Even under the best of circumstances, the next five years in Afghanistan will be difficult. Were an optimal scenario to emerge with a peaceful, sustainable power-sharing arrangement between the Ghani administration and the Taliban, Afghanistan would still struggle with a range of short- and long-term challenges without clear solutions. The impact of COVID-19, youth unemployment, economic crises, terrorist spoilers, elite in-fighting, pervasive corruption, and regional rivalries—to name just a few—could be devastating. Worse, such a stable political outcome is far from assured, as both the process of reaching an agreement through intra-Afghan negotiations and ensuring its smooth implementation will be fraught for a host of reasons. Continued or increasing instability could, in turn, exacerbate the underlying economic, security, and governance challenges outlined above for years to come.
From a U.S. perspective, these scenarios are a far cry from outcomes once envisioned for America’s intervention in Afghanistan. Having tried and failed to defeat the Taliban on the battlefield while building robust Afghan governance and military institutions, Washington has rightly scaled back its objectives to better match its capabilities and those of its Afghan partners. Looking forward, American interests in Afghanistan will continue to evolve, but largely center on preventing negative outcomes rather than achieving positive ones. The Trump administration thus seeks to: 1) limit the risk of international terrorist attacks from Afghanistan; 2) secure a politically tenable exit via a negotiated agreement; and 3) free up resources to focus on great power competition.
The challenge for U.S. policymakers will be squaring these limited aims with various challenging contingencies that could emerge in Afghanistan over the coming years. Perhaps the most likely near-term scenario is slow, limited movement in negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, with violence holding at roughly current levels until the departure of international troops. It bears asking, though, how the United States might adjust its approach in the face of setbacks, and what—if anything—would force Washington to deviate from its current military exit strategy. Barring the outbreak of all-out conflict or the rise of an international terror group in Afghanistan threatening regional stability (including of neighboring, nuclear-armed Pakistan), a U-turn seems improbable. Even with the election of a Biden administration, this approach is unlikely to shift in any significant way. To manage future challenges, Washington would be wise instead to rely more on diplomatic and economic tools—including civilian and military assistance—to shape outcomes while acknowledging the limits of such approaches.
Defining U.S. Interests
Recent U.S. statements and agreements provide a window into Washington’s evolving interests in Afghanistan. As articulated in the February 29 United States-Taliban deal, limiting terrorism risks to the U.S. homeland and establishing a politically viable exit strategy dominate. Specifically, the United States seeks to “prevent the use of the soil of Afghanistan by any group or individual against the security of the United States and its allies” and ensure discussion of a “permanent and comprehensive ceasefire” in intra-Afghan talks. In return for counterterrorism guarantees, the United States and its international partners will fully withdraw all military forces “including all non-diplomatic civilian personnel, private security contractors, trainers, advisors, and supporting services personnel” by April 30, 2021. The only mention of future outcomes in Afghanistan is a reference to a “new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government as determined by the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations.” This government will have “positive” relations with the United States, which will “seek economic cooperation for reconstruction” in Afghanistan “and will not intervene in its internal affairs.”
Notably, a simultaneously-released U.S.-Afghan joint declaration goes further in tying U.S. interests to strong Afghan institutions, suggesting lingering debate over the scope of U.S. aims. In it, Washington agrees to provide “support for the Afghan security forces and other government institutions” and to conduct counterterrorism-focused “military operations in Afghanistan.” The United States likewise commits to “seek funds on a yearly basis that support the training, equipping, advising and sustaining of Afghan security forces” and to “continue positive relations, including economic cooperation for reconstruction.” Absent from the text is any mention of women specifically, though it notes the importance of “building the Afghan institutions necessary to establish democratic norms, protect and preserve the unity of the country, and promote social and economic advancements and the rights of citizens.”
One additional U.S. interest involves reorienting towards the growing priority of great power competition with China and Russia. The 2018 National Defense Strategy outlines “consolidate[ing] our gains in … Afghanistan while moving to a more resource-sustainable approach,” through the support of “enduring coalitions.” As Washington shifts its focus from post-9/11 terrorist threats to countering revisionist powers, Afghanistan is seen as a vestige of the former. Freeing up the strategic focus and resources currently dedicated to Afghanistan would allow the Pentagon to better align its commitments with what policymakers perceive as more pressing emerging threats.
Looking forward, over the next few years, how will the United States balance tradeoffs between these interests and future challenges? A number of potential scenarios are worth considering in this regard, less for the purposes of making specific predictions than for illustrating points of tension that could emerge under various contingencies. As with any hypotheticals, and particularly those about a situation as fluid as Afghanistan, these are at best very rough sketches of a few challenging scenarios U.S. policymakers could face in the coming years.
