Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.
This Friday, President Joe Biden will welcome Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to the White House for what could be a tense conversation. Ghani's trip to Washington, D.C., comes at a time when the war in Afghanistan is at its most intense since the 2010-2011 U.S. troop surge, when nearly 140,000 U.S. and coalition troops were patrolling villages in search of Taliban fighters.
Ghani and his governing partner, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, will likely use the face-to-face meeting with Biden to warn him of the urgency of the security situation in Afghanistan. The White House continues to receive criticism about its decision to withdraw all remaining U.S. forces from the country by September, with some condemning the exit as disorganized. Abdullah, who is in charge of talks with the Taliban, is predicting the collapse of diplomacy once the U.S. troop withdrawal is complete.
Despite all of the negative reactions, however, the case for the U.S. leaving Afghanistan is as solid today as it was when Biden announced the decision in April. Indeed, those who insist the Biden administration should change course or at least re-think its current approach fail to put forth a better alternative.
To be fair, there is no question the Afghan security forces are in increasingly desperate shape. With U.S. air assets being removed from the country, the Afghan military no longer has the world's best Air Force at its disposal. The overworked Afghan Air Force, which could soon be hamstrung with maintenance issues, is unable to keep pace with the Taliban's offensive operations across Afghanistan's north and south. According to The New York Times, about a dozen districts fell to the Taliban in a 24-hour period last week. Afghan troops, stuck on the front lines and often at the mercy of incompetent and corrupt commanders, find themselves with little choice but to negotiate surrender deals.
The question, though, is not whether the Afghan security forces will have trouble sustaining themselves after a U.S. troop withdrawal (the answer is self-evident). For U.S. officials, the relevant question is whether there is a more persuasive American policy option in Afghanistan than a full troop withdrawal. Given that nobody can articulate one beyond staying for an undetermined period of time, the answer is a resounding no.
Therein lies the issue with the argument for staying: It rests in part on the very hubris that fueled Washington's Afghanistan misadventure in the first place, counterfactuals that can't be proven, and best-case scenarios.
The idea that peace talks will end the moment the last U.S. troop leaves Afghan soil is widely accepted. But the inverse of that argument -- that U.S. troops will give the Afghans more time to hammer out a deal -- is not necessarily true. Just because the intra-Afghan peace negotiations are at risk of collapse in a post-U.S. Afghanistan doesn't mean those very same negotiations would have greater odds of success if the Biden administration decided to lengthen the U.S. presence.
To believe otherwise is to conveniently ignore how the Taliban has operated for the last 20 years. At no point in the 20-year war effort has the insurgency been serious in cooperating in a U.S.-facilitated diplomatic process with the Afghan government, an entity the Taliban regards as an artificial construct concocted by western powers. Even at the height of the U.S. and NATO troop surge, when military pressure on the movement was at its most fierce, the Taliban never officially dropped its longtime position of refusing direct negotiations with the Afghan government. The only reason Taliban officials decided to do so in the 2020 Doha agreement was because the U.S. also agreed to phase out its military presence.
Would the Taliban have agreed to speak to Kabul if the Trump administration wasn't willing to pull out of the country? Given the movement's past history, it's highly unlikely. If one takes the Taliban's words seriously, the group likely would have done precisely the opposite, dropping talks completely and using a lingering U.S. troop presence as a pretense to resume offensive attacks against U.S. forces. The same dynamics would apply if the Biden administration stopped the ongoing troop withdrawal in its tracks.
What if the U.S. linked additional troop reductions to the success of the intra-Afghan peace talks, as the prestigious Afghanistan Study Group recommended? This linkage sounds reasonable, as it would theoretically provide the Taliban with an incentive to cooperate diplomatically. In reality, though, this proposal makes a grandiose but false assumption: that a foreign troop presence on Afghan soil will, over time, enable good behavior from the Taliban, including the signing of a comprehensive intra-Afghan peace agreement. Unfortunately, there is little evidence supporting this assumption. In fact, if it was true, Afghanistan would already be at peace.
Could the U.S. military help buttress the Afghan army and frustrate Taliban attempts to capture more district centers? Indisputably, yes. But to what end? And for how long? These are the questions too few people refuse to address.
Nobody wants to see Afghanistan descend into further violence. But many of us often forget that Afghanistan was in the middle of civil war decades before U.S. troops were deployed. Regrettably, civil war will persist long after the U.S. leaves. To defend the Afghan government in perpetuity, however, would merely extend America's role in this long war, one only Afghans themselves have the power to end.
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