For Biden, an Anguishing Choice on Withdrawal from Afghanistan

Five factors will influence the U.S. role and the prospects for peace after two decades of war.
A Kiowa helicopter flies over the heads of paratroopers in Afghanistan.
Navigating a way out—especially securing a comprehensive peace agreement—is proving to be messy and potentially deadly, too.Photograph by Lucas Jackson / Reuters

There’s a prophetic scene at the end of “Charlie Wilson’s War,” the film that chronicles a flamboyant Texas congressman (played by Tom Hanks) and a rogue C.I.A. agent (Philip Seymour Hoffman) mobilizing what was then the largest U.S. covert intelligence operation in history. Operation Cyclone facilitated the training, arming, and empowering of the Afghan mujahideen—holy warriors—to fight the Soviet Union in the nineteen-eighties. America’s proxies prevailed, in the sense that the Soviets realized that their decade-long presence had become too costly—financially, politically, and militarily—and that they couldn’t achieve their goals. “What, are we going to sit there forever?” the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev reportedly told the Politburo in 1986. “Or should we be ending this war? Otherwise, we’ll disgrace ourselves in every respect.” In 1989, after losing more than fourteen thousand troops and spending at least fifty billion dollars, the Soviets withdrew. They just wanted out of an unpopular war. Afghanistan soon collapsed into a civil war that pitted rival warlords against one another, until the Taliban seized power, in 1996, imposed strict Islamic law, and welcomed other jihadis such as Al Qaeda. After Al Qaeda’s attacks in 2001, U.S. forces helped their Afghan allies to topple the Taliban. A new U.S.-backed government was ensconced in Kabul.

Two decades later, Joe Biden now faces an anguishing choice over whether to withdraw the last U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 1st. The deadline is part of an agreement brokered by the Trump Administration with the Taliban a year ago. Like Gorbachev, Biden clearly wants to go—and has, for more than a decade. In 2010, when he was Vice-President, he promised a pullout. “We’re starting it in July of 2011, and we’re going to be totally out of there—come hell or high water—by 2014,” Biden vowed, on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Last year, in an article in Foreign Affairs, he wrote, “It is past time to end the forever wars.” Recent polls indicate that Americans are largely ambivalent about or uninterested in Afghanistan; twenty to thirty per cent of respondents in recent surveys didn’t even bother to answer about a pullout. The national fury spurred by the trauma of the 9/11 attacks has evaporated.

Yet walking away isn’t so easy. Even after an investment of more than a trillion dollars, the U.S. hasn’t fully achieved the goals of its longest war, either. Navigating a way out—especially securing a comprehensive peace agreement—is proving to be messy and potentially deadly, too. In an interview with ABC News last week, Biden conceded that it may be “tough” to withdraw. He has no good choices; neither does the U.S. military, which has reduced troop levels from fifteen thousand when the U.S.-Taliban pact was signed a year ago to around three thousand today. If American troops withdraw, almost ten thousand nato troops from thirty-six nations and more than twenty-four thousand contractors who support the Afghan state and military are almost certain to leave, too.

On a rainy day in Kabul last week, the military headquarters of U.S. and nato troops in Afghanistan was a spooky place. You have to take a military helicopter from the airport to the nearby compound because driving is unsafe. The complex is surrounded by layers of concrete blast walls topped with barbed wire. Haunting murals adorn the barricades. One features a giant painting of a woman in uniform captioned, in black stencilled letters, “afghan female police a force for good.” Another advertises the Invictus Games, for wounded warriors. More than a hundred thousand Afghans, twenty-three hundred Americans, and hundreds of soldiers from nato countries have died in the twenty-year conflict; another twenty thousand Americans have been injured.

Biden’s decision will be influenced by five factors, according to current and former U.S. officials whom I interviewed in Afghanistan and the United States. The first is whether frantic last-ditch diplomacy will salvage peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. As the U.S. deadline to withdraw approaches, the Administration is throwing spaghetti at the diplomatic wall to see if anything will stick. Earlier this month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote a blunt letter to the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, demanding that he “understand the urgency of my tone,” and calling for his “urgent leadership.” The peace talks, hosted by Qatar, have deadlocked since they started in September of last year as a sequel to the U.S. deal with the Taliban that February. In a new set of proposals, Blinken recommended creating an interim government in which the Taliban and current Afghan leaders share power. It sounded more like an ultimatum than a proposal.

