely to emerge in the next few months under the total hegemony of the Taliban. A protracted civil war with the Taliban having the upper hand and extending their military victory over time is the more likely scenario.

Can the US maintain leverage in post-withdrawal Afghanistan?

The United States has still some leverage with the Afghan government due to its funding of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). In other words, Washington will try to maintain leverage over the country thanks to financial means rather than military force. Reduction in American funding would result in a rapid collapse of the ANDSF and a swift expansion of Taliban power.

On June 25th, during his recent visit to Washington, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was told by Biden that “The US will stick with you and we’re going to do our best to see to it you have the tools you need.”[8] Biden has requested $3.3 billion for security assistance to Afghanistan for 2022, a slight increase over current funding. Yet, it is not clear how training of Afghan forces or maintenance of U.S.-made equipment will work from afar.[9]

Washington is still the main financial force behind the the civilian administration in Afghanistan. However, this leverage has not enabled the U.S. to orchestrate an interim unity government. Efforts by the Biden administration since April to facilitate Kabul-Taliban negotiations have produced no tangible result. The Taliban declared it is not interested in early elections — the maximum President Ashraf Ghani has been willing to contemplate. Instead, it seeks to bypass and render irrelevant the Afghan government and negotiate a new division of power “with the entirety” of Afghan powerbrokers.[10]

On June 4th a bipartisan U.S. Congressional group released an alarmed statement regarding the Taliban’s advances and on July 8th, President Biden stated that he “does not trust [handing over the country to] the Taliban” in a press conference.[11] He has expressed confidence in the Afghan army, despite the contradicting assessments from his own intelligence community. Yet, all parties in Washington clearly agree that the Taliban’s gains are problematic and alarming.

As U.S. withdrawal continues, the top determinant of US policy will be whether there is a modicum of stability in the country, either through the Kabul government or a factionalist power-sharing with the Taliban. The alternative of anarchy due to the disintegration of any centralized government with an escalating civil war is a nightmare scenario that could lead to massive loss of life, millions of refugees, and the formation of pockets of safe-havens for Jihadist terrorism. [12]

Much will depend on the extent of Taliban gains and the ability of the US-backed Afghan military and police force to defend themselves. Amidst burnout, low morale, and repeated losses, analysts have raised serious doubts about the Afghan military’s ability to hold its ground against insurgents.

Beyond the obvious issue of relative stability in Afghanistan, another determinant for Washington will be the ability for intelligence gathering and counter-terrorism operations as a test for remaining US influence and leverage in the country. There is considerable pressure on the CIA not to commit the same mistakes of the 1990s in the Afghan context when Al Qaeda took hold in the county or as in the post-2008 Iraq context when AQ and ISIS ended up emerging after the US disengagement from the country.

Policy makers and legislators in Washington want US counterterrorism and intelligence capacity in Afghanistan to endure even after military withdrawal. Bill Burns, the new CIA Director of the Biden administration, however, is not optimistic in his assessments.[13] In a realistic analysis he provided Congress in April, Burns acknowledged that after the departure of US troops there will be “significant loss to US ability to collect and act on to act on threats”. Burns added, however, that the U.S. government would still retain capabilities after the withdrawal to "help the US anticipate and contest any rebuilding effort by al Qaeda.” [14]

A United Nations report in January said there were as many as 500 al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan and that the Taliban maintained a close relationship with the Islamist extremist group. The Taliban, of course, conveniently denies there are any al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan.[15] IS-Khorasan, the Islamic State’s affiliate which no longer holds territory in Afghanistan, as it once did, has also been laying the foundation for a revival. While IS-Khorasan has claimed responsibility for several high-profile attacks in the past, especially in urban areas, intelligence officials say that both groups are unlikely to do anything that would make them an easy target for U.S. bombers or drones flying into Afghanistan from afar.[16]

To calm critics, Biden often says that the United States would monitor the terrorist threat, reorganize counterterrorism capabilities and keep substantial assets in the region to respond to threats to the United States emerging from Afghanistan after the troop departure.

Another determinant of U.S. options will be the security of its own diplomats remaining at the Embassy in Kabul and the diplomatic missions of allies. One decision the Biden administration must make within the next month is how many troops to leave behind and what role they will play in Afghanistan. Right now, the executive branch plans to leave behind some 650 troops primarily to aid the diplomatic mission.[17] Yet, as the Taliban continues to gain ground, the US may decide to retain more troops that have other functions, including advising the Afghan military and central government.

