Historical analogies, particularly to Vietnam, are risky and imperfect, but there are elements of the United States’ drawdown in Afghanistan that feel like a redux of Saigon in 1975. As the United States explores options to bring an end to its nearly two-decade military presence in the country, there is a mounting danger that domestic political considerations will supersede national security. Particularly in light of the recent revelations in the “Afghanistan Papers,” published by the Washington Post, this deserves critical attention, lest we see a parallel to 1975, with the Taliban sweeping into Kabul close on the heels of a US withdrawal. Such an outcome would be calamitous for both the people of Afghanistan and US interests in the short term. Even over the much longer term, a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan is unlikely to evolve into a stable country and potential US strategic partner in the way that Vietnam has.
While a settlement with the Taliban that avoids this outcome is possible, a US/NATO military withdrawal must be managed responsibly to conserve the hard-earned gains on issues like civil liberties and women’s rights made over the past eighteen years. This is not only right, but is also crucial for preserving America’s reputation in the international system. To accomplish this, US officials need to focus now on cultivating diplomatic and economic levers of influence to help enforce a settlement and promote long-term stability in Afghanistan.
The Pressure to Withdraw
The Trump administration is under significant pressure to wind down US military involvement in Afghanistan. Surveys show that over half of Americans oppose a continued US presence there, and elite opinion increasingly favors a near-term US withdrawal, as evidenced by the Democratic primary debates and a growing bipartisan chorus on Capitol Hill. The political calendar adds to the sense of urgency since withdrawal was among President Trump’s key campaign promises, and compromises may become more politically costly as the 2020 election approaches.
These political pressures reached a boiling point after the Afghanistan Papers were published—hundreds of documents depicting the flawed assessments, inconsistent messaging, and failed strategic initiatives by the US government over the last two decades. It is perhaps unsurprising that about four thousand of the approximately thirteen thousand remaining US forces reportedly will be withdrawn in the coming months. More than 2,300 US service members have died in Afghanistan and recent estimates suggest that the US government has spent over $2 trillion since 2001. Despite this enormous investment, the Afghan people have suffered widespread corruption, weak rule of law, an entrenched Taliban presence, and an aid-dependent economy that incentivizes patronage rather than production.
Doubts about the US military mission’s utility reflect the security situation on the ground. Recent estimates suggest that Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) only control 33 percent of Afghan districts and areas encompassing 46 percent of the population, with the Taliban controlling or contesting the remainder. Meanwhile, the results from Afghanistan’s September 2019 presidential elections have not been released and another constitutional crisis for the Afghan government seems likely. Amid this uncertainty, there is widespread agreement that a negotiated settlement is the only feasible way to resolve Afghanistan’s civil conflict. US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad recently restarted official negotiations with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. Despite mounting pressures for an unconditional withdrawal, the short-term benefits of precipitously ending the US and NATO mission also raise the prospect of significant long-term costs.
The evident desire to withdraw undercuts US leverage severely in negotiations with the Taliban. Although reports suggest that some Taliban fighters are keen to pursue peace, the US domestic political context gives the Taliban little reason to concede and ample incentive to await a withdrawal that is swift and light on conditions. The bilateral nature of the talks—a concession to the Taliban’s refusal to talk directly with the Afghan government—exacerbates the situation by suggesting a possible US willingness to leave the Afghan government in the lurch. At the same time, the Taliban’s refusal to involve the Afghan government raises serious doubts about its willingness to meaningfully participate in any form of power-sharing in the future.
Perils of a Precipitous Withdrawal
Although the US mission in Afghanistan has suffered persistently from ambiguous strategic goals, one clear and consistent objective has been to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist safe haven for external attacks again. A precipitous US withdrawal may produce that result if it is not preconditioned on a comprehensive, intra-Afghan settlement that is robustly enforceable. Security experts agree that the ANSF are not prepared to prosecute independent combat operations without US and NATO support, and while Afghan special operations forces have demonstrated high competence, the majority of ANSF still depend on US airpower and logistical support. US and international security assistance funds are just as important; the ANSF’s $5 billion annual budget is twice the size of the Afghan government’s annual revenues. Given Afghan capabilities, however, the money means little without a meaningful US security presence.
