There are five national security reasons why the United States should keep a strong residual force in Afghanistan. There is also an important moral argument for why America should not abandon the Afghan people and leave them in the clutches of the world’s most savage terrorists. In a highly controversial withdrawal deal signed in February 2020 between the Trump administration and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, U.S. troops are to be fully withdrawn from Afghanistan by May 2021. Such a premature withdrawal will trigger a chain of events that will ultimately expose the U.S. homeland to major terrorist attacks.
As of December 2020, there was a bare minimum of 4,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. They had specific, limited missions: to fight global terror; prevent safe havens for Al-Qaida; stop terror attacks on the U.S. homeland; and train, assist and mentor Afghan Security Forces partners. In his final days as president, Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of 2,500 of those troops and left in place a plan to fully withdraw the remaining troops despite Congress passing a new U.S. law prohibiting such a drawdown. The withdrawal decision was made in a slapdash manner without any strategic thought, foresight or deliberation. President Joe Biden should reverse that order and revise the Doha deal for the following reasons:
1. Withdrawal Emboldens Global Terror
If the birth and rapid expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the aftermath of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in late 2011 is any lesson, there is the danger that a similar withdrawal from Afghanistan could result in a similar catastrophe that would revive global terrorism and embolden dangerous jihadists all around the world. The Taliban and other terrorists will exploit a U.S. withdrawal as propaganda to attract more finances, bolster recruitment, and expand the reach of their cause. Flushed with cash and donations, terror networks will have the financial wherewithal as well as the charm of a presumed victory to attract flocks of dissatisfied, jobless youth from the Middle East, South Asia, Africa, and even Europe, to join their ranks.
A similar situation happened in Iraq after President Barack Obama ordered a full withdrawal of the U.S. military prematurely in late 2011. As analyzed by NPR, that withdrawal, among other factors, resulted in a security vacuum, which led to the emergence and spread of ISIS—a ruthlessly vicious terrorist caliphate that wreaked havoc across the region, threatened Europe, and sent terror shockwaves across the globe. To this day, ISIS and its affiliates remain relatively active in many parts of the world, including Afghanistan, albeit significantly subdued by U.S.-led coalition forces that were re-deployed to stop ISIS. As the January 6, 2021, breach of the U.S. Capitol inspired domestic violent extremists in America, according to DHS, a premature departure from Afghanistan will inspire global terrorism all over the world.
2. Withdrawal Portrays U.S. Military as a Defeated Force
The United States has an unrivaled military might that no other country can match. The American military is respected and feared by both foes and friends alike. Imagine now, however, that U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan as dictated by the Trump-Taliban deal, just to appease a terrorist group—the result would be catastrophic for national security. Critics and tabloids would flush the internet with big headlines and juicy literature labeling U.S. military with defeat at the hands of a terrorist group. This would harm America’s credibility, taint America’s military, affect soldiers’ morale, torment U.S. military strategists for generations, and inflict damage to America’s reputation. In an interview with BBC last week, Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh succinctly warned that “the fate, reputation, and standing of the Western Civilization” hangs in the balance in Afghanistan. He added a sobering reminder that the Taliban would falsely label the U.S. withdrawal with “defeat, surrender, and escape.” Saleh emphasized that no one wants a jihadist state to come to power “anywhere in the world, especially if it comes, God forbid, by kicking the Western Civilization and the whole world out.”
3. Withdrawal Destabilizes a Nuclear-Armed Region
The South Asian region is packed with some of the world’s most dangerous terrorist groups determined to harm America and the West. It’s been reported that there are around twenty-four major terrorist groups operating in and out of Pakistan. With the U.S. military stationed in Afghanistan, those terrorists have been kept at bay and largely contained for the past twenty years. If the U.S. military withdraws from Afghanistan, those militant groups will be unleashed, mobilized, and on the march once again—destabilizing the region where two nuclear-armed arch-rivals, India and Pakistan, reside. This could spell further chaos for the global order. It is in America’s interest to help keep South Asia stable.