Additionally, the military and intelligence community will have to collaborate to implement Secretary Austin’s publicized strategy of “over-the-horizon” military support, which essentially involves remote aerial operations and surveillance. Washington must decide whether this will be done from existing but distant stations in the Arabian Gulf or from closer but less accessible Central Asian states (Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, etc.).[18] Lastly, the US must ensure the security of its diplomatic corps by either retaining a short-term cadre of troops or relying on on-the-ground allies in Kabul. Right now, it has done both by leaving behind the aforementioned 650 troops and collaborating with Turkey to secure the only international airport in Kabul.[19]

Given how the situation unfolds and based on these multiple determinants, the US will have a range of short and medium-term options to maintain leverage in Afghanistan. But in the very near term – within the next couple of months -- the focus will be on damage control and crisis management as the Taliban will continue making military inroads towards the north and Kabul.

US Options in Afghanistan?

The basic wisdom behind the Biden administration’s decision to end the U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan was based on the assumption of limited American capacity to alter the fundamental political dynamics in the country. Biden decided that since the US could not reverse negative governance deficits -- at the security, capacity and legitimacy levels -- the U.S. military, financial, and diplomatic resources would be better spent on other issues.

Biden always believed from the days he was VP under President Obama that the Pentagon would never admit to failure and would keep asking for more troops or a permanent presence in Afghanistan in the name of show resolve and commitment. When he was VP he could not convince the generals and Secretary of Defense of Robert Gates that an American ground war against an indigenous foe—one that is committed to a sacred cause—is very unlikely to succeed and that postponing an exit of US forces in order to demonstrate the US’s resolve or commitment to its allies is ultimately a futile exercise that will only end in weakening American regional or global influence. In Biden’s view, shared by Obama in his recent memoir is that the American experience in Afghanistan underscores the nature and limits of US military power, especially when it comes to the effective use of ground troops.[20]

As in all decisions, Biden’s choice entails major risks. The obvious one is an intensified and potentially highly fragmented and bloody civil war combined with the Taliban’s ascendance to formal power that will bring painful changes to the country’s political orientation. Much will depend on the degree to which the Afghan government can hold off the Taliban by the end of the year.

There are two major scenarios: the internationally-recognized government and the Taliban continue fighting without complete collapse or the Taliban takes control of Kabul. The latter option, collapse of the capital and US-backed government, appears to be a red line for Washington. According to the NY Times, while no official decisions have been made, “one option under consideration would be to recommend that US warplanes or armed drones intervene in an extraordinary crisis, such as the fall of Kabul”.[21]

This option of air power would require some pre-emptive strikes before the fall of Kabul and has not been ruled out by the White House. However, it is politically risky because it will reinforce the image of ongoing US military involvement in the country. The alternative of a Taliban conquest of Kabul is also risky domestically because it would expose the Biden administration to accusations that the US departure led to carnage and chaos in Kabul. In any case, the current “full withdrawal” scenario doesn’t exclude the option to intervene with airpower, particularly if there are political points to be scored on the home front for the Biden administration. Timing will be essential since airpower will cause major civilian casualties if it comes too late. The intervention will have to be pre-emptive to save Kabul before it falls to the Taliban.

In the very short-term one option that Biden may consider is to appoint a special envoy with military experience to recommend measures to assist the Afghan military in coordination with US military efforts. The obvious name circulating in Washington for such a task is retired Gen. David H. Petraeus, former commander of U.S. and coalition forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq.[22]

As David Ignatius argued on July 24th “A bloody collapse in Kabul would be a self-inflicted wound for Biden, and the first serious mistake of his presidency. Biden decided, against military advice, to withdraw the small U.S. commitment of 2,500 troops who remained when he took office. Having chosen this course, he should have planned far better for the transition and framed a clearer strategy for avoiding a Taliban takeover.”[23] Inexplicably, The Biden administration failed to encourage a continued presence by U.S. contractors who could help the Afghan army continue its operations, and didn’t plan better long-term security for key locations, such as Kabul's international airport.

If the Afghan army is able to hold ground, then US policymakers would have a much broader variety of options, especially regarding intelligence gathering operations. One option is working with Afghan warlords, who lead ethnically-segregated militias that can serve to counter terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS. Many countries, including the Russia, Turkey, Iran, and India today and the US in 2002, have equipped these warlords as proxies on the ground.[24] The Biden administration can ask Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to create a leadership council that includes all major forces across the country that oppose the Taliban. This “big tent” is likely to be the country’s last chance to gather a coalition that can check a takeover by the Taliban.[25] The good news for Washington is that few communities from Afghanistan’s non-Pashtun ethnic groups – which collectively make up a majority of the population – support the Taliban

Conversely, Washington could elect to support the Afghan government and civil society through humanitarian or military aid, typically allocated by Congress. There is a chance that the Taliban could also be co-opted financially. A generous financial package could serve to placate the Taliban, which has long been vying for international support, and encourage insurgents to participate in a factional government.[26] The likelihood of Afghanistan becoming part of America’s Great Power Rivalry with China should also not be ruled out. If Afghanistan turns out to be a major disaster for Biden, it will obliterate other seeming gains in the battle of influence with Russia or China.

