U.S. soldiers on a morning helicopter raid in Alam Khel, Afghanistan, January 2011
Tyler Hicks / The New York Times​ / Redux

President Joe Biden is now the fourth American leader to oversee the U.S. war in Afghanistan. He inherits a fragile peace process that members of his team have wisely signaled they will work to advance. In February 2020, then President Donald Trump struck a deal with the Taliban to withdraw all U.S. and NATO troops by May 1, 2021. In exchange, the United States received security assurances and a commitment from the Taliban to begin peace talks with the Afghan government. After 40 years of bloodshed and nearly 20 years of direct American involvement in Afghanistan, there is no question that Biden should give these talks a chance. Reaching a comprehensive settlement that ends the Taliban insurgency would be by far the best way for the United States to wind-up its military engagement in the country.   

But the slow-moving Afghan talks remain a long shot for peace. The Taliban and the Afghan government still disagree on fundamental issues, including whether the country should remain a republic or even retain any features of electoral democracy. And both parties have been hounded to the table; neither believes it has exhausted its military options.

The Biden administration will therefore have to decide quickly whether to honor Trump’s agreement to withdraw all troops this spring or to extend the military mission, perhaps indefinitely. Some analysts advocate calling it quits regardless of what happens with the peace talks, arguing that the primary U.S. objective of decimating al Qaeda was achieved long ago. Others, including some former officials, call for the continued use of U.S. troops and firepower to prevent the Taliban from overrunning the Afghan government—at least until a peace settlement can be reached.

Given the shortcomings of both options—leaving promptly and staying indefinitely—a seeming middle-ground idea has come to dominate Afghanistan policy discourse: “responsible withdrawal,” a conveniently malleable concept that holds out the promise of ending an “endless war” while continuing counterterrorism operations. Biden himself seemed to endorse a version of “responsible withdrawal” on the campaign trail, before the Trump administration struck its deal with the Taliban. In a February 23 interview on Face the Nation, Biden said the United States should maintain a “very small” counterterrorism footprint dedicated to preventing the resurgence of al Qaeda and the Islamic State, or ISIS.

But as attractive as splitting the difference may seem, it is almost certainly impossible. Regardless of what happens with the peace process, the Biden administration will soon find that it must choose a more decisive course in Afghanistan.

VANISHING MIDDLE

There is virtually no chance that the Taliban would agree to allow the United States to maintain an indefinite counterterrorism footprint on Afghan soil. Doing so would require the group to abandon its number one demand and the rationale for its insurgency: the removal of all foreign forces. Because they prize cohesion, Taliban leaders wouldn’t make an agreement that they couldn’t sell to the group’s commanders and rank and file—especially since the Trump administration already agreed to withdraw all U.S. troops by May. One can’t entirely rule out the possibility that a future Afghan government that includes the Taliban would agree to cooperate with the United States on counterterrorism, but Washington certainly shouldn’t count on it. 

Nor are the Taliban the only obstacle to an indefinite U.S. counterterrorism presence. To negotiate and implement any peace deal, the United States would need the support of regional countries such as China, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia—none of which want to see permanent U.S. military bases in Afghanistan. To the extent that these countries support U.S. peace efforts, they do so because they expect a resultant agreement to herald a U.S. military departure. The U.S.-Taliban deal reinforced those expectations. If the United States jettisoned that deal in order to keep troops in the country, Pakistan in particular might decide to increase its support for the Taliban.

It is impossible to disentangle counterterrorism from counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.

Of course, the peace process could fail, in which case the issue of regional support would become moot. But even then, the United States wouldn’t be able to maintain an exclusively counterterrorism footprint. Having gained and then lost a U.S. commitment to withdraw, the Taliban would once again violently contest any U.S. presence. In such a scenario, just protecting U.S. personnel would require offensive operations against Taliban insurgents. And if the Taliban go back to fighting the United States, they would have little reason to sever their remaining ties with al Qaeda as they promised to do in the February 2020 deal—thereby sustaining the very terrorist threat that the United States seeks to counter.

Finally, the United States wouldn’t be able to maintain bases in Afghanistan purely for its own purposes while withholding operational support from its host and counterterrorism partner. The United States would need to continue providing the Afghan military with at least some essential backup in its existential fight with the Taliban. Absent that support, the Taliban probably wouldn’t sweep rapidly through the country, but the war would intensify and Kabul would lose ground. And if Afghan government forces felt abandoned, the risk of insider attacks against U.S. personnel could rise. In other words, it is impossible to disentangle counterterrorism from counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. If the United States wants to keep any forces at all in the country, it will have to maintain a footprint that looks a lot like “staying the course.”

BUYING TIME

The Biden administration should accept that there is no feasible middle way for a “responsible withdrawal.” Washington should instead attempt to reach an agreement with the Taliban to extend the May 1 troop withdrawal deadline—using this step to gauge the group’s commitment to reaching a peace deal that, however unlikely, would be the best outcome for Afghanistan and for the United States. Three months is not enough time to reach any kind of deal—except, perhaps, one that grants extraordinary concessions to the Taliban, relies on support from opportunistic members of President Ashraf Ghani’s political opposition, and involves the United States essentially greenlighting a coup against him. That kind of deal would not leave the United States feeling confident that its security concerns are assuaged.

Washington has been the primary driver of the peace process, so talks are unlikely to survive a near-term U.S. withdrawal. Nor are they likely to survive if the United States simply ignores the May 1 withdrawal deadline, since the Taliban are liable to walk away from the negotiating table in that case. The Biden administration must therefore explore the extent of the Taliban’s patience and seek at least a six-month extension.

Peace talks are unlikely to survive a near-term U.S. withdrawal.

The Biden administration should spend those six months thoroughly assessing the terror threat emanating from Afghanistan and determining whether U.S. boots on the ground are necessary to neutralize it. Much of the threat analysis in the public domain focuses excessively on tabulating the numbers of militant groups and their members, measures that say little about their intent or their ability to carry out successful external operations. One reason for skepticism about the severity of the threat is the lack of public reporting in recent years of ISIS or al Qaeda plots against the United States originating from Afghanistan; another is that most successful attacks in the United States and Europe in recent years have been linked to militants in Syria and Iraq or perpetrated by local “lone wolves” inspired by jihadi media.

For the long term, the United States will need a counterterrorism capability that doesn’t depend on a permanent U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. The Biden administration should work swiftly to develop such options, enhancing counterterrorism cooperation with other countries in South and Central Asia, ensuring U.S. capacity to mount operations in Afghanistan from outside the country, and putting in place covert arrangements for monitoring and countering transnational terrorist activity. Some of these undertakings will be politically charged, and together they may not be as effective as the current U.S. setup in Afghanistan. But the only alternative is an indefinite, intertwined counterterrorism and counterinsurgency mission. 

“Responsible withdrawal” is not a real option for the United States in Afghanistan, to the extent that it means leaving a residual counterterrorism footprint in the country for years to come. As a result, the Biden administration faces essentially the same choice that bedeviled its predecessors: an indefinite military mission that isn’t clearly making Americans safer versus a withdrawal that U.S. government analysts won’t declare risk free for the United States and that would likely precipitate the Afghan government’s undoing. The unpalatability of both options may be enough to persuade the Biden administration to push ahead with a low-probability peace settlement for as long as possible. Eventually, however, it will have to make a choice.

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  • LAUREL MILLER is Director of the Asia Program at the International Crisis Group. From 2013 to 2017, she served as Deputy and then Acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. Department of State.
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