When I returned to Kabul in 2017 as deputy head of mission, things had changed, also because American politics had changed. The US armed forces no longer had leadership roles in combat and had begun to delegate responsibility to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). The planned withdrawal of the Obama administration had indeed encouraged the Taliban, as had Donald Trump’s withdrawal rhetoric on the campaign. However, the Trump administration’s review resulted in a more nuanced “South Asia Strategy” from August 2017 calling for a negotiated solution to the conflict – but an endgame based on the fulfillment of certain conditions rather than a date.
Afghanistan showed signs of new growth as a country. There were new universities and younger Afghans in key Ministry positions slowly replacing a generation of war leaders who had fought brutally against both the Soviets and one another in the 1980s and 1990s. There were growing energy connections to Central Asia and new business opportunities.
The conditions-based settlement formula undermined the Taliban’s narration of the impending victory and made it harder for them to keep tired fighters. There was also the ANDSF Heart, which continued to suffer heavy losses. With a robust Afghan offensive in winter 2017 and despite terrible terrorist attacks by the Taliban in Kabul in January 2018, the stage was set for an offer to the Taliban for a mutual ceasefire. This happened in June 2018 when Afghanistan had a peaceful three-day Eid vacation for the first and, unfortunately, last time. For many of us, hope at the time previewed the potential of Afghanistan as a country known for its trade, craft, food and family celebrations, rather than bombs and victims.
Now for President Joe Bidens The decision to make an unconditional withdrawal by September 11th seems to give little hope for this normal future, or indeed the pretext that we want to achieve the only war goal that made sense from the start: US global security interests Advance South Asia by properly training and funding the ANDSF to control its territory against terrorists and predatory neighbors. We’re getting out, whatever.
Even our loss of leverage strengthens the Taliban’s confidence in a sad repetition of the dynamic after 2009. Not long after Biden announced his withdrawal, the Taliban explained They would not be attending a peace conference in Istanbul that the US and other countries had hoped would succeed where earlier talks in Doha did not. I remember once attending a ceremony in Kabul, held every February 15, to commemorate the withdrawal of the last Soviet tanks. It is now easy to imagine that the Taliban, always striving to portray themselves as giant murderers, will celebrate another anniversary on September 11th to celebrate the date that US and NATO forces will officially leave for good.
Biden has already made his decision to retire and we shouldn’t expect him to change his mind. Despite the leverage that the new policies have lost, there are still some left to prevent disaster.
From a moral and strategic point of view, there is no point in giving up Afghanistan politically. With no US presence and no conditions or promise of return, we can already predict that the Taliban will seek to improve their territorial control and dictatorial rule, and that other Afghans will arm and resist. The conflict will also have ripple effects: Al-Qaeda, ISIS and regional terrorist groups will have ample opportunity to regroup. It could also very well set off a humanitarian crisis, driving masses of people across Afghan borders into UN-funded refugee camps. Rather than muster the strategic patience to get the endgame right and secure our reputation as ally in an unfriendly part of the world, the US is inviting regional chaos that we will have to grapple with (and pay for) anyway.
After our troops and many other American aid personnel have left by September 11th, the United States cannot declare itself finished with Afghanistan. Our departure will have enormous consequences for the Afghan people, whom we have condemned to a frightening future. Leaving doesn’t give us a license to ignore what happens next. There are a number of ways to stay busy after troops have withdrawn.
First and foremost, continued US support is essential to the ANDSF. Our public commitment to this force, which was last mentioned on the NATO Defense Minister, should continue. This is the best way to counter the psychological advantage we have given the Taliban to protect the rights of women and other vulnerable minorities and to prevent atrocities that will occur in a lawless environment.
Second, US, US and European sanctions against the Taliban leadership must remain in place until the Taliban and other bad actors change their behavior – especially until they no longer pose a “threat to the security and stability of Afghanistan”. Indeed, we should consider imposing new, carefully targeted sanctions on those who refuse to support peace talks.
Third, we should also use strong diplomatic leverage with Afghanistan’s neighbors, particularly Pakistan and Central Asia, to prioritize their existing trade and energy links and push for a peace process that contributes to regional prosperity. The Gulf States and other past and current Taliban patrons should understand that a peaceful outcome is a primary goal of the US government.
Fourthly, and the government should insist that Congress persist, we can also make it clear that, as in the 1990s, there will again be no diplomatic recognition of a Taliban government if it denies its citizens basic human rights. Finally, some aid could be conditioned or withheld for the same reason, although vulnerable populations should not suffer from the misdeeds of their unelected leaders.
Withdrawing troops unconditionally or staying “at war” indefinitely are not the only two options. they never were. In our 2009 cable, we pointed out that fighting corruption and long-term development efforts are better investments than more troops. Rather than exacerbating our past mistakes, the United States must now commit to the goal of stability by preserving – and making good use of – our remaining leverage.