The Afghanistan Withdrawal Conundrum

After more than 17 years, the United States and its allies are still in Afghanistan. While the reasons for entering were clear, the reasons for staying have become more obscure each passing year. The mission seemingly shifted from targeting Al-Qaeda to nation-building, a task made all the more complicated by the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And now, more than 17 years later (longer than the US involvement in WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined), the United States seems to be taking concrete steps to a full withdrawal from Afghanistan.

From the peak of NATO involvement in 2011, with 130,000 soldiers from 50 countries to the current force of 16,000 (14,000 of which are Americans), not much has changed and not much has improved. The long-standing task of NATO involvement was to train the Afghani military, so that it could combat the Taliban threat on its own. However, despite the US-led NATO mission shifting its focus towards this training back in 2014, the Afghan forces have dropped to their lowest strength since their inception. In a recent report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction to the U.S. Congress, it is also stated that an average of 1,742 enemy-initiated attacks occurred per month in 2018, and that the Afghanistan government’s control over the country dropped a few percentage points since July to 53.8%. This is despite President Trump’s deployment of 4,000 additional troops in 2017 and an increased air campaign, with airstrikes at levels not seen since the height of the war. It is clear that a military victory over the Taliban is not going to happen in the near future. The popularity of the war in Afghanistan is at record lows in the United States, and the Afghan military is struggling to defend what they have, much less take back the vast swarths of the country that the Taliban control. In fact, Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., in his confirmation hearing in December of last year, told Congress that he believed the Afghan military would dissolve if not for American support.

With a military victory seemingly out of the question, more and more attention has been drawn to reaching a possible political settlement. However, this presents almost an equally difficult challenge, as a fair number of influential states seem to have a stake in the Afghan peace process. First and foremost, the Taliban. Still maintaining control on almost half the country, the Taliban have managed to resist the best efforts of the US and its allies and continue to pose a significant security threat to the Afghan government. To make matters more difficult, they have refused to enter negotiations with the democratically elected government of Afghanistan, declaring them illegitimate and merely puppets of the Americans. To add to the complexity of the scenario, there are multiple negotiations occurring simultaneously. The United States, with its special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, have entered talks with the Taliban in Qatar and the UAE, while the Russian recently held an Afghanistan peace conference in Moscow. The United States and the Afghanistan governments did not attend formally, but the United States did send an observer. Just earlier this week, Russia hosted another round of talks, this time with senior Afghan politicians, including former President Hamid Karzai. Current Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani sees these outside initiatives as undermining the already fragile Afghan state, along with reducing his chances to claim negotiations as a personal victory to boost his reelection chances. 

Questions remain on what exactly would fill the space if and when the United States military pulls out of Afghanistan. Supposedly, a framework between the Taliban and the United States has been agreed to, in which the Taliban have provided guarantees that they will not permit terrorist groups like Al Qaeda from using Afghanistan soil. It is extremely difficult to have faith in these guarantees, and to do so one must believe that the Taliban will behave as rational actors and not provoke the United States into action again by facilitating terrorist attacks. In addition, should the Taliban attempt to bring Afghanistan back to how it was in the 1990s, they will find themselves confronted by an Afghanistan society and generation that has grown up with very different values and outlook on life and society. In fact, three women attended the talks earlier this week, in an attempt to emphasize just how things have changed since the Taliban held power over all of Afghanistan. Many Afghan citizens fear a return to the harsh regime, in which music and sports were banned and women’s rights were heavily restricted.  

While US-Taliban conflict and intra-Afghanistan conflict make this situation already extremely difficult, to make matters worse is the presence of global rivalries in Afghanistan. Pakistan has long been accused of supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, seeing them as a bulwark against possible Indian influence stemming from their much larger economic and investment potential, something Afghanistan will desperately need moving forward. India also is concerned that while the Taliban may have given assurances to the United States to prevent terrorist attacks on American soil or targets, no such assurances have been given to India. India fears that an extremist government in Afghanistan will further embolden Pakistan to continue its support for extremist groups targeting India, especially the Kashmir region.

With all these competing interests and values fighting over Afghanistan’s future, it seems that talks will continue for the foreseeable future. President Trump was confronted with a rare rebuke from the Senate Republicans on his withdrawal plans for Afghanistan, which would seem to indicate the United States will remain in Afghanistan for quite a while yet.