As the fourth president of the United States to oversee the country’s two-decade-long effort in Afghanistan, Joe Biden expressed his intent, as expected, to cut the U.S. military presence in the region by Sept. 11 this year. Such a strikingly determined call to reverse the preexisting “conditions-based” protocol of withdrawal sounds bold yet sober. The logic behind it is dual: limited national resources and recalibrated strategic priorities.
The United States, unfortunately, is caught in a vortex of devastating social disruption, a pandemic-boosted economic slowdown and a severe government budget deficit. As the entanglement with the Taliban in Afghanistan drags on, the Biden team will confront a growing economic burden and casualties, which could have profound consequences for the Democrats in the upcoming 2022 midterm elections.
Despite beefed-up military input — roughly $100 billion per year spent and more than 22,906 U.S. soldiers killed or wounded in action, not to mention private security contractors and Afghan security forces — the Taliban has steadily ascended to power in one-fifth of the country’s districts. Possession of territory by the government is heading downward to 25 percent as a result of bad management. Should anyone claim the geographic result is debatable, then he or she would not deny the fact that roughly half the Afghan population still reside in contested areas. The 20-year effort has yielded government coverage of only 36 percent of the population at most. Facing stalemate, thousands of stationed units are less likely to turn the tide with substantive military results, so the pullout policy is perceived as a stop-loss measure.
Further, the new U.S. administration is priming for a pivot to Asia, since it says the strategic goal in the Middle East has been fulfilled. An internal assessment affirms that the terrorist threat against the U.S. abroad is diminishing, given the degraded capability of ISIS and al-Qaida under sustained counterterrorism pressure. After Sept. 11, Uncle Sam’s primary objective in Afghanistan was to lower the terrorist threat against itself and allies — considered long before to have been achieved by Operation Neptune Spear, the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in 2011.
As for the Islamic State group, statistics last year suggested it was active within only a few districts of Kunar Province following the capture of its regional commander, Abu Omar Khorasani.
In fact, as pointed out by Brookings’ Vanda Felbab-Brown, the main threats to the American homeland are more inclined to stem from places like Africa or other parts of the Middle East, rather than from Afghanistan, notwithstanding the Taliban’s unwillingness to disconnect with Al-Qaida. The regional issue, accordingly, is expected to be permanently resolved through other offshore efforts at lower costs, including but not limited to airstrikes, special operations, diplomacy, economic sanctions and humanitarian aid. In doing so, guided by the principle of “middle-class foreign policy,” Biden portrayed drawing down the engagement in the Afghan conflict as critical in sustaining the global stature of the U.S.
Therefore, additional resources need to be mobilized and redistributed for broad investment in domestic programs and tied to the great-power competition with China, as implied by the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance report.
Although the crux of Biden’s statements singles out Beijing’s expanding influence, manifested through Washington’s reactions to raise the game, this approach is by no means without risks, nor even close to the end. Laudable though Biden’s aspirations could be, three real challenges should have been approached long before now and need assiduous attention.
First, a resurgence of terrorism in Afghanistan remains likely after the U.S. leaved. The Afghanistan Study Group, mandated by the U.S. Congress, released a final report in February calling for a delay in the Biden administration’s withdrawal of the U.S. military until all parties involved fulfill their commitments. The group identified conditions that should be met for a further exit, highlighting a demonstration by the Taliban of its readiness to contain terrorist groups, together with a reduction in violence against Afghan citizens and progressive achievements in the political sphere.
Several European allies also expressed concerns that a hasty departure could turn Afghanistan back into a safe haven for terrorism, since the U.S.-led NATO coalition is sticking to the campaign pledge of “in together, out together” due to heavy demand on the logistical and intelligence support of the U.S. The term “safe haven” seems to exaggerate the likelihood of another attack on the U.S. homeland. The prospect has been down to a minimum over the past few years, with threats mainly deriving from domestic extremists or so-called lone-wolf attacks.