First, how would Washington respond to one or a series of small-scale terror attacks in the United States traced back to Afghanistan? Such attacks would directly contradict the terms of the United States-Taliban agreement and belie administration claims to have sufficiently secured the homeland. Should the attacks occur before the full withdrawal of U.S. troops, a temporary pause in the drawdown seems likely, both to facilitate a kinetic response and signal the severity of the violation. If, instead, U.S. and coalition forces have fully withdrawn at the time of the attack, policymakers would face a more difficult decision. Notably, the 2014 United States-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement remains in force through the end of 2024 and beyond, so long as neither side seeks its cancellation after a two-year notification period. A redeployment of troops to Afghanistan would nonetheless be a politically costly reversal similar to the 2014 redeployment of U.S. forces to Iraq, which Washington would be keen to avoid. Were the future Afghan government able and willing to publicly criticize the attacks and pursue those responsible, spurred on by U.S. diplomatic and law enforcement efforts and potentially in conjunction with intelligence and air support, a return of ground forces would likely be avoided. Alternatives could include a limited role for special operations forces to work in conjunction with Afghan security forces, possibly in coordination with international partners. Similar responses could be considered were a terror group to conduct a series of destabilizing attacks in neighboring countries that would seriously threaten regional stability and, by extension, U.S. interests.
Second, what would Washington do in response to the fall of the elected Afghan government and a Taliban attempt to take control by force? Again, as with the first scenario, the U.S. response would depend on whether all foreign troops have already withdrawn. If U.S. and coalition forces remain, they would almost certainly intensify efforts to secure the country and prevent a Taliban takeover. For this reason, the Taliban are unlikely to attempt an all-out offensive while foreign forces remain. With coalition forces fully withdrawn, it is difficult to envision a redeployment of U.S. troops so long as broader U.S. security interests would not be impacted. Should the fighting remain confined to Afghanistan and not threaten the stability of nuclear-capable Pakistan or spark a wider regional conflict, the United States would be better off using its diplomatic and economic levers, in coordination with the UN and other regional and international partners, to manage the conflict. This approach would, of course, recall the fall of Saigon and of the Najeebullah government, imperiling U.S. prestige, partners on the ground, and gains made since 2001. The alternative, though, would only temporarily forestall further conflict with little hope of achieving more permanent resolution.
Third, how would Washington react to a potential expanded Chinese presence in Afghanistan via the Belt and Road Initiative and People’s Liberation Army and private security forces? This possibility is frequently invoked by regional observers seeking to understand Washington’s urgency to withdraw from Afghanistan and refocus on great power competition. Afghanistan, this argument goes, represents just as much a strategic battleground in the Sino-U.S. competition as it does a locus of terrorist threats, making some across South Asia skeptical that Washington will truly withdraw. While certainly a possibility, it is not a sufficiently threatening scenario to merit a reappraisal of U.S. withdraw plans. Any future Chinese presence in Afghanistan would likely struggle with many of the same security, infrastructure, and governance challenges that have hindered its own and U.S. efforts to date. Indeed, becoming deeply involved in Afghanistan could prove a costly distraction for Beijing. What’s more, Chinese and U.S. interests overlap in Afghanistan to the extent that both favor Afghan stability in order to prevent crossborder terrorist attacks. While the United States should remain engaged in Afghanistan through diplomatic and economic channels, a continued troop presence is not warranted under the great power competition framework.
Any number of variables can shape both how the future situation unfolds and how able and willing the United States is to respond. First among these is the impact of COVID-19, which has reportedly already infected 60 to 90 percent of Afghan security forces as well as significant numbers of Taliban fighters and has led to massive domestic spending in the United States. This raises a number of possibilities, including that U.S. forces could be forced to withdraw sooner than planned in order to limit the virus’s spread or that vital economic assistance to the Afghan government and security forces could be more limited than previously envisioned. Another variable is domestic political timelines following reports that President Trump might consider an accelerated withdrawal of U.S. forces before the November election. While a drawdown to 4,500 troops has emerged as an alternative, the threat of an abrupt, full withdrawal cannot be ruled out and could upend the security situation and future progress in intra-Afghan negotiations. Finally, the much-needed diplomatic, development, and economic engagement nodded to in the United States-Taliban agreement will almost certainly require the continued presence of civilian security contractors in Afghanistan. Should the situation deteriorate to the extent that such engagement is too risky or politically untenable, U.S. involvement would be seriously constrained.
For these and other reasons, it is all the more important for U.S. policymakers to patiently work towards a sustainable intra-Afghan political settlement. This will be the best guard against difficult contingencies and the outcome most likely to secure U.S. interests at home and in the region. Simultaneously, though, officials in Washington would be wise to invest in planning for how to manage a slew of potential future challenges in a post-drawdown environment. Diplomatic and economic tools will be the United States’ most effective forms of leverage going forward, and those most in line with future U.S. interests.