More than a year after the US and the Taliban signed an agreement in Doha to pave the way for a reduction in both Taliban violence and the American troop presence, progress on intra-Afghan talks remains limited and the security situation remains fragile. The agreement called for a phased reduction of US and international forces from Afghanistan, with a deadline for complete withdrawal by May 1, 2021. In return, the Taliban committed to reducing its levels of violence in the country and engaging in meaningful intra-Afghan talks with the Afghan government. However, the Taliban has continued violent attacks on Afghan targets and talks with the Afghan government have stalled. Gen. Scott Miller, the commander of US forces and the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, last month told the media that “Taliban violence is much higher than historical norms,” and that “it just doesn’t create the conditions to move forward in what is hopefully a historic turning point for Afghanistan.” The international community remains concerned that the talks could collapse altogether. Against this backdrop, troop reductions initiated by the Trump administration removed all but 2,500 US soldiers from Afghanistan. NATO maintains another 10,000 troops in the country, all of which are involved with training the Afghan military. There are questions as to whether the new Biden administration should stick to the May 1 timeline for a full withdrawal. The Biden administration needs to move swiftly to establish a clear strategy and principles to govern its approach to the war in Afghanistan. This is especially true as negotiations enter a critical period. With the withdrawal deadline looming large, there are four things the White House needs to do. Firstly, it must consult closely with NATO. The alliance has been directly involved in Afghanistan since 2003. Its future in the country was the top issue discussed at last week’s meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels. It is important that the US coordinates all decisions with NATO. As Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last week: “In together, adjust our presence in Afghanistan together, and when the time is right, we will leave together.” Secondly, the Biden administration needs to start doing a better job of explaining to the American public what the US is actually doing in Afghanistan today. Most of the domestic criticism of the mission in Afghanistan currently derives from a misunderstanding about the mission. The situation in Afghanistan today bears little resemblance to 2001, when the US invaded and ousted the Taliban, or to 2009, when President Barack Obama announced a surge in force levels, which peaked at more than 100,000 troops. It is no longer a major US-led combat operation, but a mission primarily designed to train, advise and assist the Afghans. The secondary mission is to conduct limited counterterrorism strikes and operations in partnership with the Afghans. In many ways, the US mission in Afghanistan now more closely resembles the type of “train and advise” missions that America conducts in numerous countries around the world. Admittedly, better explaining this to the American public should have been done years ago, but any effort to help inform the US public on the mission in Afghanistan would be better late than never. Thirdly, the White House needs to realize that no deal is better than a bad deal — and plan for a “no-deal” scenario. The Biden administration should not be afraid to acknowledge failure if the intra-Afghan talks break down. The US has legitimate national security interests in Afghanistan and in the region. If a lasting peace cannot be brought about through a negotiated settlement, America, its NATO allies and the Afghan government will have to develop a new strategy. To this end, the US should consider any request for more troops made by the Afghan government. If intra-Afghan talks reach a complete stalemate, the White House should at least contemplate any request from the Afghan government to provide additional assistance and capabilities to Kabul.
Finally, it should plan for a long-term US commitment to the Afghan military. The Biden administration needs to prepare for a strong US-Afghan bilateral relationship regardless of the outcome of the intra-Afghan negotiations. In conjunction with allies and partners, it must continue to provide financial assistance to the Afghan military for the foreseeable future. The cost to the American taxpayer will be far greater if the security situation requires a new infusion of US forces. For example, at the height of the fighting in Afghanistan in 2011 and 2012, Washington was spending $120 billion a year. For 2021, it plans to spend only $4 billion on funding the Afghan Ministry of Defense — about the same amount it was spending every 12 days in 2011. The Biden administration, like those of Donald Trump and Obama before it, has inherited a complex situation in Afghanistan that defies easy solutions. While President Joe Biden will naturally be preoccupied with domestic concerns, not least recovering from the coronavirus pandemic, the war in Afghanistan will demand his attention as negotiations enter a critical phase and the May 1 deadline approaches. The US military, America’s NATO allies, the Afghan government, and the Afghan people are now looking to the Biden administration for — and indeed deserve — clarity on how it intends to approach and resolve America’s longest ever war.