4. Withdrawal Exposes U.S. Homeland and Europe to Attacks
Once unleashed and left uncontested, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda along with other terror groups will start planning to target U.S. interests including U.S. embassies, consulates, and citizens around the world. Their growth will inspire terror cells in Europe and America to target the U.S. homeland as well as European capitals. Without a forward-deployed military presence in Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda will regain territory, strength, and base of operation from which it could once again mastermind attacks on the U.S. homeland and the European allies. In the war on terror, Afghanistan is the global frontline. You lose that frontline; you lose to terrorists everywhere.
5. Taliban Violating Peace Deal
The withdrawal of U.S. troops is tied to the Doha withdrawal deal. The deal was negotiated by Trump envoy Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. Afghans, although thankful for U.S. assistance, are critical of the deal and distrustful of Khalilzad. The Afghan government sees him as the architect of a deal that essentially surrenders Afghanistan to a terrorist group. In his BBC interview last week, Vice President Saleh argued that the Doha deal was a “fatal mistake” because it gave “massive concession[s] to a terrorist group” and elevated the group’s status by giving them undue international legitimacy. In exchange for full U.S. withdrawal, the deal required the Taliban to cut ties with Al-Qaeda, renounce violence, and negotiate a political settlement with the Afghan government. The Taliban complied with none of those terms, but Trump ordered pulling out regardless. Many months after the deal, the United Nations reported that the Taliban had not cut ties with Al-Qaeda, instead they enjoyed a close working relationship with promises to “honor their historic ties.” Last week, the U.S. Treasury Department also issued a report stating that “Al-Qaida was gaining strength in Afghanistan under the Taliban’s protection.” Furthermore, Taliban violence has increased ten-fold in lethality, complexity, and scope across Afghanistan. In addition to attacks on the government, the Taliban are now assassinating and targeting journalists, civil society and women’s rights advocates, TV personalities, female judges, American translators, doctors, and other civilians as well as destroying public infrastructure. Lastly, Taliban talks with the government are dishonest. They’re only engaged in talks to encourage U.S. departure. Afghan intelligence services say the Taliban are preparing for a massive “Tet Offensive-like” terror campaign this summer. Their aim: to overthrow the government and establish a jihadist Emirate and a global terror launching ground.
6. Collapse of the Gains of The Past Twenty Years
Lastly, it is morally imperative that America does not abandon its allies—the Afghan people. America and the world made significant investments in both blood and treasure in Afghanistan over the last twenty years. Close to a trillion dollars spent, thousands of U.S. and NATO soldiers sacrificed, and over 50,000 Afghan soldiers died fighting to establish democracy, allow girls to enroll in schools, and empower women to participate in society. While the gains are remarkable, they are fragile, nonetheless. A premature withdrawal will certainly result in the return of a Taliban jihadist clerical regime, waste all of these sacrifices and hard-fought gains, and usher in the collapse of the current regional order that will harm America’s national interest greatly.
President Biden should revise the Doha deal. A new agreement should follow a five-year plan and must require the Taliban to agree to and abide by a full ceasefire for a period of ten months. The deal must have a robust verification mechanism for compliance. During the first year of the ceasefire—the United States, in coordination with the Afghan government and NATO allies—should help move the site of the peace talks to inside Afghanistan. This is important because negotiators must be attached to the realities on the ground to engage in honest talks. An expensive tropical vacation spot like Doha doesn’t cut it. The parties should discuss the formation of a participatory future government based on fair and free elections as per the timetable in the Afghan Constitution. That future government should include Taliban members in it, in due time, as part of a national reintegration effort.
In the second year, the Taliban must go through a disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration process. In the third year, they should be able to participate in local parliamentary elections. By the fourth year, a fully disarmed, demobilized Taliban could participate in national elections with a formula to form a participatory government at the end of the term of the current government. Taliban must agree to respect women’s rights, international human rights, sever ties with Al-Qaeda and other terrorists, and pose no threat to other nations. The United States should remain in Afghanistan throughout this process with a strong residual force to see through this five-year plan. There is already bipartisan support behind troops remaining in Afghanistan. Biden is also not tied to any campaign promise of troop withdrawal. The cost of the war is already significantly lower compared to what it used to be a few years ago. And Afghans are doing the fighting themselves. It is far cheaper to remain and contain threats in Afghanistan than to leave, render America vulnerable to attacks, and then be forced to re-deploy the military.