The war in Afghanistan — the foreign policy problem from hell — is moving center stage for the Biden administration. This is already America’s longest war — 20 years and counting — and one of its costliest ($2 trillion spent, nearly 2,500 dead and over 20,000 wounded). No one likes this war, and everyone wants to end it, but that doesn’t mean there is any consensus about what to do next. President Trump wanted all U.S. troops out and said so repeatedly. But, typically, the Trump White House approach was one of near mindless chaos — no strategy, no planning, no peace plan, no consideration of the consequences — just get out.
Actually, the U.S. tried just such an approach once before. After the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. supplied critical weapons and technical support to the Afghan resistance. That joint effort succeeded and, in 1989, Soviet forces withdrew. In response, the U.S. promptly ended its involvement and left Afghanistan. The immediate result was a civil war among Afghan factions that produced the Taliban, which in turn established an alliance with al-Qaida — leading directly to the 9/11 attacks on America.
Initially, the Trump administration stated that a U.S. withdrawal would be conditional; the Taliban must observe a ceasefire and end all cooperation with al-Qaida. Neither condition has been met; Taliban forces have attacked cities and towns across the country and assassination teams have killed community leaders nationwide. Intelligence experts report that cooperation between the Taliban and al-Qaida continues unabated. By the end of his term, Trump made it clear the U.S. would leave anyway.
So, this is what Biden has inherited: a confident and aggressive Taliban, a demoralized Afghan government and “peace negotiations” that are going nowhere. Under these circumstances, the administration has three rough options — none of them good or promising.
First, the U.S. can adhere to Trump’s May 1 deadline for the withdrawal of all U.S. (and NATO) forces. They currently number about 4,500 Americans and 7,000 from NATO. There will be no sugarcoating the results. The world will correctly read this as an American defeat. In Afghanistan, the Taliban can be expected to launch a sustained offensive, probably overrunning the major urban centers and forcing the Afghan government to capitulate. This could well reignite a civil war that will fracture the country along ethnic lines — Pashtun, Uzbek, Tajik, etc. And, almost certainly, there will be a flood of Afghans clamoring for entry into the U.S. as refugees — all with a legitimate fear for their lives. Most observers expect the Taliban will impose rigid Islamist rule along the lines currently enforced in rural areas. Most of the institutions and practices, including women’s rights, that we associate with modernity will cease.
The argument for choosing this option is simple. After a costly and lengthy effort (civilian and military), almost nothing is working as hoped. After two decades of trying, only one-third of Afghan girls are in school. After the expenditure of $87 billion on military training, one-third of Afghan army soldiers quit after one year. The list goes on and on.
The second option is to scrap the proposed withdrawal and commit to a sustained, indefinite U.S. military presence of about 4,500 (including airpower) plus a NATO contingent. That force would not be expected to win the war; it would be expected to help the Afghan army and police prevent a Taliban victory. This would not come cheap — probably $10 billion of taxpayer money plus 10-20 U.S. casualties per year. But, for a country like the U.S., those costs are clearly supportable. The argument for this option is that it forestalls the really ugly consequences of the first option. And there is a historical analogy. The approach is akin to the small border wars the Roman Empire waged over decades and centuries on the periphery of the empire, designed to keep the barbarians at bay.
There is a third option, and it appears to be the one the Biden administration has selected. This approach begins with a different and more hopeful reading of the Taliban. Some U.S. intelligence officials, who have maintained contact with the Taliban over the years, believe that the leadership — if given political power — will want to build a modern country, not a primitive, isolated one. Afghanistan has huge, potentially lucrative, mineral deposits. The Taliban know it and (so the argument goes) will want to attract foreign investment to develop the resource. They can’t do that if they are an international pariah.
No one knows if this is insight or wishful thinking. But for those in the administration saddled with this problem, it offers some hope. The White House has reportedly launched a complex diplomatic effort to enlist Pakistan, India, China, Russia and, perhaps, Iran into a diplomatic process to craft a blueprint for peace in Afghanistan. Under this plan, Turkey would host new negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. It is a reflection of an old bit of folk wisdom, “When confronted with an insoluble problem, expand it.” One veteran observer has described this effort as a diplomatic “Hail Mary.” The Taliban, smelling victory, may reject it all. But, if those who believe the Taliban are now prepared to think like a legitimate national government and work with the international community are correct — then maybe, just maybe, this could work.
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.