Much about US withdrawal from Afghanistan is unclear

WASHINGTON — When he pulled the plug on the American war in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden said the reasons for staying, 10 years after the death of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, had become “increasingly unclear.” Now that a final departure is in sight, questions about clarity have shifted to Biden’s post-withdrawal plan.

What would the United States do, for example, if the Taliban took advantage of the U.S. military departure by seizing power? And, can the United States and the international community, through diplomacy and financial aid alone, prevent a worsening of the instability in Afghanistan that kept American and coalition troops there for two decades?

Gen. Mark Milley declined to say whether Afghanistan’s security forces are fully ready to stand up to the Taliban without direct international backing during a potential Taliban offensive.

“We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal, and expecting a different result,” Biden said April 14 in announcing that “it’s time to end America’s longest war.”

A look at some of the unanswered questions about Biden’s approach to the withdrawal.

Civilian contractors prepare to load a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle on to a flatbed trailer during the retrograde cargo operation on Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, July 12, 2020. (Sgt. 1st Class Core Vandiver/Army)

Civilian contractors prepare to load a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle on to a flatbed trailer during the retrograde cargo operation on Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, July 12, 2020. (Sgt. 1st Class Core Vandiver/Army)

WHAT HAPPENS AFTER THE TROOPS ARE GONE?

Predictions range from the disastrous to the merely difficult. Officials don’t rule out an intensified civil war that creates a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan which could spill over to other Central Asian nations, including nuclear-armed Pakistan. A more hopeful scenario is that the Kabul government makes peace with the Taliban insurgents.

Afghanistan’s interior minister said Saturday that Afghan security forces can hold their ground even if U.S. troops withdraw, challenging a warning from the United States predicting a withdrawal would yield quick territorial gains to the Taliban.

“I wouldn’t say that I’m optimistic,” Helvey replied, adding that a peace agreement is still possible.

A national army forces stands guard during the graduation ceremony of newly Afghan National Army soldiers after a three month training program at the Afghan Military Academy in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Oct. 28, 2019. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

A national army forces stands guard during the graduation ceremony of newly Afghan National Army soldiers after a three month training program at the Afghan Military Academy in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Oct. 28, 2019. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

HOW WILL AFGHAN FORCES HOLD UP?

But none of those things — the training, the advising or the financial backing — are assured.

Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, said negotiations with Afghanistan’s neighbors for overflight rights and troop basing are “moving forward” but will take time.

The Afghan air force is central to the ongoing conflict, yet it remains dependent on U.S. contractors and technology. The Afghans, for example, have drones but not the kind that are armed, making them less effective in battle.

Afghan Taliban militants and villagers attend a gathering as they celebrate the peace deal in Afghanistan's Alingar district of Laghman Province on March 2, 2020. (Noorullah Shirzada/AFP via Getty Images)

Afghan Taliban militants and villagers attend a gathering as they celebrate the peace deal in Afghanistan’s Alingar district of Laghman Province on March 2, 2020. (Noorullah Shirzada/AFP via Getty Images)

WILL THE TALIBAN ENLIST OR ASSIST AL-QAIDA?

In a February 2020 agreement with the Trump administration, the Taliban pledged to disavow al-Qaida, but that promise is yet to be tested. This is important in light of the Taliban’s willingness during their years in power in the 1990s to provide haven for bin Laden and his al-Qaida colleagues.

Joseph J. Collins, a retired Army colonel who has studied the U.S. war in Afghanistan since it began, notes that as recently as two years ago the Pentagon was alerting Congress to enduring links between al-Qaida and the Taliban. In a June 2019 report, the Pentagon said al-Qaida and its Pakistan-based affiliate, al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent, “routinely support, train, work, and operate with Taliban fighters and commanders.”

Collins is skeptical that the Taliban have genuinely renounced ties to al-Qaida.

“I don’t think that leopard has changed its spots at all,” he said in an interview.

This June 10, 2017, file photo shows an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter providing security from above while CH-47 Chinooks drop off supplies to U.S. soldiers with Task Force Iron at Bost Airfield, Afghanistan. (U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Justin T. Updegraff/Operation Resolute Support via AP)

This June 10, 2017, file photo shows an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter providing security from above while CH-47 Chinooks drop off supplies to U.S. soldiers with Task Force Iron at Bost Airfield, Afghanistan. (U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Justin T. Updegraff/Operation Resolute Support via AP)

WHAT BECOMES OF U.S. COUNTERTERRORIST EFFORTS?

The Pentagon says that all U.S. special operations forces will leave no later than Sept. 11. That will make counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan, including the collecting of intelligence on al-Qaida and other extremist groups, more difficult but not impossible.

The administration’s answer to this problem is to continue the fight from “over the horizon.” This is a concept familiar to the military, whose geographic reach has expanded with the advent of armed drones and other technologies.

Military officials say they will be able to respond to terrorism threats in Afghanistan even without troops on the ground there, but details are scarce.

But will it work? The administration has yet to make any basing or access agreements with countries bordering Afghanistan, such as Uzbekistan. So it might have to rely, at least at the start, on forces positioned in and around the Persian Gulf, meaning response times will be much longer.

In this April 15, 2021, file photo Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, right, meets with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, second left, and their delegations, at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Afghan Presidential Palace via AP)

In this April 15, 2021, file photo Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, right, meets with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, second left, and their delegations, at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Afghan Presidential Palace via AP)

WHAT ABOUT DIPLOMACY?

The administration says it will retain a U.S. Embassy presence, but that will become more difficult if the military’s departure leads to a collapse of Afghan governance.

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters this past week that securing access to the Kabul international airport will be key to enabling the United States and other nations to maintain embassies. He said the U.S. and NATO allies are considering an international effort to secure that airport.

Washington’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has told Congress the administration wants to protect those civilians, but that it is trying to avoid the panic that might erupt if it appeared the United States was encouraging “the departure of all educated Afghans” in a way that undermined the morale of Afghan security forces.

Much about US withdrawal from Afghanistan is unclear