The possibility of the Chinese government cooperating with the Taliban in a post-US Afghanistan is not as unlikely as it may first appear. Afghanistan remains a key component in Beijing's long-term regional development plans. In May, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced Beijing was in discussions with Islamabad and Kabul to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan, including expanding transport and trade networks between the three countries. China is not averse to dealing with the Taliban, having publicly welcomed the militant group to Beijing in September 2019 for peace talks.[27]

The Taliban is more than willing to cooperate with China. A spokesman made clear the Taliban has no interest in criticizing China over its repression of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. "We care about the oppression of Muslims ... But what we are not going to do is interfere in China's internal affairs," the Taliban official was quoted as saying.[28]

One of the most sensible options for Washington will be continued support for negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government. Turkey was planning to host a summit in Istanbul in April, but the Taliban abruptly canceled, citing a desire for US exit from Afghanistan before any further negotiations.[29] The US can encourage a rescheduling of the Istanbul Conference on the Afghan Peace Processes while continuing to support efforts in Doha. All in all, such medium-term options are highly dependent on the extent of the Taliban’s gains. What Biden could do in the short-term is to appoint a UN international mediator who can bolster U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s so far unsuccessful efforts to encourage a peaceful transition agreement between the Taliban and the Kabul government.

Beyond diplomacy, at the military level, another option for the US will be to show more flexibility about allowing Western contractors to stay in Afghanistan or near the country. There are several thousand Western contractors in or near Afghanistan. These technical and military experts helped maintain the Afghan helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. They are crucial for moving Afghanistan’s small but highly effective special forces around the battlefield quickly and coming to the aid of ground troops under concerted Taliban attack.[30]

Some remote parts of the country’s south and east, especially in those Pashtun tribal belts most friendly to the Taliban, will be effectively conceded to the adversary. Large parts of Helmand province, for example, belong in this category. Once NATO’s ground troops are gone, NATO airpower based in the broader region might be used to help Afghanistan’s own fledgling air force support its troops on the ground when under concerted attack. A major comparative advantage for the US and the Afghan military is that the Taliban does not have an air force and lacks significant air defense capabilities. Certain areas that come under Taliban control should be counterattacked at some point, if and when Taliban leaders present inviting targets to Afghan forces.[31]

Ultimately, positive US options will depend on whether future Taliban leaders, as well as their Pakistani friends, will realize that their dreams of a quick victory after NATO’s departure from Afghanistan are illusory. Only at that point of stalemate a future peace process may have a chance. Until then, the best the Biden administration can hope as a policy option will be to prevent a total takeover from a Taliban leadership that shows few genuine signs of compromising with the current government in the pursuit of peace.

Leverage of Regional Actors

Outside of the halls of Washington, many regional players will be looking to reengage the US to influence Afghanistan and provide some semblance of stability. This is particularly true of Central Asian states who are interested in preventing a resurgence of extremism or refugee crisis at the border. The best way for such regional players to engage with the US will be by opening their bases to the American military and national security community. US generals have already spoken to officials in post-Soviet countries like Uzbekistan but fear major pushback from Moscow.[32] Russia, however, sees these post-Soviet Central Asian states as critical to it strategic interests in Afghanistan and would likely take action against American encroachment.

Of all regional actors Pakistan has the strongest leverage given its influence over the Taliban. There are currently discussion between the US and Pakistan about whether Islamabad will allow the use of its air bases. Although official statements deny such a possibility due to potential backlash from Islamist groups in Pakistan. [33] If Pakistan wants to strengthen its hand in negotiations with the Biden administration, it may decide to open its airspace and bases to the US air power while denying it publicly. This will certainly test civil-military dynamics in the country. If the Pakistani military pressures Prime Minister Imran Khan to agree to help the U.S. there could be a severe rift between the generals and the civilian leadership. The other option is Pakistan using its influence on the Taliban to convince them that power-sharing is the only viable solution for Afghanistan. It is, however, unclear that the Taliban would follow to Islamabad's suggestion.

There is also the option for regional players such Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia to work with Washington by using former US military installation like the one in Manas.[34] Lastly, regional Muslim states may consider facilitating US-involved negotiations/peace-talks between various Afghan factions whether that be the Taliban, minorities, or civil society organizations. Ultimately, despite opposition from Moscow, there are a variety of direct and indirect ways for regional players to encourage US engagement in Afghanistan. Finally, the Arab League and The Organization of Islamic Conference composed of 57 Muslim states could also potentially play a role in case of a Taliban takeover by paving the road for international diplomacy in order to avoid Jihadist penetration in the country.

At the end of the day, Afghanistan’s neighbors — Pakistan, India, Russia, China and Iran — all oppose a military takeover by the Taliban. So a regional consensus for stability is within the realm of what can be achieved. The United States needs urgent help from Afghanistan’s neighbors in assembling a broader coalition government and preventing a Taliban takeover.

