When asked during his first news conference since taking office whether he could envision U.S. troops operating in Afghanistan next year, President Joe Biden had a quick reply: “I can’t picture that being the case.” Yet at the same time, Biden continued to express some degree of skepticism about whether the May 1 troop withdrawal date could be met in time. The White House appears very much undecided, even as the deadline gets closer and intelligence officials are warning through leaked intelligence assessments that the Taliban could take over Afghanistan two to three years after a U.S. withdrawal.
The White House continues to deliberate. The Biden administration has three options: 1) pull all U.S. forces from the country by May 1 as stipulated in the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement, 2) attempt to negotiate a short-term extension with the Taliban, perhaps until November of this year, or 3) maintain the U.S. force presence indefinitely. Some allies in Europe have already made their intentions clear; NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg continues to caution against withdrawing before an intra-Afghan peace accord is reached. The German government, meanwhile, recently extended its own military mission in Afghanistan through next year (the German parliament must still vote on the proposal).
However, the only responsible course of action for Washington is to leave Afghanistan and put its military involvement there in the rear-view mirror.
Arguments for extending the U.S. troop presence past May 1 rest on a number of faulty assumptions. Some argue that ignoring the U.S. troop withdrawal deadline will improve the prospects of an intra-Afghan peace agreement. Others focus on the costs to Afghanistan of leaving, including the likely prospect of a higher level of violence in the civil war.
Very few, however, focus on the costs of staying — and when those costs are discussed, they are typically downplayed to the maximum extent possible. This is not only foolish in terms of policy formulation but extraordinarily dangerous for our troops.
Casually throwing the May 1 withdrawal date aside is not a low-risk option for the United States, nor is it a particularly effective insurance policy against another large-scale terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
First, there is little evidence that sustaining a U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan for another 6, 12, or 24 months will push the Afghan government and the Taliban toward a peace agreement. While Taliban negotiators have been willing to sit down with their counterparts in Kabul to at least discuss a way forward, the entire diplomatic process has been at a standstill for nearly four months. It took nearly 7 months for the Afghan government and the Taliban to even begin a negotiation, and another 3 months to sign off on rules and procedures. Matters of substance, such as how Afghanistan will be governed in the future and how Taliban fighters will be reintegrated into the Afghan national security forces, are still untouched. This stalemate occurred despite the U.S. and NATO boasting thousands of troops on the ground. Any breakthrough in peace talks, should it occur, won’t be determined by how many foreign forces remain in Afghanistan; if it did, a peace agreement would have already been signed.
Second, the entire prospect of peace in Afghanistan depends on Washington fulfilling its obligations and departing from the country as agreed to last year. The Taliban have remained insistent that a deal is a deal and that breaking or altering it unilaterally would likely result in consequences. Officials and analysts in Washington may believe this threat is simply bluster, but basing future policy choices on hope and hubris is an extremely reckless thing for U.S. policymakers to do—particularly when the lives of Americans are at stake.
Whether one supports or opposes the U.S.-Taliban withdrawal deal, this much is indisputable: no U.S. troops have been killed by hostile Taliban fire since. The absence of casualties is interwoven with the May 1 withdrawal date. If the Biden administration makes the decision to stay past May 1, it is highly likely Taliban fighters will resume offensive operations against the U.S. troops that remain. This becomes more probable the longer American troops stay. The likelihood of more American casualties will go up, increasing pressure on President Biden to add even more soldiers and equipment into the war for force protection. The war, in effect, would resume. Whatever diplomatic process the international community is attempting to cobble together would evaporate.
To those who care about Afghanistan, this picture is bleak and distressing. But the unfortunate reality is that a country that has been at war for more than four decades is not going to be guided to a period of peace by American hands. The unfortunate reality is that Afghanistan’s future will be bloody regardless of how many foreign troops are on the ground.
Ending the U.S. and NATO military mission will at least prevent more American lives from being unnecessarily sucked into an unwinnable civil war.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.