Former President Donald Trump’s decision to sharply reduce U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, with a full withdrawal of American forces to be completed by May, puts hard-fought U.S. gains at great risk and encourages the Taliban to continue pressing for military victory. Missourians, like all Americans, should be concerned about the implications because it was the Taliban that hosted the al-Qaida planners of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. President Joe Biden can still thwart a quick U.S. policy failure while still working to end the longest war in U.S. history.
Trump’s pseudo-peace agreement struck with the Taliban included bringing American troop levels to zero before the completion of the peace process while pressing the Afghan government to make unilateral concessions. This is not a peace but an entire retreat for the United States, which means simply giving the country to the Taliban.
Understanding the insurgents’ psyches is vital for ending the war, but successive U.S. governments have virtually ignored psychological tactics while confronting the Taliban. For the Taliban, the withdrawal of troops translates into defeat of the invader — the United States. American officials have repeatedly signaled the intention to withdraw, boosting Taliban hopes of recapturing the control they lost in the 2001 invasion.
Once U.S. troops have exited, Taliban leaders will have no use for a negotiated solution. They prefer a victorious war resulting in the reoccupation of Kabul because they achieved more support from the anti-U.S. powers in the region by pressing forth with repeated offensives. In their minds, they probably question what, exactly, diplomacy has brought them in the past two years. The Taliban’s morale has also vastly risen after thousands of their veteran fighters were released during these negotiations, and as many as 90% of those freed have rejoined the war against U.S.-backed Afghan forces.
Trump’s statement about the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan before the peace negotiations were completed worsened the situation and vastly motivated the Taliban toward military triumph. The Taliban goal is to achieve in this campaign what the mujahedeen celebrated after the Soviet withdrawal. To defeat and humiliate a superpower is, in their minds, the highest calling.
The United States repeated Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s mistakes in Afghanistan by staying too long and assuming that brute power could snuff out the resistance.
Like the mujahedeen, some Taliban leaders also said they would continue the war against the Afghan government after the U.S. withdrawal. Given the demonstrated fighting superiority of the Taliban versus Afghan troops, a U.S. withdrawal would ostensibly reverse all the gains of the past two decades. After the withdrawal of American troops, the Taliban will undoubtedly attempt to repeat the past history to collapse the government and demolish democratic institutions that the international community worked so hard to build up.
Presently, even during the peace process, the Taliban has been violating the agreement. The Taliban had agreed to reduce violence in the deal but instead intensified operations to seize provincial capitals while maintaining its campaign of targeted assassinations of officials, intellectuals, political activists, journalists and civil society leaders.
Reports by the United Nations and the Pentagon show that the Taliban have constantly met with al-Qaida amid negotiations with the U.S. There are immense possibilities that the Taliban would break any deal with the U.S., let al-Qaida reconstitute a presence in Afghanistan and establish a new, potent threat to U.S. and international security.
Trusting the Taliban without maintaining a U.S. military presence to enforce the agreement is not reasonable and woefully unrealistic. The Taliban has broken its pledges to the U.S. several times in the past. In early 1996, the U.S. demanded that Taliban officials hand over Osama bin Laden to American authorities or expel him from Afghanistan. Despite indications that the Taliban would shun bin Laden, the leadership welcomed him as a guest. After that, al-Qaida enjoyed a safe haven in Afghanistan. From Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, the terrorist group orchestrated attacks on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, and the 9/11 attacks.
A successful agreement would ensure that the Taliban stop supporting terrorists, and that the Taliban and Afghan government reach a political settlement that it will maintain a constitutional government and protect human rights. Only then should the U.S. withdraw its troops entirely.
Biden should change the policy he inherited from Trump and not sacrifice the gains the U.S. has made in the last two decades — gains that were accomplished at the expense of more than 2,000 American soldiers killed in Afghanistan and about $1.5 trillion in taxpayer money. Biden should make clear that the entire withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan will be delayed until the Taliban is fully meeting its commitments.
Biden needs to be clear that anything short of a full Taliban commitment to peace and sharp reduction of violence will yield an end to peace negotiations, tough sanctions on the Taliban leadership and a resumption of U.S.-backed government operations across Afghanistan to crush the group.
Hizbullah Khan is a Joplin-based political analyst focusing on U.S. foreign policy.