Afghanistan: What now to avoid disaster?

Bitter fighting lies ahead in Afghanistan, with the coming withdrawal of all US and NATO forces from the country. The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) will go from doing most of the fighting to all of it, as well as all of the dying, which they have already been doing in recent months.

But as US President Joe Biden has said, the United States still has interests worth supporting in the country, and there are actions the coalition must take rapidly to improve the chances that a twenty-year struggle will not end in complete defeat for the laudable aims the United States and its allies have pursued.

The decision to withdraw is not one some of us favored, but that decision is made. Time spent debating its wisdom is time better employed deciding what to do now.

The coming test of US diplomacy

The decision sets up a major test for US diplomacy in Afghanistan, in the region, and with international partners and rivals. Demonstrating that Biden’s commitment is serious will require immediate action.  

There is substantial agreement on the interests that the United States and its international partners retain in the country. First, potential terrorist threats need to be addressed effectively. Second, values the United States and its partners espoused and which a substantial number of Afghans have embraced—including women’s rights, freedoms of speech and the press, free and fair elections, and the constitutional order—are still important. Biden, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and congressional leaders in Washington have highlighted their commitment to these values and promised continued assistance in upholding them in Afghanistan.

It is still possible to support these interests. But time is short and there are many doubts in Afghanistan, among our partners, and in the region about the United States’ ability to follow through.

The Biden administration needs a clear and effective focus on implementing all elements of a coherent policy to “stay in the game,” in Blinken’s words. This is now the Biden administration’s responsibility to get right.

The United States currently has numerous working groups addressing the details of implementing the president’s policy. Major issues include how to maintain an effective counterterror mission without forces in Afghanistan, how to support the US embassy with no military nearby, how to continue to support the Afghan security forces, how to keep delivering vital economic and humanitarian assistance to the country, how to coordinate with other governments in doing so, and what can be done diplomatically to advance the cause of peace with Afghans, neighbors, and international partners, among others. The US government also needs to agree on important details about continued US funding to Afghanistan and how to monitor those expenditures to prevent fraud.

There is a natural tendency to want to finish developing these plans before making more announcements. But these policy reviews will take time. In the interim, millions of Afghans are very worried—and Afghan and regional actors are gauging their reactions. Waiting to finalize and put flesh on these plans would be a major mistake, because Afghanistan will soon face crucial trials.

The view from Afghanistan

The Taliban have been emboldened by the United States’ withdrawal, and major Taliban attacks are already underway. There are indications that the Taliban will soon move to capture one or several provincial cities. There are no clear signals that any of the desperate attempts to find a rapid route to peace will succeed. Taliban statements make clear that they believe they have won a major victory over the United States and that they can soon achieve victory over Afghan forces. The Taliban are combining these military efforts with intensive initiatives to make deals with individual Afghan power brokers in Kabul.

If the ANDSF resists the early Taliban onslaughts, that will buy time and boost Afghan self-confidence. The result could be a long war. If the Taliban recognize that there is no easy path to victory, they might reconsider negotiations.

But if Afghan forces lose these battles—if multiple cities fall—the game may be over, and a rapid unraveling of the Afghan army and the Kabul leadership becomes a possibility.

Afghan friends in Kabul tell us most everything is in doubt: What are US statements worth? What does the United States plan to do? Under these conditions, many Afghan political leaders may be more interested in seeking out a safe place, looking to make a quick profit, or finding a position in the potential new order. There seems to be endless scheming to see if the United States will back a particular person or group to take power in some transitional government.

This lack of clarity about where power presently resides undercuts the morale of security forces and the millions of younger Afghans who want to maintain a freer and more open Afghanistan. For whom and for what are they to risk their lives?

Amid this doubt and uncertainty, Afghan friends tell us that more and more educated Afghans are considering leaving the country, including people they never believed would depart. Afghanistan is on the verge of a major brain drain that will further sap the government of its ability to govern. Such an outcome is not in the interest of the United States, which must do what it can to strengthen the will of Afghans to remain and fight. How can this be done?

A plan for the United States to pass its diplomatic test

In the past, the US government has counseled Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to broaden his government and advised others to unify with him. This is the wrong advice now, at least if it would mean further weakening the government’s authority or perceived legitimacy. Afghan politicians will each demand a price for support: ministries, governorships, and police commands. Unity under such conditions will not improve governance.

The United States and its partners need to make clear their support for Afghanistan’s constitutional order. If that order falls apart, and the only agreed-upon mechanism for taking power in the country is removed, the slide into civil war will be rapid. Support for constitutional order necessarily includes support for the Afghan president, while recognizing the important roles of other actors including Abdullah Abdullah, who leads the High Council for National Reconciliation. The constitutional order must be protected if there is any hope for peace and stability in Afghanistan. The Kabul elite need to realize this and support that order. If new elections can come out of a peace agreement, Ghani has offered to step down early and not run in such an election. Holding him at arm’s length or weakening him further in the hope that the Taliban will join the current or future negotiations or agree to a ceasefire would be a mistake.

A step of major symbolic importance would be to invite the president of Afghanistan to the United States to meet with Biden and Congress.

A step of major symbolic importance would be to invite the president of Afghanistan to the United States to meet with Biden and Congress. If the United States and its allies underscore that they support the constitutional order in Afghanistan, spoilers among the Afghan elite may pause in their destructive quest for separate power and be more open to a deal with Ghani.

