Fourth, a Taliban victory could increase regional instability and security competition, as countries like India and Pakistan support a mix of central government forces, sub-state militias and insurgent groups. Afghanistan would further deteriorate into a proxy war among Afghanistan’s neighbors.
Based on the implications of a complete U.S. military withdrawal, Washington has several options, none of them favorable. The United States can withdraw all forces, but continue providing military and non-military assistance to the government and local actors. As the Soviet experience in the early 1990s illustrates, however, continuing outside assistance might only slow down—not stop—a potential government collapse.
Alternatively, the United States could keep a small counterterrorism force of several hundred or a thousand personnel in place as part of a phased withdrawal. U.S. special operations forces could work with the CIA, other intelligence agencies, NATO special operations forces, and high-end Afghan units like the Ktah Khas and Afghan National Army Commandos to capture or kill Al Qaeda, Islamic State and other terrorists. The United States might also utilize limited “enablers,” such as unmanned aerial vehicles and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets. But this option has substantial risks: U.S. forces would have little or no capabilities to assist the Afghan government in its war with the Taliban. With a major U.S. retrenchment that involved withdrawing most U.S. forces and enablers from Afghan provinces, the Taliban would likely conclude it could defeat Afghan forces militarily, overrun major cities and ultimately seize Kabul.
Finally, the United States could keep a force of roughly 7,000 to 14,000 U.S. soldiers, with European and other international partners. While this force size and posture is probably not sufficient to defeat the Taliban, it is likely sufficient to prevent a Taliban takeover of the government and control of urban areas. Washington’s goals would be limited: aggressively pursue terrorists that threaten the United States, prevent Taliban forces from overthrowing Kabul, and encourage a more sustainable and effective Afghan government. The Afghan government may not defeat insurgents in the near term, but it wouldn’t lose either.
Out of all the available options, this one is the least bad one. But President Donald Trump may be willing to play roulette in Afghanistan and gamble on withdrawal. He may hope that history turns out differently than the last time the Soviet Union and the United States abandoned Afghanistan in the 1990s, which indirectly led to 9/11. But the odds are stacked against him.
Seth G. Jones holds the Harold Brown Chair and is director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, dc. He was a senior advisor for U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan and is the author of In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan (W.W. Norton).