Feb 22, 2021 - World

Biden has only bad options as Afghanistan withdrawal deadline nears

Biden greets the remains of a soldier killed in Afghanistan at Dover Air Force Base in 2016. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

There are just 10 weeks left of America's war in Afghanistan — at least on paper.

Why it matters: Donald Trump pledged a full troop withdrawal by May 1 as part of a deal struck one year ago with the Taliban. President Biden must now decide whether he can bear the risks of honoring it.

The big picture: Under the deal, the Taliban promised to reduce violence, engage in peace talks with the Afghan government (which was not a party to the Trump-Taliban deal), and ensure that Afghanistan doesn’t again become a haven for terror groups like al-Qaeda.

  • The Taliban has stopped targeting U.S. and NATO troops but continues to attack Afghan forces. Intra-Afghan peace talks have stalled, and the Taliban has refused to cut ties with al-Qaeda.
  • Meanwhile, Trump pulled the U.S. troop count down to 2,500 from around 13,000 before leaving office. NATO allies have another 8,000 troops in the country.
  • Flashback: The troop count rose as high as 100,000 under Barack Obama. The most prominent internal opponent of Obama’s surge was Biden, who has long argued for a smaller operation focused on counter-terrorism.

The state of play: The Pentagon has accused the Taliban of shirking its commitments but says the deal remains operative. Biden also kept on the man who negotiated it, Zalmay Khalilzad.

  • NATO hasn’t decided whether its troops will remain beyond May, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last week. The alliance’s decision will be closely linked to Biden’s.

Biden has three broad choices.

1. Get out on time.

  • Exiting entirely before May could lead to the “collapse of the Afghan state” and “renewed civil war,” according to a recent report from the Afghan Study Group, a congressionally appointed commission led by former Joint Chiefs chairman Joe Dunford.
  • The commission also warned that Afghanistan could again become a base for terror groups to plot against the U.S. within "18 months to three years."
  • If Biden finally ends America’s war in Afghanistan, he could be forced to watch cities fall to the Taliban and hard-won freedoms for Afghan women erased.
  • The argument for fully withdrawing is that there’s never going to be a happy ending to this war, and 20 years is long enough.

2. Pull out of the deal and return to a “conditions-based” approach.

  • The Taliban would likely resume attacks against U.S. and NATO forces and withdraw entirely from the intra-Afghan peace process.
  • That would leave the U.S. once again facing an open-ended commitment to Afghanistan and the prospect of sending additional troops if conditions deteriorate.
  • The argument for this approach is that the Taliban has no intention of holding up their end of the deal, and America has put too much into the fight to see its gains wiped out.

3. Seek an extension to the deadline and put renewed emphasis on the peace process.

  • That would buy Biden time and give the intra-Afghan talks some chance of success.
  • But it would require the Taliban to agree to an extension just as their primary objective — the removal of foreign troops from Afghanistan — is coming into focus.
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