The United States has also widened diplomacy this month by again bringing in regional powers—China, Pakistan, Iran, India, Turkey, and, with no small irony, Russia—to come up with a unified way forward. Last week, Russia hosted peace talks between the warring parties that produced lofty but vague language about accelerating negotiations. In early April, Turkey is scheduled to host a conference—which could last for several days—to finalize an agreement. But relying on other nations has had mixed results. Decades of U.S. pressure to get Pakistan to stop arming and providing a haven to the Taliban have failed. Each country has its own allies, interests, and agenda.

The differences among long-warring Afghans are so profound that many U.S. officials and experts worry that a deal is either elusive, given the little time left, or unenforceable in the long term. The two sides are ideological opposites: the Afghan government insists that the country remain a constitutional democracy. The Taliban want a return to Islamic law. Senior U.S. officials are skeptical that the Taliban will ever allow free and fair elections. The Taliban have also demanded the release of more than seven thousand imprisoned insurgents as a condition for a peace deal. That’s a hard sell for the Afghan government. Last August, it freed the last of five thousand insurgents to help start the negotiations, which have gone nowhere. The release only beefed up Taliban ranks—and attacks. At the same time, the government is fragile, corrupt, deeply divided, and has limited leverage. One longtime American expert said that it is a “fantasy” to expect the Istanbul meeting to produce an enduring agreement. “We haven’t gotten the Taliban to compromise on anything,” he said. Ghani has his own ideas, too. In Turkey, he intends to reject the U.S. proposal for an interim, power-sharing government and to instead call for national elections in six months, Reuters reported on Tuesday. Compromise looks ever further away.

The second factor for Biden to consider is how to foster an enduring ceasefire. In his letter, Blinken proposed a ninety-day reduction in violence to head off the Taliban’s annual spring offensive. The fighting between government troops and the Taliban has only grown deadlier since the Trump Administration signed the peace deal thirteen months ago, General Austin (Scott) Miller, who was one of the first American soldiers to deploy to Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks and is now the commander of U.S. and nato forces in the country, told me in Kabul. “Militarily, without a doubt, they’re taking advantage of the agreement by moving and encroaching,” he said. The Taliban have made significant territorial gains. The Pentagon estimates that the Taliban now control half the country, which is slightly smaller than Texas; it disputes the Taliban claim that they hold seventy per cent of the land. The Taliban’s tactics have also become nastier and more focussed in targeted assassinations against civil society and female activists, judicial officials, local politicians, and media workers—all members of the post-2001 generation committed to political diversity, free speech, and modern development. Three female journalists—one only twenty-one years old—were shot, hunted down really, in the eastern city of Jalalabad ten days before my trip.

“The expectation that violence would gradually reduce as we went into the peace process is not taking place,” Miller said. Attacks on American forces have stopped, but more than ten thousand Afghans—a significant number of them civilians—have died since the U.S.-Taliban deal, a senior Army officer, who is now on his seventh deployment in Afghanistan, told me. Dozens of Afghan soldiers are dying every day in what has become a “staggering” death toll, General Kenneth (Frank) McKenzie, Jr., the head of the U.S. Central Command, told me when I travelled with him to Kabul this month. Americans haven’t taken notice because Americans are not the ones dying.

The U.S. military mission is now largely to train and advise Afghan forces, which have improved over the past twenty years, but they still have a long way to go. “Afghan security forces are nowhere near achieving self-sufficiency, as they cannot maintain their equipment; manage their supply chains; or train new soldiers, pilots, and policemen,” John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, testified to Congress, on March 16th. If there is no peace agreement by May 1st, Sopko said, “the government would probably face collapse.”

In a surprise trip to Afghanistan on Sunday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said that the United States wants a “responsible end” to the conflict. Austin oversaw the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq in 2011. But, according to McKenzie, there are no good military solutions for Afghanistan. “I think it would be incorrect if the Taliban think they can ride to military victory, given current forces that are in the country,” he said. “If we leave, it could be very different.”

One option for Biden is to extend the U.S. military presence for weeks or months, without a specific deadline. The U.S. deal with the Taliban pledged an American withdrawal if four conditions, including a permanent ceasefire, were met. The opposite has happened. But a delay carries its own dangers. The Taliban would almost certainly interpret it as a violation of the deal with Washington—and almost certainly end its ceasefire with American forces and intensify attacks on the Afghan government. (The last American deaths were in January last year, a month before the U.S.-Taliban agreement.)

