February 16, 2021
NATO defense chiefs at their upcoming ministerial are expected to approve a plan to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond the May Doha agreement deadline due to the Taliban’s alleged failure to divorce al-Qaeda and the need to support intra-Afghan talks. However, the irony is the decision will ensure a nearly dead peace process will not be resuscitated any time soon.
The NATO resolute support mission currently has a total of 9,592 troops from 36 nations stationed in Afghanistan which includes 2,500 American soldiers. NATO Secretary-General Jan Stoltenberg ahead of the February 17-18 summit said the alliance will not withdraw troops “before the time is right.”
This of course should not come as a surprise to the Taliban considering Joe Biden on the campaign trail said he would keep 1,500 to 2,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan in a special operations capacity to take out terrorist groups like ISIS. A counterterrorism mission of such a scope would likely require a long-term stay. Moreover, he seemed to indicate that the U.S. would keep such a footprint on the ground even if the Taliban did split with al-Qaeda.
The Taliban outrage over expectations that NATO will delay the troop exodus is largely meant to justify its abandoning of the intra-Afghan peace talks. It is worth noting that the peace talks in Doha have been frozen for the past 28 days, according to Tolo News. However, as observed by Middle East Institute Director of Afghanistan and Pakistan Studies, Marvin Weinbaum, the U.S. exit will ensure the process remains dormant.
“Their [Taliban] participation has largely been in order to ensure that foreign forces leave,” Weinbaum told the Sputnik newswire service on February 6. “Once the U.S. decides to keep an indefinite military presence, however small, the Taliban’s incentive to remain in the talks will be gone.”
That said, Weinberg also explained the reality that even if the U.S. left the violence would increase anyway. In the absence of U.S. air power, he claimed, the Taliban would mount a major military campaign against Afghan security forces.
The U.S. move may quash efforts to form an interim government, which posed an existential threat to the Ghani administration. One can bet that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani will breathe a deep sigh of relief once the troop exit delay is made official.
A power sharing arrangement, which would essentially nullify the results of the Afghan election, was being orchestrated by U.S. State Department envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, whom the Biden administration asked to stay on as special representative to the reconciliation process. The formulation would see Ghani on the outside looking in – but Khalilzad may have changed his tune.
In a February 4 tweet, after meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Khalilzad underscored that Washington’s “conditions based” strategy aims to prevent anyone from using Afghanistan to threaten the U.S. or its allies. He previously pushed an accelerated withdrawal in a bid to get Trump re-elected. Now, Khalilzad may be on the same page with the Biden administration in opposing a precipitous exit.
The Taliban, for their part, have noted that the group did not announce their spring offensive and have refrained from overrunning major cities.
“Our message to the upcoming NATO ministerial meeting is that the continuation of occupation and war is neither in your interest nor in the interest of your and our people,” a Taliban representative said as quoted by Tolo News on February 15.
The risk for the United States is the proverbial “slippery slope.” How long will it take before a troop delay turns into a Biden surge? To Biden’s credit, as vice president he opposed Obama’s troop surge. But the establishment tends to shape the agenda of every administration. Earlier in February, the congressionally-mandated Afghan Study Group, co-led by former Joint Chiefs Chairman Joe Dunford, formally recommended that the U.S. prolong its presence citing Treasury and UN reports that the Taliban was still collaborating with al-Qaeda.
The reality on the ground reveals that there are zero good options. The Taliban control 52% of territory inside Afghanistan while new reports have surfaced that Pakistan-based terror groups are bent on disrupting the peace process.
Regardless of the conditions on the ground, Andrew Bacevich, the president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, railed against the Afghan Study Group’s decision. In a February 10 piece for the American Conservative, Bacevich called the U.S. failure in Afghanistan “irreversible.” The nearly 20-year war, he argued, has left Afghanistan as a failed state and the U.S. “has neither the will nor the capacity to redeem it.”
“Afghanistan’s destiny will be decided by the Afghan people, which is both right and necessary… the only permissible response by members of the U.S. foreign policy establishment is the one thing they are incapable of: repentance,” Bacevich concluded.