A recent RAND report outlined likely consequences if the United States were to withdraw military forces unconditionally. The Taliban would be well-positioned to take over large portions of the Pashtun-dominated south and east. Afghanistan’s civil conflict intensity would spike as the Taliban sought to destroy and displace ANSF bases in contested districts. Civilian casualties, internally displaced persons, and international refugees would increase dramatically, spawning a humanitarian crisis. The Afghan government could collapse, and power could return to regional warlords divided along sectarian and tribal lines. International terrorist organizations could attempt to exploit this chaos to reestablish headquarters and training sites in Afghanistan, as the Taliban would have little incentive to block such groups. Indeed, Islamic State already has a small but meaningful foothold in Khorasan. Further, as Stephen Biddle warns, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal would be increasingly vulnerable as a result. This would be a nightmare scenario for the United States and its allies, resembling the civil war that erupted after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, which led to a failed state from which al-Qaeda successfully planned the September 11 attacks.
Pursuing an Enforceable Agreement
While a precipitous US withdrawal would present tremendous security risks, proclaiming an open-ended military commitment likewise is not the answer. It is neither politically feasible nor desirable, carrying obvious costs and reducing Afghan and regional incentives to adjust to the near-certainty of an American exit. The next phase of US engagement must focus on setting the table for the most favorable possible political settlement in Afghanistan. Key US interests include the denial of terrorist safe haven in Afghanistan, general regional stability, and the defense of hard-fought gains on issues such as women’s rights and civil liberties. None of these aims are achievable over the medium term without the establishment of a new political equilibrium in Afghanistan, buttressed by strong, continuing US and international diplomatic and development support after any conditional drawdown of US and NATO military forces.
The current negotiations in Doha are focused on part of the puzzle—devising a settlement between the US government and the Taliban. However, the parties appear to be quite far from a workable deal and brokering an agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban will be even more challenging. A durable peace settlement will need to encompass many features. These include a comprehensive ceasefire, renunciation by the Taliban of links with international terrorist groups, a phased and conditional withdrawal of US and NATO forces, international mechanisms for continued security and development assistance, domestic political power-sharing arrangements, an agreed process for constitutional reform, security sector reform, and the establishment of entities to monitor, verify, and manage the implementation of the deal.
Any such deal will require the Taliban to be willing to share power, participate in aspects of the democratic process, and accept constitutional limits. That is highly unlikely unless the United States and other external actors apply continued military pressure, wield considerable financial carrots and sticks, and show a willingness to extend the mission if necessary.
Preparing to Enforce a Political Settlement
US officials are now focused on brokering a deal with the Taliban to enable an exit. Equal attention must be paid to designing a post-settlement order that mitigates the risk of a repeat of 1975 in Saigon or, worse still, Phnom Penh, where the Khmer Rouge swept to victory and exacted harrowing retribution. US policymakers need to put the pieces in place to make a political settlement enforceable over time.
Following the latest withdrawal announcements, the remaining US forces will play a crucial role during the implementation phase of any intra-Afghan settlement. The Taliban will fiercely resist leaving any US troops in place and overcoming that resistance will require continued kinetic operations to maintain pressure on the Taliban and effective diplomatic outreach, particularly to Islamabad and Beijing. Pakistani officials seek strong influence in Afghanistan but not another protracted civil war, and China prizes stability along the route of its Belt and Road Initiative. Neither can dictate terms to the Taliban, but both can be helpful. US diplomats should engage them on ways to make a phased, post-settlement withdrawal more palatable to the Taliban.