“My assessment is May 1 means May 1,” Miller said. “That’s a real date in the Taliban mind of whether they continue with the U.S.-Taliban agreement.” U.S. officials expect May 2nd could be bloody—for U.S., nato, and Afghan troops. McKenzie warned that the government will be “in for a very stiff fight to retain possession” of major towns and cities. “If we leave, I think the Afghan forces are going to struggle.”

The argument for extending the U.S. presence has supporters and skeptics. “Why are we desperate to pull out of Afghanistan when we’re talking about few troops and no casualties in a year and a red-hot Taliban?” Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, told me. “We are selling out the Afghan people, particularly the women and girls of Afghanistan—and without any real need to do it except that we are tired and bored.”

Doug Lute, a retired lieutenant general and a former Ambassador to nato who worked the Afghan issue for both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama Administrations, is more skeptical. Lute said that the U.S. set unrealistically high expectations—for Afghans and Americans—about creating a central government capable of bridging deep political and social divisions between urban Afghans and more conservative villagers.

“The only way this gets settled is for the Afghan government to realize that we will not stay forever and that it has to negotiate with the Taliban,” Lute said. “We may not like it. Many Afghans living in cities may not like it. But the Taliban have arguably proved over the last twenty years that they are part of the authentic political fabric in at least part of the country.” The United States “can’t change that,” he said. “Given all the demands on our resources, I don’t find it compelling to stay for counterterrorism reasons or to prevent changes to the Afghan political system as we know it.”

The third factor for Biden is the prospect that Al Qaeda could regroup if American forces leave. The U.S.-Taliban pact last year stipulated that the Taliban would not allow Al Qaeda “to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.” But, given decades of intermarriage and shared ideological and military goals, counting on one jihadist group to contain the other may be unrealistic. Al Qaeda pockets “are not fully controlled by the Taliban,” Miller said.

Al Qaeda could reconstitute and be capable of attacking the American homeland within two to three years if U.S. troops withdraw, according to estimates by the U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East and South Asia. “I think it will be very hard for the Taliban to act against Al Qaeda, to actually limit their ability to attack outside the country,” McKenzie said. “It’s possible, but I think it would be difficult.” Other experts counter that the United States is now far more capable of preventing another 9/11-scale attack by foreign extremists owing to improved intelligence and homeland security, more sophisticated military options, as well as an international network of partners to help. A generation later, Lute told me, America has become a much more difficult target to hit—and counterterrorism should not be the deciding factor in deliberations on what the U.S. does in Afghanistan.

The fourth factor is U.S. credibility. President Obama travelled to Kabul in 2012, on the first anniversary of the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and signed a strategic-partnership agreement that designated Afghanistan a major non-nato ally. Three weeks later, nato leaders gathered for a summit in Chicago and committed to defending a “secure and democratic” Afghanistan and to “reaffirm that our close partnership will continue.” Crocker called the decision to withdraw “not only shameful but very, very dangerous. It’s a signal to our allies about the strength of our commitments and our attachment to principles on human rights.”

The final factor for Biden to consider is America’s future role in Afghanistan writ large, especially if the Taliban are part of the government after a U.S. military withdrawal. One of the poorest countries on earth, Afghanistan relies on foreign aid to function; provide social services; and pay its officials, troops, and police. In 2018, Ghani said that his army would not last six months without American economic support. In his congressional testimony, Sopko also predicted dire consequences. “Eighty per cent of that government money comes from the United States and our donors, including salaries for the troops, money to buy fuel, money to buy bullets,” he said. “So it’s a disaster for Afghanistan.” In Washington, interest in supporting countries often wanes when U.S. troops are out and the nature of the threat shifts.

At the end of “Charlie Wilson’s War,” Wilson—a Democratic congressman who had successfully lobbied for three billion dollars over a decade to aid Afghans fighting the Soviet Union—is lobbying his peers to help stabilize Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal. He proposes a mere million dollars to build schools in the war-ravaged country, but is resoundingly rebuffed by peers in Congress. “This is what we always do,” Wilson says angrily. “We always go in with our ideals, and we change the world—and then we leave.

“Charlie,” an unnamed congressman retorts, “nobody gives a shit about a school in Pakistan.”

Wilson replies plaintively, “Afghanistan.”

For Biden, an Anguishing Choice on Withdrawal from Afghanistan