Yet the concern is valid over synchronized dynamics between terrorism at home and overseas, such as Afghanistan and surrounding countries, characterized by being decentralized and technology-savvy. For fear of action by any quasi-ISIS militia against American or allied assets, “retaining a suite of capabilities” for intelligence purposes, as suggested by CIA Director William J. Burns, might be an alternative as a precaution.
Progress for peaceful resolution is quite unstable and fragile, as well. The toll on civilians from all manner of conflicts has not abated according to the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, let alone twists in peace talks, accompanied by either an IS affiliate’s violent attacks or the Taliban’s uncompromising rhetoricc. Beyond that, almost 1,800 civilian casualties, including 573 lives lost have been documented in the first quarter this year, 29 percent growth compared with the same period a year earlier. Grievously once again, women and children were the main victims. Those casualties have risen by 37 percent and 23 percent, respectively.
An array of actions inevitably raises questions about the departure, particularly among the naysayers, about the real motives behind the Taliban. What appears to be uncertain is whether the Taliban really yearn for peace. Or is it that their leaders simply utilize truces as leverage for negotiation so that Taliban forces can overthrow the Afghan government once the foreign troops withdraw from the region? As the withdrawal proceeds, ironically, restricted intelligence capabilities in the field may reinforce the already swamped strategic distrust, possibly leading to Washington’s miscalculation of its counterpart’s desires.
But the government-rebel power balance is brittle. The insurgents keep gaining power from the support of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence — from financing and training to leadership contacts in the Taliban leadership council, Quetta Shura. Plus, the Taliban’s radical Hanafi ideology, with its austerity and negative treatment of females, is publicly at odds with what America advocates. Seemingly intransigent, these conflicts could lead the peace process to an impasse once again.
The third imbroglio, and most far-reaching, is the country’s dire economic prospects, which are inextricably intertwined with social issues such as poverty, unemployment, food safety and opium poppy cultivation. If the 47-percent poverty rate provided by Asian Development Bank is not sufficiently overwhelming, the recent UN estimate could be gloomier: More than two-thirds of the Afghan population will live below the national poverty line because of the pandemic. Under such circumstances, NGOs and relief agencies might find it nearly impossible to exercise their programs without the facilitation and protection of coalition troops and private military contractors. The country’s infrastructure, moreover, is not self-sustaining owing to a lack of professional staff for maintenance.
It takes even less imagination to foresee how Afghan institutions will collapse on account of disproportionately high corruption and low governance capacity, not to mention that this enduring “cancer” has long been tolerated by U.S. officials, according to confidential documents released in the media. “Ghost soldiers” bred by U.S. taxpayers, represent an egregious case in point. Numerous enlisted Afghan security forces have emerged out of nowhere, with the sole responsibility of pocketing their commanders’ salaries, rather than repelling the extensive insurgency.
It’s not just an exception. Confirmed by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), less than one-fifth of appropriated money was spent on effective facilities, and over $2.4 billion in U.S. capital assets were wasted. If investment ventures riddled with graft are the first part of the tragedy, opium eradication is another massive obstacle that hinders American ambitions. The collapse of the economy and the scarcity of other sources of income forced many farmers in the country to cultivate opium to survive. It then boosted the Taliban’s activities, with profits reaching $400 million in 2018 from the narcotics trade. Interwoven with other factors, a vicious cycle has persisted in which opium is emblematic of lifeblood among local power brokers. Hence, an attempt to solve one problem at a time will never pull this country out of the mire.
In the short run, the U.S. withdrawal does not bode well for regional stability and may throw Afghanistan back into turmoil. The intensity of power struggles — not only between the government and Taliban but between politicians and local warlords — is rising. And one must also note the porous and weak law enforcement system.
Then again, all these issues, deeply rooted in this barren land, barely have anything to do with the U.S. pullout per se. Withdrawing thousands of personnel is never the point. Instead, it is symptomatic of a demand for a more resilient strategic framework, one that envisions building a nation and allows for feasible power-sharing.
While “mission impossible” may seem an overstatement, the long odyssey of the Biden administration must spare no effort in the exit-related package. And I doubt that the job can be completed within a couple of months. After all, the military units will ultimately leave, for better or worse, and who then will be responsible for those suffering in the quagmire that remains?