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How Biden can bring U.S troops home from Afghanistan

Leaving a residual force behind won’t work. Here’s a way to keep to the deal while pursuing peace.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

When President-Elect Biden enters the Oval Office, only 100 days will remain before May 1, which last year’s Doha Agreement with the Taliban sets as the deadline for the United States to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan. 

That withdrawal, with its accompanying truce between the Taliban and U.S. forces, and the Taliban’s reciprocal commitment to prevent al-Qa’ida or any other group from launching attacks from Afghanistan, were to “pave the way” for intra-Afghan negotiations over “a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire” and an “agreement over the future political roadmap of Afghanistan.” 

In a simultaneous joint declaration issued in Kabul, the U.S. and the Afghan governments committed themselves to “working together” for “a comprehensive and sustainable peace agreement” including those same four elements: U.S. troop withdrawal, Taliban counter-terrorist guarantees, a comprehensive ceasefire, and a political roadmap. 

The February 2020 agreement and declaration both stated that these components were “interdependent.” The agreement implemented that interdependence by, among other things, providing that negotiations over the ceasefire and political agreement between the Taliban and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan would continue over a period of thirteen months and three weeks —from March 10, 2020, to May 1, 2021 — before the completion of the U.S. troop withdrawal. 

The withdrawal did not depend on the successful conclusion of those negotiations — no U.S. administration would cede sovereign control over troop deployments — but this schedule gave time for those negotiations to make solid progress before U.S. troops complete their exit. 

Those negotiations, however, started six months late, in September rather than March 2020. Delays in the implementation of other elements of the agreement threw off the planned timetable. The Biden administration should reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the agreement, while seeking to build an international, regional, and Afghan consensus in favor of a one-time, six-month adjustment of the deadline for withdrawal to reinstate the interdependence of the peace process’s components as provided in both the agreement and the declaration. U.S. troops should withdraw at the end of this six-month adjustment regardless of the outcome of the intra-Afghan talks. 

As usual in Washington, public debate on Afghanistan policy has myopically focused on only one factor, U.S. troops, and specifically on whether the Biden administration should implement the agreement’s provision for withdrawing all U.S. troops by May 1. During the campaign, President-elect Biden said he would prefer to withdraw all combat forces and leave a small counter-terrorism force, but such a unilateral decision would abrogate the Doha agreement, in a way that would be reminiscent of President Trump’s abrogation of the nuclear agreement with Iran. The Taliban would stop the talks with the Islamic Republic on a ceasefire and political roadmap, return to war against the United States, and argue they are no longer responsible for the counter-terrorist guarantees. 

Under such circumstances, the Taliban would likely enjoy more extensive international support than before. Thanks to the efforts of Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad, the outgoing administration’s special representative for Afghan reconciliation, Russia, China, and Pakistan have supported the Doha process, while Iran, albeit critical, has not acted as a spoiler. These positions were predicated on Washington’s commitment to withdraw its troops, which these Asian powers perceive as a core national interest. If the United States abrogates the agreement, these countries will support the Taliban’s demand for withdrawal. 

Russia would also be likely to restart the Moscow Process, a series of international meetings that it launched in December 2016. These culminated in a February 2019 intra-Afghan dialogue in Moscow that included the Taliban and a broad group of Afghan powerholders. In March 2019, however, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the suspension of the Moscow Process in support of Khalilzad’s effort. During a December 2019 visit to Moscow,  I learned that Russia is prepared to relaunch the Moscow Process on short notice should the Doha process stall or collapse. The Taliban and many Afghan political leaders would participate, along with the neighbors. In such a case, Washington’s position would be weaker than it is now. 

Weak Mechanism for Interdependence of Elements of Doha Agreement

The delay occurred because the Afghan government insisted on additional guarantees before releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners, a Taliban demand incorporated in the Doha agreement (but not the joint statement) as a precondition for the start of negotiations. Those prisoners were held by the Afghan government, not the United States, and the Afghan government and public were justifiably concerned that, while the Taliban promised that the prisoners “will not pose a threat to the United States and its allies,” they offered no guarantee they would not resume the war against the government. Resolving the dispute with the Afghan government over the prisoner release took six months. The Taliban could legitimately claim that Washington failed to fulfill its commitment to obtain the release of the prisoners, and the Afghan government could legitimately claim that it was not bound by an agreement to which it was not a party and which did not protect its interests. 

