President Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan extricates American troops from a complex war but does little to alleviate it. The Taliban is committed to restoring a version of its pre-9/11 emirate and appears uninterested in talks with other Afghans. Riven with infighting and corruption, the Afghan government is unable to put political pressure on the Taliban to negotiate peace.
Given the intra-Afghan deadlock and the imminent U.S. withdrawal, what happens now? Here are five things to watch.
U.S. personnel face threats as they leave — but the Taliban will be careful
Biden’s decision to start the withdrawal by May 1 breaches the Taliban’s demand that the United States should exit by that date — as outlined in the February 2020 Doha agreement. American negotiators have been unable to negotiate with the Taliban an extension of the deadline for U.S. troop withdrawal. The Taliban threatens attacks against the U.S. military after May 1. In response, the U.S. is moving an aircraft carrier with fighter jets to the region to protect military forces during the withdrawal.
Will the Taliban attack U.S. forces after May 1? Recent behavior of the group suggests it knows any significant harm to U.S. personnel can elicit a severe U.S. response and could alter the withdrawal timetable. At the same time, the U.S. overstay is a potential embarrassment to the Taliban leadership, as its political base was widely skeptical of peace talks. Thus, the Taliban faces strong incentives to demonstrate it has punished the U.S. for violating the Doha accord.
Possibly for this reason, the administration is planning on making the withdrawal as swift as possible — with the tentative plan of pulling out all troops by July 4.
The Afghan security sector may fragment
As U.S. forces pull out, the Afghan government and its military are likely to come under enormous pressure. Recently, chief of U.S. Centcom, Kenneth McKenzie, observed that the Afghan military “certainly will collapse” without U.S. support. Afghanistan’s security sector remains over-reliant on U.S. supervision while suffering from attrition and endemic corruption.
The American withdrawal will induce uncertainty about the continuity of U.S. military aid and whether the U.S. will come to support Afghans in a major contingency. Without a U.S. presence, Afghanistan’s warlords may ramp up arming and poach from the security sector. This may undermine the resolve of the Afghan military to stay in the fight and erode command and control, and create incentives among senior military officers and the rank and file to defect and cut deals with the Taliban. There may be side-switching by major political elites.
For now, the Taliban’s political strategy of forging its own internal strength and not forming alliances with elites and factions discourages elites from switching sides. Moreover, the Taliban is looking to exact revenge from leaders who sided with the U.S. — and this motive might lead to anti-Taliban ethnic militias, warlords and military leaders to form an anti-Taliban front.
Biden’s diplomatic leverage may be limited
Biden’s diplomatic options to mitigate the fallout of a U.S. withdrawal are limited. A recent U.S. effort to convene a U.N.-backed conference in Turkey between Afghan elites and the Taliban for a power-sharing arrangement was postponed. U.S. negotiators were unable to convince the Taliban to join the talks.
U.S. leverage to dissuade the Taliban from a stepped-up civil war is likely to go down. Once troops are out, the United States can no longer threaten to delay its departure, as it has in the past, to get the Taliban to engage in talks. Senior American officials believe the Taliban want international legitimacy — and that this will be a potential source of future U.S. leverage. In case of a civil war in which the Taliban prevail militarily, the administration is threatening it will sanction the resulting Taliban-led political order and make it an international “pariah.”
That threat is questionable for now, as the Taliban has strong relationships with U.S. adversaries such as China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran. Other U.S. levers remain, including U.N. sanctions, to which the Taliban are responsive.
The U.S. has more leverage on the Afghan government — it might still be able to threaten aid cuts to compel better behavior. Yet without American troops in the country, U.S.-Afghan government relations will enter new and uncharted territory. The Afghan government is also likely to seek support from non-U.S. sources.
Jihadists in Afghanistan are likely to reemerge
Anti-U.S. jihadists, such as al-Qaeda, remain in Afghanistan. According to the United Nations and U.S. intelligence, the Taliban continues to support al-Qaeda, though there is uncertainty about whether the Taliban will allow international attacks to be planned from Afghanistan. ISIS is also present but given its rivalry with the Taliban, it is weak and has no clear path to gain strength.
In his troop withdrawal announcement, Biden noted that al-Qaeda is “degraded” but sidestepped the issue of the Taliban’s ties to al-Qaeda. The administration didn’t address other groups that have aided al-Qaeda in the region, such as the resurgent Pakistani insurgent group the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Given the Taliban’s support for al-Qaeda and the TTP’s resurgence, al-Qaeda is likely to have some type of presence inside Afghanistan, perhaps also along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
The Biden administration is working to finalize a U.S. counterterrorism strategy from outside Afghanistan — relying on surveillance aircraft and special operations forces to monitor and target threats. For now, the main challenge is the lack of U.S. military bases nearby. Negotiating bases may require concessions to China and Russia, which have extensive influence in South and Central Asia. In addition to existing American bases in Gulf, India is a potentially easier basing option because of strong U.S.-India ties, but the U.S. will have to negotiate access to airspace over Pakistan into Afghanistan.
Civilian insecurity will worsen
Civilians may be at risk if the Taliban try to press their military advantage — and U.S. counterterrorism efforts could also challenge civilian security in the months ahead. Some civilians may try to flee toward Europe, especially vulnerable religious and ethnic minorities and working women, along with Afghans who worked with the U.S. forces.
In short, the U.S. may be withdrawing troops, but the war in Afghanistan isn’t over.
Asfandyar Mir is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University.