In February 2020, the Trump administration made a deal with the Taliban. Under what became known as the Doha Agreement, the US and all foreign forces promised to depart Afghanistan by May 2021, so as long as the Taliban held up its side of the deal to 1) enter into peace talks with the US-backed Afghan government and 2) ensure Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists. So far, the agreement is technically being implemented. Peace negotiations began in September 2020, though they have yet to produce results. The Taliban have also stuck to the letter if not the spirit of the deal by holding off attacks against US and Allied forces (although attacks against the Afghan government and civilians have continued). However, with the May deadline fast approaching, President Biden must now decide whether to abide by the terms of the agreement and pull the 2,500 remaining US troops out of Afghanistan, or pursue some other course of action. The problem is there aren’t any good options left.
The original timeline for the agreement envisaged a 14-month window in which the Taliban and the Afghan government could engage in talks that would ideally result in both a political roadmap for Afghanistan’s future and a lasting ceasefire. Meanwhile, the US and Allied forces could plan and execute an orderly withdrawal after two decades of occupation (US force presence has reduced by around 75% since February 2020). This plan began to steer drastically off-course from the start, however. The Afghan government, which relies on US and NATO support, had little incentive to cooperate. They stalled the start of talks for six months with arguments over election results, the make-up of their negotiating team, and the pace of Taliban prisoner releases (which the US had agreed to as part of the deal). Meanwhile, the Taliban continued their attacks on Afghan security forces, secure in the knowledge that under the terms of the deal they could run the clock down until foreign forces leave. Indeed, since signing the Doha Agreement, the Taliban have seized key military bases and highways and closed in on cities across the country. Talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government are underway but there has been little progress towards a viable long-term settlement for the future of the country. All the while, violence levels continue to rise, with civilians, including prominent women, bearing the brunt of a renewed spate of attacks.
Should Biden choose to follow through with the agreement and remove troops in May, the US would put an end to its longest running war, which currently costs around $50bn per year. His administration would be free to recalibrate efforts elsewhere, in accordance with evolving strategic interests. Bringing the troops home would also satisfy a vocal contingent in US foreign policy circles, who say this decision is long overdue and the threat of a resurgent terrorist group in the region overplayed. But any claim to victory in Afghanistan would likely be short-lived as after twenty years, the Afghan security forces are still unable to hold their own without US support. Absent an extremely unlikely political settlement by May, the country risks descending into an intensified civil war and could soon fall back under Taliban control. The human costs of such an outcome would inflict yet more hardship on the Afghan people, who in addition to dealing with increased poverty rates and COVID-19, have endured life in a warzone for four decades now. Even if the US were able to contain resurgent terror threats, either by attacking from the air or sending troops back in, the unfolding humanitarian disaster caused by this escalation in conflict would likely produce a new tide of new refugees heading for Europe, Turkey, and elsewhere.
These concerns underpin a recent US Congress report which recommends Biden renege on the May deadline with or without the Taliban’s consent. This report, coupled with rumours in DC that Trump’s May deal is now “off the table,” has no doubt brought a sigh of relief in Kabul. But reneging on the deal entails considerable risk too. The problem here is twofold. First, a unilateral decision not to abide by the terms stipulated in the Doha Agreement would likely lead to a commensurate response by the Taliban, for whom US and Allied troops– currently ‘off limits’ under the terms of the agreement—would become legitimate target once more. Should this scenario unfold, the US, currently at its lowest operational footprint since the war began, would once again find itself in either a ‘last helicopter out of Saigon’ situation or embroiled in a fully-fledged battle against the Taliban, who control more territory now than at any point since 2001.
Second, even if the Taliban were to agree to an extension—though they have little incentive to, given their military leverage and the fact the Trump administration already agreed to most of their demands—it is not clear what another six months or so could achieve in terms of a lasting political solution. The report argues the US should maintain its military presence and economic support package for the Afghan government until its objectives are met, but these objectives include creating the conditions for an “independent, democratic, and sovereign Afghan state”—a goal which has proved elusive for twenty years now. Reviving the peace track with new terms and international attention might serve to reassure US’ allies that the Trump era is over and America is back. Certainly, the Afghan government would benefit from a strengthened hand in negotiations. Staying the course would also protect the societal and civil rights gains of the last twenty years. But indefinite involvement has little support from US and NATO publics. The war in Afghanistan has thus far cost trillions of dollars and many thousands of lives, for what Army General Mark Milley has called a “modicum of success.”
Faced with only bad choices, Biden will be the fourth US President to find there is no cost-free to end America’s ‘forever war.’