The Afghanistan Exit Plan for Washington

Image source: 1st Lt. Verniccia Ford/U.S. Army/Handout via REUTERS

“America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests”-Henry Kissinger

If any country bears the greatest brunt of the change in the US presidency, it is Afghanistan. The swings in the foreign policy of Washington have led to a new turn in the lives of the Afghans. President Biden announced in January that his office will be reviewing the US Taliban Deal. 

The deal’s crux point was “Taliban will not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qaeda, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies”. This was aligned with Mr Trump’s agenda of “Making American Great Again” and undoing the “wrongs” of the Obama administration.

Former U.S. President, Donald Trump in Afghanistan/ Image source: Reuters

While his predecessor, President Trump was adamant about ending the longest war his country has ever fought, President Biden seems unclear about it. With Mr Trump gone, the US foreign policy is expected to take a turn, for better or worse. While Biden has announced his plans for reviewing the deal, it is worth noting that the US military has met its goal of reducing the number of soldiers in Afghanistan to about 2,500. The remaining soldiers are expected to be withdrawn by May 1. All this leaves Afghanistan in a perilous condition. 

An incoming Taliban Betrayal?

Experts like NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned that withdrawing troops too early would mean that Afghanistan would be back to pre-2001 days and the Islamic State could easily regain control. The Taliban has been swiftly capturing cities for several months now, winning important outposts and military bases such as Kunduz and Kandahar. Gaining control of a financial hub like Kandahar will be a massive victory for the insurgents. Conquering of these cities despite the harsh winter and terrain indicates the technological advances these forces have made as a response to their American counterparts. Taliban has also deployed hundreds of small armed drones to defeat the Afghan soldiers. The terrorists have also seized national highways in Pul-i-Khumri. These advances point towards the goal that the Taliban has always wanted to achieve; capturing Kabul. Highway checkpoints have been installed in major provinces such as Helmand and Uruzgan in the south, and Kunduz and Baghlan in the north. These activities have already delayed the handover of the American airbase Kandahar Airfield to the Afghan soldiers. Despite several assurances by the Taliban deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar that his organization is committed to stabilizing the region, the Doha Agreement seems to be in jeopardy.

Image source: AP

The current US President might not differ strongly from his predecessor when it comes to the withdrawal of troops. He has been a strong supporter of ending the longest war his country has ever fought. Experts suggest that President Biden announced that his office is reviewing the deal might mean a lot may not be changed in the future. This brings us to the main problem- leaving Afghanistan without any commitment to the local partners and allies can be disastrous to the United States. 

When the Kurds, a local ally of Washington in Syria, were abandoned by the US soldiers, they found a new partner in Russia. This aggravated the situation in the region as the US and its allies lost control of strategically important areas. On the other hand, Russia now effectively controls the government in Syria. Washington has already paid a hefty price for this mistake and cannot choose to repeat it in Afghanistan. Not only would it destabilise the road to Afghan peace, but it would also lead to a more hostile subcontinent. The United States cannot simply withdraw its soldiers from this war and claim victory, it has to bear consequences for its actions. It must work with the local allies and regional partners to help negotiate a deal that supports it long after leaving the arena.

What could peace look like?

Washington has the geopolitical luxury to fly out of this war any moment it wishes to. However, it should not mean that this is what it does. To establish long term stability in the region, it should start negotiating with the local allies. A proper treaty should be in place before May 1st which is mutually beneficial for both parties. The local allies should be rewarded appropriately for their loyalty over the years. With the Taliban increasing its territory every second day, the support of these allies would be crucial once Washington withdraws all its forces. 

The prisoner swap agreement should be worked upon. While the joint declaration does not specify the number of prisoners that would be released, the President stated that there is no absolute commitment to release 5,000 prisoners. Mr Ghani has also asserted that it is the authority of the Afghan government. Before leaving, Washington needs to make sure a proper prisoner swap agreement is in place. Both the parties need to negotiate on the absolute numbers and how this exchange will work in the long term, even when the United States is not actively involved in the process. 

Image source: 1st Lt. Verniccia Ford/U.S. Army/Handout via REUTERS

As far as Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation is concerned, it should be allowed to function independently. The main grievance that the Taliban had with Washington was the constant intervention in issues that the former perceived as “internal matters”. The US can monitor the decisions of the Council and ensure that differences are negotiated between the parties. While the Taliban’s records suggest that negotiating with its leaders can be a tough job, the United States cannot risk destabilising the entire region again merely on suspicion. 

The United States should engage with regional players to ensure that the Taliban does not jeopardise the Doha Agreement. Afghanistan cannot leave this war easily like the US, it will have to live the consequences forever. Similarly, its geographical neighbours will also have to bear the brunt of this war. Afghanistan is surrounded by powerful regional players such as Pakistan, Iran, India, Russia and China, most of which also happen to be nuclear power states. No one wants a failed nation at its doorsteps. These regional players would gain enormously by stabilising the subcontinent. 

The United States has done what it does best, i.e., create a crisis. It now has a moral obligation to its regional allies as well as local Afghan partners to make sure that its exit is carefully calculated. It cannot risk creating another Syria like situation. 

The Biden administration has to come up with a carefully crafted exit plan before the 1st of May. Extending this timeline will prove to be disastrous for all the players involved. Taliban would start accusing the US of making false promises and would back out of the Doha Agreement. Without the Agreement, there is no purpose for the US to withdraw its troops to start with. 

History judges empires for the legacy they leave behind. Washington has a chance to correct its mistakes of the past. It all now depends on how the Biden administration responds to this situation. Will it repeat the mistakes of the Bush administration or carve a new path for itself?

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Samridhi Shrivastava

Samridhi Shrivastava is a first-year law student at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. She has a keen interest in international relations and wishes to research in the same field.

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