President Biden still hasn’t announced his decision regarding America’s military presence in Afghanistan. Although Biden’s administration is less than three months old, and he has more pressing matters to deal with, a decision point in America’s longest war is still fast approaching.
As part of a deal with the Taliban that was signed in February 2020, the Trump administration agreed that all foreign forces—including all American and NATO troops—would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by May of this year. Approximately 3,500 American troops remain in the country. With just weeks left before that deadline is set to expire, it’s clear the US will not be fully out by May 1.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki addressed this point during a press briefing on Tuesday. “Well, first, it wasn’t a deadline we set,” Psaki said, referring to the Trump administration’s agreement with the Taliban. “But the president—this president has conveyed that it would be difficult operationally to meet the timeline of getting all troops out by May 1.”
Psaki made clear that Biden has long been skeptical of America’s war effort in the country. Biden himself recently said he “can’t picture” having American troops in Afghanistan by next year. “But it’s also an important decision—one he needs to make in close consultation with our allies and also with our national security team here in this administration,” Psaki explained. “And we want to give him the time to do that.”
Throughout all of these deliberations, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has increasingly found himself on the outside looking in. His government, America’s ally in the war, was locked out of the negotiations between State Department Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban. The Afghan government had no say in the February 2020 withdrawal consummated between the two sides. Khalilzad made concessions to the Taliban on Kabul’s behalf—including authorizing an uneven prisoner exchange, in which the Taliban received freedom for up to 5,000 of its members and supporters while Kabul received just 1,000 prisoners held by the jihadis in return. Predict-ably, a large number of those freed fighters quickly returned to the fight in 2020, despite the Taliban’s assurances that they would stay out of the war.
However, the State De-partment isn’t in the business of exposing the Talib-an’s lies. Instead, Foggy Bottom has proposed a peace plan that whitewashes the Taliban, pretending that the group is willing to share power with Kabul, even though its leaders consistently say the opposite.
Ghani has attempted to gain some control over the diplomacy at hand by proposing his own peace plan, including holding another round of elections. Ghani says the Taliban should lay down its arms to take part in Afghanistan’s democratic elections. The State Dep-artment’s plan similarly en-visions the Taliban participating in countrywide elections.
But the Taliban isn’t going to participate in Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy. That’s a non-starter. The Taliban rejects democracy and elections as un-Islamic, Western inventions. The group terrorizes election sites and has warned civilians to stay away from voting locations, otherwise they will become legitimate targets. The group has established a shadow government throughout Afghanistan, with jihadi officials already exercising a degree of control in parts of the country. Which brings us to the actual decision on President Biden’s agenda.
According to several US officials familiar with the internal deliberations, the White House is considering a proposal to postp-one the withdrawal by several months. But that proposal hinges on the notion that the Taliban may be willing to lay down its arms in the name of a political settlement, one in which it shares power in some fashion with the current Afghan government. That is, Am-erican troops would stay in Afghanistan as some sort of counterweight to the Talib-an’s aggression as everyone pretends the jihadis are going to give up on their conquest for power.
There’s no good reason to pursue this course.
As I’ve written previously, there’s no real evidence showing that the Taliban is willing to settle for anything less than the resurrection of its totalitarian Islamic emirate. Its men have been fighting to restore the emirate since late 2001. In the February 2020 withdrawal deal with the US, the Taliban repeatedly referred to itself as “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” It also does so in all of its official media and messaging. Yet, the proposal to postpone the withdrawal assumes that it is at least possible the Taliban will change its objective — indeed, its nature — after all these years.
This is unrealistic. If Biden endorses this plan, then he could easily find himself at exactly the same decision point three, or six, or however many more months from now. No one can reasonably predict that the Taliban is going to lay down its arms for good at this point. The Taliban has never even agreed to a prolonged ceasefire, which Washington and Kabul have repeatedly requested for years.
In order for the Taliban to reach a political settlement with the Afghan government, the group would have to reverse itself on every key part of its agenda in the next several months. The Taliban has consistently referred to the Afghan government as an illegitimate “puppet” of the US, meaning that true compromise is off limits.
The Taliban’s men refer to their leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, as the “Emir of the Faithful”—a title usually reserved for a Muslim caliph. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was given this same title when the Islamic State declared its caliphate in 2014. For the Taliban’s jihadis and many of al-Qaeda’s followers around the globe, Akhundzada is essentially a caliph-in-waiting. Akhundzada would have to eschew this lofty title for a rather mundane post in a new government. It’s difficult to believe that Akhundzada and his men would be willing to have him serve as, for example, Afghanistan’s new religious minister, without the full political power to enforce the Taliban’s medieval ideological code.
Which brings us to the central problem for Biden: The Defense and State Departments are pretending that the Taliban doesn’t really want power for itself. Of course the group does. The Taliban is ruthlessly hunting down journalists and political activists as you read this. The group is hollowing out Afghanistan’s civil society in order to quash opposition to its draconian rule.
The “foreign” jihadis aren’t willing to participate in Afghanistan’s elections either. Al-Qaeda and various al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, including Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (or the Pakistani Taliban), are waging jihad to resurrect the Afghan Taliban’s Islamic Emirate as well. The Taliban was supposed to distance itself from these groups as a result of the February 2020 withdrawal deal. There is no evidence this has happened. In reality, al-Qaeda and like-minded organizations remain embedded throughout the Taliban-led insurgency.
Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) killed yet another al-Qaeda commander—a Tajik known as Abu Muhammad al-Tajiki—alongside a Taliban leader late last month. Abu Muhammad al-Tajiki was just the latest in a string of al-Qaeda figures to be found in Taliban country since the February 2020 withdrawal agreement was entered into by the Trump administration. Readers of Vital Interests understand this. But it still matters. The Taliban may be seeking additional concessions in exchange for a pointless withdrawal extension.
According to TOLOnews, the Taliban is demanding that up to 7,000 of its prisoners be freed and some of its key figures removed from the United Nations’ terrorist blacklist, which restricts travel and finances. If the Biden administration grants these concessions, in whole or in part, then it would only be giving the Taliban more manpower for its jihad, while making it easier for the group to fundraise for its Islamic Emirate.
None of this makes any sense.
President Biden really has only two options. He can either withdraw the remaining American forces as soon as possible, or keep them there indefinitely to stand up the Afghan government. If he chooses to complete the withdrawal, then he should do so without granting the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan any more concessions.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal. Follow Tom on Twitter @thomasjoscelyn.