Although the war in Afghanistan is already one of the world’s deadliest, the risk is high that it might intensify in 2021. A nascent, fragile peace process has not diminished the violence experienced by Afghans, and an uptick in targeted assassinations has sent shock waves through urban areas, even though a US-Taliban agreement signed in February 2020 diminished the Taliban threat to US personnel. It also committed the United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to a total withdrawal of forces by May 2021 and the Taliban to preventing Afghan territory from being used by transnational terrorist groups to threaten the United States and its allies. Currently, the parties’ wait-and-see posture toward the Biden administration—watching particularly for signals of commitment, or not, to the February deal—is slowing the talks. An Afghan political settlement by May is virtually impossible, and an increase in violence and the potential collapse of the peace process was identified as a top concern for US policymakers.
There are two main scenarios for increased violence. First, if the United States withdraws all forces this year without a political settlement, the peace process would collapse and the scramble for power that would ensue would likely lead the country into a bloodier, multi-sided civil war. Second, if the United States blows past the May deadline without reaching a new timeline understanding with the Taliban—or decides to maintain an indefinite, even if small, military mission—then the Taliban would once again contest the US presence and violence would likely rise. In either of these two scenarios, the disappointment of regional countries that are expecting the United States to leave and the Taliban to gain a share of legitimate power would probably manifest in increased support to the insurgent group. If the peace process plods along during 2021, then more or less a status quo level of violence is most likely; the Taliban probably will not agree to a ceasefire until they secure significant political benefits in exchange. The best scenario for violence reduction would be dramatic progress in the peace process, but this is the least likely scenario for 2021.
The Biden administration will probably prefer to further wind down American involvement in the war in Afghanistan, but will have difficult calculations to make. It will have to decide whether the remaining risk of terrorism emanating from Afghanistan justifies maintaining a troop presence that would be incompatible with any political settlement with the Taliban. And it will have to consider that keeping troops there would tag the administration with responsibility for perpetuating the US role in the twenty-year conflict. Although the differential direct consequences for US security posed by the choice between staying and leaving may be minimal, the administration will also have to weigh the political costs of the ugliness that would follow a withdrawal absent a political settlement—including a possible collapse of the Kabul government, new refugee flows, and roll-back of freedoms for women and others. Afghanistan is not a high-profile issue in the United States now, but might become one in these circumstances. The path of least resistance may be keeping even an underperforming peace process going as long as possible. This peace process still has some chance of producing the best possible outcome, but how long the process can be sustained beyond the May deadline is uncertain.
There are currently 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan, along with 6346 US contractors. US force levels peaked at 100,000 in 2011. For the first time ever, there are more allied troops in Afghanistan (about eight thousand) than US forces there. While small in number, US personnel still provide important functions, including intelligence and air support for Afghan forces. The United States also provides Afghanistan with a critical $4.8 billion in assistance per year, which funds 80 per cent of the Afghan government’s security expenditures.
In the prevailing situation, the Biden administration has three options: withdraw US forces as scheduled by 1 May; cite Taliban violations as justification for pulling out of the accord and maintaining an indefinite US military presence; or, ask the Taliban for an extension of the withdrawal deadline, citing the Taliban’s violations and delays in peace talks between the militant group and the Afghan government.
The situation has grown murkier as on the one hand, the Taliban have signaled publicly that if all international forces are not withdrawn by May 2021 they will resume their jihad against the foreign presence and will withdraw from the peace process. On the other hand, a withdrawal in May will likely lead to a collapse of the Afghan state and a possible renewed civil war. It is therefore feared that a precipitous withdrawal could lead to a reconstitution of the terrorist threat to the US homeland within eighteen months to three years. Given the risks of options one and two, Biden is likely to opt for number three: trying to win Taliban support for extending the withdrawal deadline while intra-Afghan peace talks continue. The Biden administration is likely to ask other countries, including China, Iran, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, to pressure the Taliban into amending the agreement.
Under a withdrawal agreement by the Trump administration and the Taliban in February 2020, there should be no US troops left in Afghanistan by 1 May. Some of the remaining US troops conduct Special Operations missions with Afghan partner forces against international terrorist organisations including al-Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State. The rest of the troops train, advise, and assist Afghan security forces as part of the NATO’s Operation Resolute Support.
The Pentagon has mentioned that the Taliban have not met their commitments casting doubt on whether US forces will exit by 1 May. No final decision has been made. According to the US-Taliban agreement, a complete US withdrawal is conditional on the Taliban’s break with international terrorist organisations, such as al-Qaeda, and on its prevention of activities on Afghan soil that threaten the security of the United States and its allies. It has also come to knowledge that the Taliban also promised US negotiators that it would not attack international forces, large Afghan cities, and some other targets. However, the Taliban have not disavowed al-Qaeda; indeed, the United Nations reports that relations between the two are as close as ever. And although the Taliban have refrained from attacking US forces, they have escalated attacks against Afghan security forces and civilians.
An underlying issue seems to have been the central government’s reliance on abusive militias and the militia-like Afghan local police to keep the Taliban at bay given an overstretched military. The problem has to do with the combat capability and motivation. Afghan Special Forces are quite good; the Afghan Local Police and Afghan [National] Police are often corrupt, poorly equipped, poorly armed, and poorly trained. The Afghan National Army also has corruption, which can sap combat motivation.
The Afghan governance has long had an important role for local power brokers, who are often predatory and tend to enforce their edicts on the local population with militias and other unofficial armed groups. When the government tolerates militias, it’s providing more armed people to fight the Taliban, but also enabling the enforcers of local warlords and power brokers. These groups preying on the population generate resistance to the government and sympathy for the Taliban. [But] to disband them all of a sudden would take an [already] overstretched Afghan security force and give it a much bigger job. Some kind of longer-term strategy for replacing them with government security forces is necessary, but it is going to take a concerted effort because these militias are bound up with local power brokers who will resist any attempt to wind the militias down. TW