In November 2009, with President Barack Obama only weeks away from announcing a surge of about 30,000 troops in Afghanistan and a drawdown of U.S. forces starting in July 2014, a team of concerned diplomats in Kabul cabled Washington with a classified warning.
I was one of those concerned diplomats, as the counselor for political affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan. Both the surge and the deadline announcement worried us. We told the president and his top advisers that our local partners weren’t yet strong or reliable enough for a surge to work, and that announcing a clear withdrawal date would be a major incentive to the Taliban not to cooperate or back down. We recommended a different course: Apply steady pressure with a smaller troop footprint, and give the Afghan state and society more time to protect itself.
The cable was leaked to the media, and I’m sorry to say that the warning it carried was all too predictive. Back home in the U.S., the surge strategy created false expectations of a military “win,” and impatience with the slow transition to stability that we foresaw. In Afghanistan, the withdrawal deadline gave the Taliban more confidence in their ability to return to power. It confirmed an obvious lesson: Don’t surrender your leverage.
When I returned to Kabul in 2017 as deputy chief of Mission, things had changed, in part because American policy had shifted. U.S. forces were no longer in a combat leadership role, and had begun handing responsibilities to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). The Obama administration’s planned pullout had indeed emboldened the Taliban, as had the withdrawal rhetoric of Donald Trump on the campaign trail. However, the Trump administration’s review resulted in the more nuanced August 2017 “South Asia Strategy,” which called for a negotiated settlement to the conflict—but an endgame based on meeting certain conditions, rather than a date.
As a country, Afghanistan was showing signs of new growth. There were new universities and younger Afghans in key ministry roles, slowly replacing a generation of war leaders who had brutally fought both the Soviets and each other in the 1980s and 1990s. There were growing energy linkages to Central Asia and new business opportunities.
The conditions-based formula for settlement undermined the Taliban’s narrative of imminent victory, making it harder for them to retain weary fighters. It also gave heart to the ANDSF, which continued to take heavy losses. With a robust Afghan offensive during the winter of 2017, and despite horrific Taliban terror attacks in Kabul in January 2018, the stage was set for an offer to the Taliban for a mutual cease-fire. This occurred in June 2018, when for the first and sadly last time, Afghanistan had a peaceful three-day Eid holiday. For many of us, the air of hope at this time gave a preview of Afghanistan’s potential as a country known for its trade, crafts, food and family celebrations, and not for bombs and casualties.
Now, with President Joe Biden’s decision to enact a conditions-free withdrawal by September 11, there seems to be little hope for that normal future, or indeed any pretense that we want to achieve the only war goal that has made sense from the start: advance U.S. global security interests in South Asia by giving the ANDSF enough training and footing to control its territory against terrorists and predatory neighbors. We’re just getting out, come what may.
Already, our loss of leverage is boosting the Taliban’s confidence, in a sad replay of the post-2009 dynamic. Not long after Biden announced the withdrawal, the Taliban declared they would not attend a peace conference in Istanbul that the U.S. and other countries had hoped would succeed where earlier talks in Doha had not. I remember once attending a ceremony in Kabul, held every February 15, to commemorate the withdrawal of the last Soviet tanks. It’s easy now to imagine the Taliban, always eager to portray themselves as giant killers, creating another anniversary on September 11 to trumpet the date U.S. and NATO troops officially leave for good.
Biden has already made his decision to withdraw, and we should not expect him to change his mind. But despite the leverage that new policy has lost, there’s still some left to help prevent disaster.
From a moral and strategic perspective, it makes no sense to politically abandon Afghanistan. Without any U.S. presence, and with no conditions or promise of a return, we can already predict that the Taliban will try to increase their territorial control and dictatorial rule, and other Afghans will arm and resist. There will also be ripple effects from the conflict: al Qaeda, ISIS and regional terror groups will have ample opportunity to regroup; it could also very well trigger a humanitarian crisis that drives masses of people across Afghan borders into United Nations-funded refugee camps. Instead of mustering the strategic patience to get the end game right and to ensure our reputation as an ally in an unfriendly part of the world, the U.S. is inviting regional chaos we’ll have to deal with (and pay for) anyway.
After our troops and many other American support personnel leave by September 11, the U.S. must not declare itself done with Afghanistan. Our leaving will have enormous consequences for the Afghan people whom we have condemned to a frightening future. Walking away doesn’t give us the license to ignore what happens next. There are a range of ways to stay engaged after the troops withdraw.
First and foremost, continued U.S. assistance to the ANDSF is essential. Our public commitment to this force, made most recently at the NATO Defense Ministerial, should remain solidly in place. This is the best way to counteract the psychological advantage we’ve handed the Taliban, to help protect the rights of women and other vulnerable minorities, and to prevent atrocities that will emerge in a lawless environment.
Second, U.N., U.S. and European sanctions against Taliban leadership must remain in place until the Taliban and other bad actors change their behavior—specifically, until they are no longer a “threat to the security and stability of Afghanistan.” In fact, we should consider imposing new, carefully targeted sanctions against those who are refusing to support peace talks.
Third, we also should employ vigorous diplomatic leverage over Afghanistan’s neighbors, particularly Pakistan and Central Asia, to prioritize their existing trade and energy linkages and press for a peace process that will contribute to regional prosperity. The Gulf States and other former and current Taliban patrons should understand that a peaceful outcome is a top U.S. government goal.
Fourth, and Congress should hold the administration to this, 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 basic human rights to its citizens. Finally, some development assistance could be conditioned or withheld for the same reason, although vulnerable populations should not suffer for the misdeeds of their unelected leaders.
Pulling out troops without conditions or remaining “at war” indefinitely are not the only two options; they never were. In our 2009 cable, we pointed out that anti-corruption and long-term development efforts were better investments than more troops. Rather than compound our past errors, the United States must now commit to the goal of stability by preserving our remaining leverage—and using it well.
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