The Biden administration is just weeks away from having to make a decision whether to end the nearly 20-year military deployment in Afghanistan that has claimed nearly 2,400 American lives, as experts and US officials told CNN there are no good options available and the best hope is to avert “catastrophe.”
With the May deadline for a withdrawal looming and NATO allies eager to learn what the US will do, the National Security Council (NSC) convened a meeting of senior officials Friday to discuss the way forward on Afghanistan, according to two administration officials familiar with the meeting.
The administration has coalesced around two broad goals, an official familiar with the discussions told CNN. First, it aims to achieve a “responsible conclusion” to the conflict, which would see the end of ongoing violence and a stable Afghan government. Second, the administration wants to safeguard national interests and prevent the country from becoming an ISIS-style caliphate or the base from which a large attack is launched against the US.
“The violence is too high in Afghanistan. That’s the bottom line,” said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby Friday.
An agreement between the Taliban and the US, signed by the Trump administration, committed the US to withdraw the final 2,500 troops by May, down from 13,000 one year ago. The Biden administration is looking for room to maneuver within the language of the agreement, but as the Taliban continues to carry out violent attacks and targeted killings, the US is left with few – if any – good options. One US official familiar with the internal discussions went so far as to call Biden’s choices a “s*** sandwich.”
“They agreed not to shoot at us on our way out,” said Marvin Weinbaum, director of Afghanistan and Pakistan studies at the Middle East Institute. “That’s the only part of the agreement that they’ve kept.”
Despite the violations of the agreement, the Trump administration plowed forward with troop withdrawals, pulling thousands of troops from Afghanistan days after it became clear he lost the election and thousands more days before the inauguration of President Joe Biden.
All the while, the Taliban remains focused on their singular goal of US troop withdrawal. “It was an agreement which was faulty because it committed the US to provably irrevocable actions, and the Taliban only committed themselves to promises,” Weinbaum said.
With the deadline drawing closer, the White House’s options appear to be bad, worse, and worst. The only question is in which order they should be placed.
A full withdrawal as envisioned in the agreement would allow the Taliban to claim victory and could lead to a resurgence of terrorist groups. Halting the withdrawal unilaterally could invite violence from the Taliban, now likely targeted directly at US troops instead of at Afghan allies. And trying to renegotiate the agreement with the group could also invite violence, since the group has made clear they see no wiggle room in the agreement.
US intelligence agencies now believe that the Taliban is unwilling to consider any exceptions as far as the agreed upon timeline for US and coalition forces to leave Afghanistan, the US official told CNN.
A rapid and unilateral withdrawal could also put at risk the gains made by women and civil society, particularly amid tenuous intra-Afghan negotiations. At his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed their importance, saying, “I don’t believe that any outcome that they might achieve – the government of Afghanistan or the Taliban – is sustainable without protecting the gains that had been made by women and girls in Afghanistan over the last 20 years when it comes to access to education, to healthcare, to employment.”
Zalmay Khalilzad, the Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, has remained in his role from the Trump administration as a key architect of the US-Taliban agreement. Khalilzad briefed Blinken last week, urging a “conditions-based strategy, one that brings peace to Afghanistan, secures a stable future for its citizens, and prevents anyone from using Afghanistan to threaten the United States and our allies,” he said on Twitter.
Every available option could be framed as a failure
The NSC has convened a bevy of inter-agency meetings on Afghanistan over the last week, but due to the time constraints presented by the upcoming NATO meeting and looming withdrawal deadline, there has not been enough time for the “churn” – a process that typically allows relevant agencies to get on the same page, the US official said. While there are still a wide variety of ideas being presented to the White House, national security officials have come to a near consensus that every option currently on the table could be framed by serious people as a political failure.
Instead, the White House has received dozens of well-articulated and informed opinions that all have merit but do not offer a clear path forward that accomplishes all the administration’s policy objectives, the official added.
“Most all of the policy options available are not optimal, shall we say,” said Bradley Bowman, senior director for the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The Trump administration handed the Biden team a “mess,” Bowman said, with a withdrawal based on a strict timeline which ignored the advice of commanders and conditions on the ground. Moreover, the US-Taliban agreement sidelined the Afghan government, leaving out a critical partner for any successful end to the conflict.
The previous administration made its priority clear: it wanted to remove all US troops from Afghanistan to fulfill former President Donald Trump’s campaign promise. Trump’s team did not seem perturbed by the consequences of a rapid withdrawal based on an unrealized peace. Less clear now is how the Biden team will proceed.
“Everyone understands the first of May is coming up,” said a senior defense official. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has been part of interagency discussions examining the peace agreement between the US and the Taliban signed one year ago. The discussions have focused on the agreement, signed in Doha, and the extent to which the US has room to maneuver within the language of the agreement and whether the Taliban has complied with its requirements to renounce ties to al-Qaeda and stop carrying out violent attacks.
“It’s a catastrophe prevention strategy. It’s not a ‘Make Afghanistan Sweden’ strategy. It’s a lower bar, but it’s a vital bar,” Bowman said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki has stressed the importance of Afghanistan to the Biden administration, but said there would be no immediate update on troop levels. In the past, Biden has supported a smaller US presence in Afghanistan and opposed former President Barack Obama’s surge of troops to the country in 2009.
Austin, who has so far been “information gathering,” the defense official said, will speak virtually next week with NATO as part of the defense ministerial meeting, where America’s allies will press the Secretary on US strategy. NATO now has 8,000 troops from 38 different countries operating in Afghanistan.
Allies are concerned
NATO allies, particularly Germany, are growing increasingly concerned about what the Biden administration is going to do, a European diplomatic source told CNN. These countries recognize that the peace process with the Taliban appears to be stunted and worry that a withdrawal of US troops would quickly lead to a withdrawal of NATO forces and an abandonment of Afghanistan.
The Afghanistan Study Group, which began its work soon after the signing of the Doha agreement, warned that such a withdrawal could plunge Afghanistan back into civil war, while “inviting the reconstitution of anti-U.S. terrorist groups that could threaten our homeland and providing them with a narrative of victory against the world’s most powerful country.” One such terrorist group would be al-Qaeda, which supported the agreement because it includes a timeline for US withdrawal, according to the Defense Intelligence Agency, one of their main goals.
The study group, co-chaired by Gen. Joseph Dunford, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there was a “real opportunity” for a durable peace agreement to end decades of war in Afghanistan, but warned that a complete withdrawal of troops based on an inflexible timeline would “simply hand a victory to the Taliban.” The group called for a major diplomatic effort to extend the May withdrawal deadline “in order to give the peace process sufficient time to produce an acceptable result,” as well as regional efforts so that Afghanistan’s neighbors help support and sustain a lasting peace.
CNN’s Jennifer Hansler, Barbara Starr and Ellie Kaufman contributed to this report.