The agreement requires the Taliban not to allow al-Qa’ida or others to use Afghan territory to attack the United States and its allies, but it does not specify how implementation of this commitment is related to the other parts of the agreement. When confronted with charges that they have not cut all ties with al-Qa’ida, the Taliban insist both that they have not allowed any attacks to take place and that they will comply more broadly only when Washington complies with its obligations by withdrawing troops, obtaining the release of remaining prisoners, and lifting sanctions. The agreement does not include any timetable or other provision specifying the mechanism for insuring  the interdependence of the U.S. troop withdrawal and the Taliban’s counter-terrorism guarantees. 

The delay has rendered other provisions for the interrelationships of the agreement’s components null and void. Upon the start of Intra-Afghan Negotiations, the United States was to begin a review of the Rewards for Justice list with the goal of removing all Afghan Taliban names from it by August 27, 2020. Likewise, it was to start diplomatic engagement with the aim of lifting all UN Security Council sanctions against the Taliban by May 29, 2020, and gain the release of all remaining prisoners after the initial release of 5,000 by June 10, 2020.

Washington could seek to adjust the agreement by negotiating a one-time, six-month recalibration of the deadline for troop withdrawal together with recalculated target dates for its other obligations, including the Taliban’s counter-terrorism commitments, keyed to the actual rather than putative start of the negotiations. To make it clear that rescheduling the deadline is a step toward implementing rather than reneging on the agreement, the Biden administration  should seek to form an international consensus in support of such a change before approaching the Taliban and Afghan government. 

China, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan have all at one time or another indicated that they want a “responsible” troop withdrawal that helps stabilize Afghanistan. If they are treated as partners and taken into our confidence in the decision-making, they might support a six-month recalibration of the agreement’s target dates. The Taliban will respond differently if the other regional powers support this plan rather than oppose it.  

Implementation of Policy Adjustment

The first step could be to win the support for this proposal from U.S. allies at the NATO ministerial scheduled for February 12. Next, Washington could convene the “troika plus,” a grouping formed by Khalilzad that includes the United States, Russia, and China (the troika) plus Pakistan. Iran has so far declined to join, but its position might change after the Biden administration re-enters the nuclear deal (JCPOA) and rescinds sanctions. The troika plus could issue a communique supporting the U.S. proposal while reaffirming the commitment to withdraw all troops. Qatar, which provides a base for the Taliban’s diplomatic arm, could also help persuade the Taliban to accept the plan.

If the regional states refuse to support such a proposal, Washington should proceed with the scheduled withdrawal while maintaining verification mechanisms and political support for the Afghan peace negotiations. Trying to leave a counter-terrorism force in Afghanistan against the will of both the Taliban and the landlocked country’s neighbors, however, would guarantee the war’s continuation. And, rather than limiting terrorism, it would intensify the conflict that provides international terrorist groups with access to Afghanistan. 

If, on the other hand, the region agrees, the Taliban, which has spent years lobbying for international recognition and which relies on Pakistan for its leadership’s safe haven and Qatar for its diplomacy, would be hard-pressed to resist.

Such a recalibration would increase the chances for a successful political settlement and a responsible withdrawal that would protect U.S. and global interests not only in Afghanistan but in the Asian regions surrounding it. Washington should use both revived diplomacy and the leverage of its remaining 2,500 troops to build the regional consensus required to implement an agreement or manage a continuing conflict. Such a consensus is the minimal basis for the cooperation the Biden administration will need to advance other objectives, including managing climate change, pursuing the campaign against ISIS, relaxing tensions with Iran, and engaging in constructive economic competition with China.

U.S. Army Soldiers, from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team depart for Afghanistan from Italy on Feb. 25, 2005. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Staff Sgt. Bethann Caporaletti)
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