There is no point to extending commitments in Afghanistan
On Jan. 22, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told his Afghan counterpart that the Biden Administration would assess whether the Taliban are living up to their commitments to cut ties with terrorist groups. While such an assessment is entirely reasonable for an incoming Administration, it must not be used as an excuse to halt the May 2021 end date of our military operations in Afghanistan, which the United States agreed to last year.
The deal brokered by the Trump Administration last February called for the United States to completely withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by May 2021. There were four primary conditions for this withdrawal. The US government and Taliban representatives agreed to a number of conditions. These include a guarantee by the Taliban that Afghanistan would never be used by any group or individual as a base to plan attacks against the United States; a timeline for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghan soil; that the Taliban will start “intra-Afghan negotiations with Afghan sides”; and that a “permanent and comprehensive cease-fire will be an item on the agenda of the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations.”
The conditions not part of the agreement are just as significant.
First, while the terms specified that talks were to begin between the two Afghan sides, there was no requirement that they be concluded before the withdrawal of American troops. Those discussions started last September and are currently ongoing. Second, the agreement did not require a cease-fire to be in effect — it simply stated it had to be an agenda item. Last December, both the Afghan Government and the Taliban representatives exchanged their proposed agenda items, and both included a cease-fire as a discussion item.
The Biden national security team must resist the temptation to dismiss the agreement or seek to unilaterally modify the terms. The United States has been fighting a pointless, unnecessary war in Afghanistan for nearly two decades. As of now, there is a firm date for the bleeding to stop and our participation in the war to end.
Already, many pundits in Washington are lobbying the new administration to cancel the withdrawal timeline and wait until the two sides have concluded a peace agreement. Not only is this not a provision of our February 2020 deal, abrogating it would almost certainly extend the fighting and might put the negotiations in peril.
The Taliban remain adamant that they have lived up to their side of the deal. They have stopped directly targeting US Forces. Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem recently told Tolo News that their side remains, firm on the commitment it agreed to. Yet a Taliban official last month warned that “if the US Forces do not withdraw from Afghanistan, we will resume our attacks against them.”
Many supporters of keeping US troops indefinitely fighting in Afghanistan claim – with some justification – that we cannot trust the Taliban’s promises and base our security on mere words. Washington should never entrust our security to promises given by any adversary. Fortunately, American national security is secured by our own, powerful intelligence and military capacity.
The US military has the ability to identify emerging or imminent threats against our country and then to project combat power anywhere on the globe to conduct a direct, targeted strike against the target. The US government has demonstrated this capability in several high-profile strikes in recent years, including taking out al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2013 and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019.
This same unblinking intelligence-strike capability already keeps the US safe from terror attacks, no matter where in the world the threat may materialize. We do not need combat troops permanently on the ground in Afghanistan in order to strike at threats to our country that may arise from there.
The best thing the Biden Administration can do after it completes its assessment of the 2020 agreement with the Taliban is to remain on schedule and complete the military withdrawal by May. The problems in Afghanistan are only going to be resolved by the parties that must live with the results. Keeping American troops beyond May will only extend our military futility and do nothing to focus the two sides on reaching a negotiated settlement.
Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the US Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.”