Conclusion

As the US ends its twenty-year long war in Afghanistan, its post-withdrawal policies will still have implications for the country and the region. Washington will closely monitor the extent of the Taliban’s gains and decide whether it will intervene in the instance of total governance collapse. The US military will continue to aid intelligence gathering missions, whether they be from neighboring countries, the Arabian Gulf, or through Afghan warlords or proxy-militias.

As this report indicates, there will be a wider breadth of non-military policy options for the US if the Afghan army is able to maintain at least part of the country. These options include military, diplomatic and economic engagement to maintain some balance of power between the Taliban, the Afghan government and other power brokers in the country.

Ultimately, it will be just a matter of weeks before analysts can fully grasp in which direction dynamics will evolve. For now, the Taliban has clear military advantages on the ground, but no one should rule out this Islamic group will show some strategic patience instead of rolling over Kabul in a rush. Over the years the Taliban has mastered the art of waiting out American forces. As one Taliban fighter has famously once stated to Americans: “You have the watches. We have the time.”[35]

Endnotes

[2] Daniel Brumberg, "US Middle East influence in Afghanistan’s shadow," Responsible Statecraft, July 27, 2021. https://responsiblestatecraft.org/2021/07/17/us-middle-east-influence-in-afghanistans-shadow/

[3] Gordon Lubold and Yaroslav Trofimov, "Afghan Government Could Collapse Six Months After U.S. Withdrawal, New Intelligence Assessment Says," Wall Street Journal, June 23, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/afghan-government-could-collapse-six-months-after-u-s-withdrawal-new-intelligence-assessment-says-11624466743

[7] "U.S. To Continue ‘Robust And Serious’ Afghan Assistance After Withdrawal." RFE/RL. June 14, 2021. https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/u-s-to-continue-afghan-assistance-after-withdrawal/31307331.html.

[9] Ibid.

[11] "Remarks by President Biden on the Drawdown of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan," The White House, July 8, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/07/08/remarks-by-president-biden-on-the-drawdown-of-u-s-forces-in-afghanistan/.

[12] Christopher Mott, "Scenarios for Post-U.S. Afghanistan," Defense Priorities, September 2020, https://www.defensepriorities.org/explainers/scenarios-for-post-us-afghanistan

[13] Greg Myre. "With The Military Gone, The CIA Faces Tough Challenges In Afghanistan." NPR. July 12, 2021. https://www.npr.org/2021/07/12/1014542248/with-the-u-s-military-gone-the-cia-faces-tough-challenges-in-afghanistan

[15] Ibid. 

[17] Lara Seligman, "U.S. Troop Withdrawal from Afghanistan Complete 'for All Intents and Purposes'," Politico, July 7, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/07/07/us-troop-withdrawal-afghanistan-498671

[18] Greg Myre, "The U.S. Looks To Support The Afghan Military From 'Over The Horizon'," NPR, May 17, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/05/17/997494815/the-u-s-looks-to-support-the-afghan-military-from-over-the-horizon

[19] Jared Malsin and Gordon Lubold, "Turkey, U.S. Make Progress in Kabul Airport Talks, Prompting Taliban Threat," Wall Street Journal, July 13, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/turkey-u-s-make-progress-in-kabul-airport-talks-prompting-taliban-threat-11626206375

[20] Barack Obama, Promised Land, 2021, p. 315

[21] Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt, "U.S. Weighs Possibility of Airstrikes if Afghan Forces Face Crisis," NYTimes, June 17, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/09/us/politics/afghanistan-airstrikes-us-troop-withdrawal.html

[23] Ibid.

[24] Barmak Pazhwak, Asma Ebadi, and Belquis Ahmadi, "After Afghanistan Withdrawal: A Return to ‘Warlordism?’," United States Institute of Peace, June 25, 2021, https://www.usip.org/publications/2021/06/after-afghanistan-withdrawal-return-warlordism

[25] Ignatius, WP.

[26] Clayton Thomas, "Afghanistan: Background and U.S. Policy: In Brief," Congressional Research Service, l June 11, 2021, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R45122.pdf

[29] Shalizi Hamid, "U.S.-backed Afghan Peace Conference in Turkey Postponed over Taliban No-show," Reuters, April 20, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/us-backed-afghan-peace-conference-turkey-postponed-over-taliban-no-show-sources-2021-04-20/.

[32] Bruce Pannier, "Will Central Asia Host U.S. Military Forces Once Again?," RFE/RL, April 23, 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/u-s-military-bases-in-central-asia-part-two-/31219781.html.    

[34] Dmitri Trenin, "Afghanistan After the U.S. Pullout: Challenges to Russia and Central Asia," Carnegie Moscow Center, July 13, 2021, https://carnegie.ru/commentary/84951.

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