Afghanistan Conflict Crisis Management International Norms Politics & Diplomacy Security & Defense
New Atlanticist August 6, 2021

Don’t lose Afghanistan

By James Cunningham, Hugo Llorens, Ronald Neumann, Richard Olson, and Earl Anthony Wayne

Staging a major military offensive. Ignoring calls for peace negotiations. Threatening women and executing prisoners and civilians.

Given the Taliban’s behavior lately, US President Joe Biden’s decision to rapidly withdraw US forces from Afghanistan appears increasingly questionable. While it’s not certain the Afghan resistance to the Taliban will crumble, a catastrophic outcome is still possible. Abandoning a courageous people as they attempt to fight back could leave millions of Afghans vulnerable to Taliban repression.

That’s why we recommend a course correction involving redoubled efforts to support the Afghan security forces—particularly through airpower, which is immediately critical—as well as the vigorous implementation of US promises of continued security, economic, humanitarian, and diplomatic support.

With continued limited engagement, which is the approach the United States is currently taking in Iraq, it is not too late to avoid complete state collapse and more chaos in the region. But the US government must act swiftly and resolutely in Afghanistan and in mustering global support.

A country in the balance

In consistently failing to engage the Afghan government in good-faith negotiations, the Taliban has signaled that it is going for all-out victory. The terms the group seeks—control over the country’s police, military, and intelligence service, as well as the power to effectively remove and appoint the head of state and other top officials—amount to a demand for surrender.  

The Taliban has also broken promises to keep freed prisoners off the battlefield and maintained its ties with al-Qaeda, while continuing to mistreat women and girls as well as mete out brutal justice against perceived enemies. Its members are flouting the supposed commitments they made to take the Doha peace process seriously.

All this suggests that the Taliban is intent on removing the current elected government in Kabul and restoring something resembling the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, consistent polling over many years suggests that large numbers of Afghans do not want to live under the Taliban. Those figures are now reflected on the battlefield as civilians increasingly join the resistance. In the western provincial capital of Herat, for example, an uprising led by former warlord Ismail Khan and aided by Afghan security forces pushed the Taliban back in recent days.

That led to dancing and singing in the streets of Herat—celebrations that were soon echoed in Kabul.

Yet while Afghans’ willingness to take up arms against the Taliban appears to be growing, it is not yet widespread. Significant in some provinces—such Takhar and Baghlan in the north and Nangahar in the east—but weak in others, the resistance remains disorganized. On Friday, for example, the capital of the southern Nimruz province fell to the Taliban despite local resistance by security forces and civilians. But if the latter are properly led and supported, they may yet become a potent force.

For its part, the Taliban is trying to counter this resistance with a combination of military moves and offers to cut deals with power brokers for privileged positions in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Why air support matters

A pivotal element to holding Herat, as well as avoiding the loss of other key cities, effective air support not only boosts the morale of Afghan officials and security forces but also supports intelligence and logistics operations. For the Afghan state, it buys time to recover its balance; for the United States and its allies, it provides space to consider what might still be salvaged after twenty years of development work.

This is why the Biden administration must urgently reconsider its decision to end close air support for Afghan forces by August 31.

More broadly, the United States needs to work with the Afghans to establish an air force of the size and structure that they need. After all, the slow development of the Afghan air force—though it is now performing well—is partly a US responsibility: While corruption and mismanagement plagued the Afghan side, the United States also wasted $549 million on shoddy cargo planes and lost a great deal of time by switching from rebuilt Russian helicopters to more complicated American Blackhawks. Washington also devised a system heavily dependent on support from foreign contractors and then decided to pull those contractors out of Afghanistan as part of the sudden withdrawal.

The urgent work ahead must include adequate training and maintenance to keep the Afghan air force flying. Plans and timelines should be realistic and developed with NATO and other allied cooperation and funding. NATO should also renew its commitment to providing its own air support until the Afghan air force is fully built (or peace negotiations are successful). This will spread out the burden and risk.