Those who doubt the importance of such a visit need only consider the almost frantic quest in Kabul to seek US backing. The exaggeration of US influence has become a staple of Kabul politics: Politicians constantly want to know who the United States is supporting so that they can adjust their policies accordingly. The belief that the United States is the kingmaker is unquenchably Afghan. The distortion caused by this dynamic has frequently been a burden. Now, for a short period, it might be an advantage.

A parallel and equally important action is for the United States and others to stop appeasing the Taliban. Even with the three-day truce just announced, the Taliban are doing nothing for a peace settlement, as one can see by their refusal to attend a peace conference in Turkey or to engage substantively in the Afghan-to-Afghan negotiations in Doha. Decisions on releasing more Taliban prisoners or removing Taliban leaders from the UN blacklist that prohibits them from traveling should be left to the Afghan government. The US should not further weaken that government by pressing for more unilateral Afghan government concessions to the Taliban.

It is crucial to remember that Pakistan’s training and material support for Taliban fighters, and the sanctuary and protection it provides the Taliban’s leaders, have been essential to the insurgency. More recently, Pakistan has helped bring the Taliban to negotiations but does not seem to have helped move the negotiations to substantive matters or reduce violence in Afghanistan. The United States needs to join with its allies in urging Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders to assist with efforts to bring peace to its neighbor. Pakistan may well be more open to this message as the potential for chaos in Afghanistan looms larger.

The United States must also make evident in practical terms its continued support for the ANDSF and the functioning of a civilian government in Kabul. Rhetoric has little credibility when there is doubt on the battlefield. Hopes that the Taliban would reduce violence and enter substantive negotiations have proven illusory.

Those who are waiting for a kinder Taliban to emerge need to look at what is happening on the ground. In addition to regular terrorist bombings that result in horrible civilian casualties, the wave of assassinations targeting Afghan civil-society leaders, judges, journalists, and election officials sends an unmistakable message: such people are not welcome in the Taliban’s Afghanistan. They must leave or die.

Biden has said that the United States’ word, with regard to the February 2020 agreement it signed with the Taliban, must be worth something. (We should note that the Taliban have not complied with the agreement, especially when it comes to breaking ties with al-Qaeda.) But the United States must honor the agreements that former US President Barack Obama signed with Afghanistan’s government as well. Those agreements committed the United States to continuing military assistance and support for protecting and promoting democratic values, among other things.  

This can be done by making clear and public funding commitments to support the Afghan security forces in the years ahead. The United States must develop a workable plan to help keep basic Afghan government services running, to back civil-society organizations, and to provide for basic humanitarian needs. Washington urgently needs to decide how it will deliver this assistance without the network of US contractors on which it has depended until now.

It is also time to transition from a largely unilateral peace effort to a broader multilateral one. US diplomacy got the Taliban to negotiations, but with the removal of its troops and the conclusion of its own agreement with the Taliban, the United States is no longer positioned to act as a unilateral peacemaker. Now is the moment for the United Nations (UN) to play a more prominent role in the process, as the United States has asked it to. The UN cannot do so by working under the shadow of a powerful parallel negotiating process. An approach that maintains the status quo will produce too much friction as US friends, enemies, and everyone in between look beyond the UN and the international community to see what new policy zigs or zags are coming from the Americans.

This does not—repeat, not—mean that US diplomacy should stop. It should in fact be intensified, but in support of UN efforts, with diplomatic partners, to advance the peace process. The United States will remain an essential player in keeping partners together and regional parties such as Russia and China engaged constructively. The United States also has a unique role in trying to mitigate Pakistani hedging by claiming to support peace while giving the Taliban sanctuary and scope to aim for a military victory.

Many of its NATO allies wanted the United States to stay in Afghanistan. Although the United States did not follow their advice, NATO too still has a vital role to play in the country. Announcing a NATO conference with the Afghan government, the sooner the better, to determine how security assistance will now be provided to the Afghan military would be a significant symbol of continuity.

Similarly, a swift, high-level session chaired by the World Bank with donors and the Afghan government would provide needed agreement on how economic assistance should continue to flow to the country.

These meetings would send powerful messages to Afghans that they can still count on international support, while providing valuable coordination on the steps forward.

As part of this work, the Biden administration should urgently engage Congress to add money for the ANDSF and the Afghan economy. The recent announcement of an additional $300 million in US civilian assistance for Afghanistan this year is not enough. These were funds already allocated and embargoed by the Trump administration to put pressure on Ghani. The embargo needed to be removed, but only new money will put credibility behind US promises to keep aiding Kabul after coalition troops have left the country.

A big test is coming on the battlefield in Afghanistan. It will be decided by Afghans. But through rapid, highly visible actions, the United States and its partners can still do what they can to shore up Afghan morale and leadership—and to convince the Taliban to negotiate.  

Ambassador James Cunningham was US deputy ambassador to Afghanistan in 2011 and US ambassador to Afghanistan from 2012-2014. He is also a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.

Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann was the US ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005-2007.

Ambassador Hugo Llorens was US assistant chief of mission in Afghanistan from 2012-2013 and charge d’affairs from 2016-2017.

Ambassador Richard Olson was US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (2015-2016) and previously served at the US embassy in Afghanistan (2011-2012) as well as US ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and to Pakistan.

Ambassador Earl Anthony Wayne was US deputy ambassador to Afghanistan and coordinating director for development from 2009-2011. He is also a nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center and a distinguished diplomat in residence at American University’s School of International Service.

Further reading

Related Experts: James B. Cunningham and Earl Anthony Wayne

Image: Schoolchildren walk past an Afghan National Army soldier keeping watch at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, on April 21, 2021. Photo by Mohammad Ismail/Reuters.