An abrupt U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan undermines the fragile peace

Over the past four years, the Trump administration took bold actions to initiate negotiations between the Kabul government and the Taliban insurgency. For the first time since the Afghanistan conflict began more than 40 years ago, an Afghan government began talking to its main insurgent rival about creating a foundation for a stable future. Thanks to this diplomatic initiative, the pressing question about the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is no longer about winning an “endless war” but about brokering a lasting peace.

Congress called last year for the establishment of the Afghanistan Study Group, which we lead, to examine U.S. options in Afghanistan and to report in early 2021. In our eight months of consultations with U.S., Afghan and international leaders and experts, our 15-member bipartisan group believes it has emerged with a clear understanding of the current situation in Afghanistan — and what is necessary to protect U.S. national security interests.

Our study group has a strong and united position: An abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops, as is now being contemplated by the Trump administration, would undermine the fragile but potentially transformational peace process. It would embolden the Taliban, destabilize the Kabul government and allow terrorist groups to reconsolidate. A civil war could result, provoking a wider regional conflict and an inevitable humanitarian and migration crisis.

The U.S. military presence in Afghanistan underpins the negotiations, which offer the likeliest path to peace in that country since 9/11. Getting U.S. troops out of Afghanistan is the Taliban’s main goal. During our consultations with more than 60 interlocutors, we have looked intensely at the question of whether a credible peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban is possible. There has been one clear and consistent response: No deal will emerge as long as the Taliban believes the United States is withdrawing troops imminently, without regard for the Taliban’s behavior.

If the United States takes that path before genuine progress is achieved, it will give up the leverage that could produce a sustainable political compromise. Doing so would also damage U.S. credibility with its allies and partners.

At the same time, the greatly reduced U.S. presence over the past few years has signaled to the Afghan government that the United States’ patience and resources are limited, and that Kabul also must negotiate in good faith.

For the immediate future, the United States should embrace a peace-centered strategy that has the following elements:

First, we should make clear to all parties involved what the desired end state will be. In particular, a post-peace Afghanistan must be able to either sufficiently control its territory to prevent the harboring of terrorists or accept international assistance to do so.

Second, affirm the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan’s constitutional order and the country’s gains in human rights, including the rights of women. Having put severe pressure on the Afghan government to enter talks with the Taliban, the United States must now show that its support will continue as long as the Afghan government negotiates in good faith, fights corruption and reaches out to all elements of Afghan society. During the negotiations, our remaining troops will back Afghan security forces as they keep the Taliban from a battlefield victory and continue to lead the fight against terrorist groups.

Third, reemphasize to the Taliban that the full withdrawal of U.S. troops is strictly conditional on progress toward peace, including a genuine and broad reduction in violence — a reduction that at the moment is not in evidence. Our study group’s assessment is that the Taliban has instigated most of the recent violence and is undermining their claim that they can and will prevent the use of Afghan soil by al-Qaeda, the Islamic State or other terrorists.

Fourth, establish a more robust and coordinated regional diplomatic strategy. Afghanistan’s neighbors can be spoilers in this process, but they can also be supporters of peace, united by their collective interest in a stable Afghanistan that would greatly expand regional trade and investment opportunities. Concerted, unified diplomatic action by the United States is critical to build this support and prevent regional spoilers.

Americans generally agree that it is time to end this war. But withdrawing U.S. troops irresponsibly would likely lead to a new civil war, inviting the reconstitution of anti-U.S. terrorist groups and providing them with a narrative of victory against the U.S. superpower. Supporting peace negotiations offers the United States the chance to honor U.S. sacrifices, secure core U.S. interests and show this nation’s enemies that they cannot prevail.