United States President Joe Biden announced the complete withdrawal of all American troops from Afghanistan by September 11, the twentieth anniversary of the attacks on New York and Washington that resulted in the US-led military invasion.
The announcement has proven controversial in US policy circles. Some have argued for a conditions-based withdrawal, contingent on securing adequate counterterrorism guarantees and a peace settlement between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban. Assessments from US intelligence agencies in recent months found that a withdrawal in the absence of an intra-Afghan peace deal would likely lead to the collapse of the government in Kabul within a couple of years and the potential resurgence of al-Qaeda in the country.
However, Biden’s long opposition to “forever wars” has seen him unwilling to extend the exit timeline, as his administration shifts its focus towards emerging security challenges in East Asia. He has limited space for manoeuvre given the ceasefire agreement signed with the Taliban under President Donald Trump last year that committed the US to complete withdrawal by May 1, 2021. The Taliban has repeatedly asserted that a failure to pull out by this deadline would lead to war.
Disaster can still be averted if the Taliban opts for a reasonable response to this announcement, the Afghan government manages to come up with a unified position on a peace settlement and the international community extends the necessary political guarantees to both sides. Biden’s announcement of a new withdrawal date intends to undo the damage the Afghanistan strategy of his predecessor had caused. While it has been seen as an attempt to buy more time to counteract the poor sequencing of the 2020 peace deal, first and foremost, the objective of this delay is to repair relations with NATO, which had been damaged under Trump.
The transatlantic relationship suffered from Trump’s accusations that NATO members were not paying their dues to the alliance and his threats to sanction Germany, the top contributing nation in Afghanistan after the US. The negotiation of the troop withdrawal agreement with the Taliban last year also took place without sufficient consideration of the needs of NATO members, who are dependent on the US military for airlift support.
The choice of September 11 as a withdrawal date, therefore, is as logistical as it is symbolic. It is designed to give enough time for NATO members to coordinate with the US their departure from Afghanistan. The day after Biden made the announcement, NATO issued a statement saying its troops will also leave on the same date. This move by the Biden administration should be seen within the context of its efforts to steer US foreign policy back towards multilateralism. Rebuilding relations with NATO and other partners is perceived as necessary so that the US is better equipped to face various global challenges, such as China’s rise and climate change.
The timeline of the withdrawal announcements seems to indicate that the Biden administration aimed for the US and NATO to speak in one voice at the UN-facilitated intra-Afghan conference in Istanbul, originally scheduled for April 14.
The Istanbul Conference is the centrepiece of the fast-track diplomatic push launched by the Biden administration last month in an attempt to get to a solution before May 1. It was set up to involve regional powers and make headway on an intra-Afghan peace settlement ahead of the US withdrawal. After the Taliban failed to respond to the proposed date of April 14, it was pushed back to April 24. The group’s spokesperson released a statement saying the unilateral withdrawal extension constitutes a violation of the agreement and permits the Taliban to take “necessary countermeasures”.
The value of the Istanbul conference will have to be clarified to the Taliban leaders to secure their participation. Some of their demands – the release of Taliban prisoners, removal of UN Security Council sanctions, and a specific demand from Turkey for a reduction of military support to former Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum – will have to be addressed.
In light of this uncertainty, the fact that the Afghan sides and many international stakeholders have seemingly leaped towards Istanbul and abandoned the negotiations under the Doha process is dangerous for this delicate stage of the peace process. Switching between mediation channels without the commitment to a clear end will only consume time at the expense of a peace deal, particularly as the key problem remains the absence of a mandate for a formal mediator role.
The divisions within the Afghan government and competing peace proposals from President Ashraf Ghani and the US have complicated matters further. This further convinces the Taliban of the inability of the government negotiators to make sound, unified decisions.
Regardless of what happens with Istanbul, the Afghan government, led by the High Council for National Reconciliation, must come up with a unified position and both sides should aim to announce a formal declaration of guiding principles as a benchmark for further talks.
With the US and the world signalling their interest in Afghanistan is waning, it is time for Afghans to take the lead in the negotiations and to agree on a permanent ceasefire and a peace settlement. The coming months will be critical in determining whether the Taliban and Afghan government can show the necessary leadership for governing the Afghan people weary of war.
This is the moment for Taliban leaders to demonstrate to the Afghans and the world their political prudence. For them, at least, there is a silver lining to the withdrawal announcement in that it represents a marked difference from earlier reports that NATO troops would remain without the US on a longer condition-based schedule.
It is critical for the Taliban leaders to carefully examine the context of the US and NATO withdrawal commitment in order to avoid falling into the trap of launching a retaliation because of a narrow preoccupation with dates. The lack of credible assurances from the Taliban that its return to Kabul will not erode women’s and minorities’ rights and its failure to reduce violence to an acceptable level has raised insecurity and led other political factions to start arming. It is clear that the high level of polarisation and anti-Taliban sentiment across Afghanistan as well as opposition in the region to an Islamic Emirate or similar regime risks sparking a conflict if the group tries to walk into the capital in September.
It is important to note that the Taliban has consistently stated that it does not wish a repeat of the 1992 civil war, and they do not seek a collapse of the Afghan state. These longstanding positions could be cited to set new parameters for what must happen between May and September, instead of confronting the US announcement.
This would allow Afghanistan with the support of the US and its allies to offset the destabilising influence of regional states, including Pakistan. Cooperation on ensuring an orderly and peaceful withdrawal can come in exchange for regional and international political and security guarantees for Afghanistan.
The good news is that many of the major obstacles that have delayed the negotiations in the past have been removed. President Ghani has accepted the withdrawal and a possible early end of his term, the leaders of the various Afghan political factions have shown a willingness to engage, and a strong level of trust has been built between members of the Afghan negotiating teams in Doha which paved the way for a set of agreed principles. Now that the way forward has been cleared for Afghan leadership, Afghans must take on responsibility for the success or failure of future proceedings.