Importantly, the United States should designate a senior Department of Defense official to oversee defense-assistance efforts.

Clear-cut policy is key

Continued air support, however, is a short-term tactic to avoid defeat—not a policy. Nor is withdrawing US and NATO forces without sufficient planning for what comes next.  Supporting negotiations is helpful, but only talking about negotiating while the other side is winning militarily and pushing for surrender is futile.

The US approach should be to prevent the defeat and collapse of the Afghan state until a stalemate can force serious negotiations and a sustainable settlement. A deal that protects the broad spectrum of ethnic and tribal interests, including guarantees protecting the hard-fought gains of Afghan women, will only be possible through these kinds of talks. This is why negotiations should be constantly supported but not allowed to cripple military action, as was the case during the past year when the United States was largely on the defensive.

Providing humanitarian assistance is also crucial, as the Taliban’s military offensive has displaced tens of thousands of people and pushed Afghanistan toward a humanitarian and refugee crisis. The United States, which now shoulders an even greater responsibility for those left behind amid its withdrawal, should lead an international effort to marshal emergency humanitarian support for those affected by the violence. This could help avoid a potentially massive refugee movement throughout the region and beyond.  

There is no reason for Americans to turn their backs on the suffering Afghan people—especially when those Afghans are still putting up a fight. Many have adopted the values of freedom, human rights, and political liberalism that the United States has preached for twenty years. Now they seek refuge from death and persecution. Most want to stay and help Afghanistan; the US government must empower them.

Mustering global support

Peace, no matter how far off it seems, still needs diplomatic support. With the Doha agreement on the withdrawal of American forces failing to deliver serious Afghan-to-Afghan negotiations, Biden should appoint and support a new US envoy for Afghanistan and the region to reinvigorate diplomacy.

The envoy should be complemented by a United Nations (UN) counterpart with the authority to take the lead in working with the Afghan government, the Taliban, and regional players with a strong interest in stability in Afghanistan. These regional powers will not come together on their own, and the United States cannot lead such a process given its lack of relationship with Iran, a key actor.

The United States needs to play a supportive role in this process rather than engaging in independent initiatives. It should also get clear and collective agreement from crucial stakeholders—such as China, Russia, the European Union, the United Kingdom, India, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan—that they will not recognize or provide economic or financial assistance to a Taliban government imposed by force.

Helpfully, the UN Security Council this week issued a strong condemnation of escalating violence, human-rights abuses, and civilian causalities. But UN sanctions on the Taliban should not be lifted and no more Taliban prisoners should be released until the group takes tangible steps to reduce violence and engage in good-faith talks with the Kabul government. The Security Council should urgently consider imposing new restrictions on the Taliban, including a travel ban, unless such significant steps are taken.

The US government also needs to consider the wider impact and long-term effects of its new policy in Afghanistan. The toppling of the government in Kabul would destabilize South Asia—a region dominated by India and Pakistan, two antagonistic, nuclear-armed powers. But above all, an ignominious American departure from the country would send a terrible signal to other countries as the United States competes with China and other authoritarian states. If US security guarantees are not credible, why not cut deals with China?

It is late in the day, but the United States can, and must, act forcefully in Afghanistan with air and defense support along with robust diplomacy. The country’s future—as well as Washington’s global credibility—is at stake.

Ambassador James Cunningham was US ambassador and deputy representative to the United Nations (1999-2004), US ambassador to Israel (2008-11), and US deputy ambassador and ambassador to Afghanistan (2011-2014).

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

Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann was the US ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005-2007 as well as ambassador to Algeria and Bahrain.  He is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.

Ambassador Richard Olson was US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (2015-2016), US ambassador to Pakistan (2012-2015) and coordinating director for economics and development at the US Embassy in Kabul (2011-2012). He previously served as US ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.

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

Further reading

Related Experts: James B. Cunningham

Image: Afghan security forces keep watch at a checkpoint in the Guzara district of Herat province, Afghanistan on July 9, 2021. Photo via REUTERS/Jalil Ahmad.