As the peace process in Doha continues to unfold, the Biden Administration will face several difficult decisions regarding the future of Afghanistan. The war’s effects have been felt at every level. With trust at an all time low, Americans have demanded solutions to the never-ending wars which plague U.S. Foreign Policy and fail to address the plight of average Afghans. However, a full-scale withdraw from the crucial peace talks would prove imprudent and disastrous for all parties. Additionally, renewing Operation Enduring Freedom is no longer a viable option. Thus, a comprehensive grand strategy that accounts for current realities on the ground and capitalises on upcoming negotiations prior to the May 1st deadline is necessary.
Operation Enduring Freedom
Withdrawing from Afghanistan neglects the reality on the ground. Namely that even a limited U.S. presence in the region prevents the Taliban from establishing an emirate with its capital in Kabul in a matter of months. It would also entail consequences such as the outbreak of a civil war, fortifying Al-Qaeda’s safe havens, and the emergence of a refugee crisis. The Afghan military is not equipped to handle another Taliban insurgency. The Taliban’s forces have grown precipitously as of late, ascending to around fifty-thousand fighters.
Additionally, they continue to generate hundreds of millions of dollars from the opium trade and enjoy support from select, rural portions of the country. Reviving Operation Enduring Freedom is also not a viable option, having claimed thousands of lives and burned through billions of taxpayer dollars. America will not send its men and women overseas to “get the job done,” when the proverbial goal-post keeps moving farther and farther away. For nearly a decade, the United States has clung to the narrative of training and equipping Afghan forces. This sentiment will not be dislodged, and nor should it be.
Engaging with the Peace Process
Although the Taliban entered negotiations to settle for peace, they failed to uphold their commitments. Furthermore, previous talks have often collapsed due to subsidiary issues such as, prisoner exchanges. For example, the original deal included the severing of ties between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, yet the relationship remains intact. The mention of peace has led to the narrative that the Taliban had defeated the world’s great superpower. Their refusal to concede even on subsidiary points reflects their vision of victory. With this in mind, the U.S. must gently pressure the Taliban to accept mutually-agreed upon terms, without risking further conflict.
Knowing which areas to pressure will require in-depth knowledge of the ever-changing local circumstances. It will also require a willingness to negotiate with an emboldened enemy. If the U.S. does not commit to the likely prolonged peace process, it runs the risk of damaging its credibility in the long-run. Despite debates regarding ISIS’s presence in Iraq prior to 2014, the premature withdrawal and unwillingness to monitor and support the transition of power directly contributed to ISIS’s success, especially in terms of vital materials such as weapons caches and vehicles. The Biden Administration must take heed of this vital lesson.
A viable option, which achieves the goals of diminishing foreign military presence and addressing the terrorist concerns, would be to bolster U.S. intelligence operations. Afghan security forces also need strengthening to uproot the safe-havens guaranteed by Taliban officials in quasi-independent regions of the country. This would also remove the leverage held by Taliban forces who frequently bait U.S. diplomatic efforts. Taliban promises of abandoning their affiliation with terrorist groups will need to be achieved.
Additionally, the Taliban successfully managed to avoid their promises, while placing a clock on the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces. They understood that the United States, like many other great nations before it, would grow weary of fighting recurring insurgencies. If the U.S. leaves without creating conditions for lasting peace, it fails to uphold its promises to the Afghan people. And may damage its reputation within Afghanistan in the process.
In the meantime, a core group of U.S. troops must remain in the country to support a lasting peace. Particularly as diplomacy alone will not solve the endemic problems facing Afghanistan and its people. A further demonstration that the U.S. will maintain its resolve in the support of Afghan government forces, would send the message that negotiations are the only path forward. Currently, the United States has not proven that it can dismantle Taliban forces or build a sustainable government.
Thus, the negotiations are stuck in limbo. The Taliban also understand that they can outlast the U.S. military. If the United States does not intend to strengthen the government’s capabilities, then negotiations represent a means to manipulate the country’s future. And all without sacrificing valuable assets. A true strategic vision for Afghanistan is not Taliban-centric, either. It incorporates Pakistan, China, and others who have stakes in a stable and secure Afghanistan. Pakistan has long refused to provide assistance to U.S. forces in the fight against terrorist entities such as Al-Qaeda, and they are seeking to alter this perception by facilitating discussions and refusing to throw support to either side, which could improve relations with the international community at large.
In short, the problems facing Afghanistan are an American problem, and given the current deadline of May 1st, the United States possesses little time to find a solution that is beneficial for all parties. The United States, despite its unparalleled ability to project power, is not negotiating from a position of strength. Some could argue that an extension of the current deadline would solve the problem. However, extensions often lead to a lack of urgency. The Taliban need only wait until a new administration arrives or the deal collapses on its own. Finally, a soon-to-be-announced conference may address the possibility for an extension directly.
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