Enforcing a settlement will also require strengthening Afghan domestic security and governance institutions—a task that has been doggedly difficult and frustrating given the incentives of Afghan officials to engage in patronage and corruption rather than genuine public service. Channeling more reconstruction aid to Kabul clearly will not suffice. Reports by the Special Inspector-General for Afghanistan Reconstruction and many other studies show that aid flows often contribute to the very incentive problems at the root of the Afghan government’s dysfunction. Changing these incentives will likely require a gradual reduction in certain forms of assistance to the government and security sector, which consumes an unsustainable budget, to compel the Afghan government to begin a challenging process of adjustment. It also may require a greater focus on supporting civil society organizations to strengthen social mechanisms for keeping the government accountable.
Enforcement will also require sustained financial assistance. No settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban will be entirely self-enforcing; external actors must buttress a deal by linking compliance to credible economic carrots and sticks, if not also the prospect of military force. Indeed, economic assistance may be the most important tool for enforcement, since US and NATO forces are not likely to return in large numbers once they depart.
For the foreseeable future, the Afghan government will be deeply dependent on foreign aid, with government revenues of $2.5 billion supporting an annual budget of $11 billion. A recent World Bank report shows that Afghanistan will still require high levels of international financial assistance to provide stability in a tenuous, post-settlement phase. An intra-Afghan settlement ending hostilities will not necessarily enable a large drop in security assistance, as programs will be required to manage the risks of demobilizing and reintegrating hundreds of thousands of young combatants who rapidly find themselves out of work. At least initially, reductions in security assistance need to be offset with economic development and job creation. The Taliban, too, must see benefits from continued aid programs to make them usable as levers for enforcement. Any period of post-settlement stability may open opportunities to invest in communities in southern and eastern Afghanistan, where development lags and Taliban support is highest, to give them a greater stake in peace.
US officials need to convince a Congress suffering from donor fatigue that a long-term funding plan for Afghanistan is a price worth paying. Broad-based economic aid offers the best chance of incentivizing all parties to comply with an intra-Afghan agreement over time. The alternative—turning off the spigot to save many millions of dollars, some of which will doubtlessly be lost to corruption—may lead to a much larger and costlier program should Afghanistan fall back into the abyss.
The United States cannot confront these challenges alone. Preparing to enforce a peace settlement also requires effective diplomatic outreach. Regional actors will be particularly important in shaping Taliban incentives, because Pakistan, China, India, Iran, Russia, and the Central Asian states are more likely than the United States to invest in infrastructure projects and private enterprise that benefit communities in Taliban strongholds. The immense Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline project, connecting vast gas fields in Turkmenistan to energy markets in South Asia, is a fitting example of an enterprise that could help align local and regional economic interests in Afghan stability (and unite diverse actors against spoilers).
Although poor US relations with Iran and Russia and Indo-Pakistani tension will conspire against highly institutionalized regional cooperation, flexible diplomacy can generate collaboration on specific projects and initiatives. The World Bank and Asian Development Bank can also play useful, coordinating roles, and they should look to partner with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank so that the organization can play a larger role in a post-settlement Afghanistan. Allowing multilateral development banks like these to lead has the important advantage of facilitating engagement of India, which otherwise may work at cross-purposes with Pakistan.
Interestingly, the World Bank’s recent report on “Financing Peace” does not mention China at all—an outlook that needs to change. China has clear interests in a stable Afghanistan and the successful implementation of an intra-Afghan settlement. Beyond China’s shared border with Afghanistan, it is wary of regional extremist organizations that would benefit from a prolonged Afghan civil conflict. Afghanistan can play an important role in Belt and Road Initiative projects like the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the China-Central Asia-West Asia Corridor. US discord with Beijing in other domains should not prevent earnest efforts to engage China in the stabilization of Afghanistan.
The Path Toward Peace
Despite current uncertainties, the dynamic situation in Afghanistan presents opportunities for a convergence of interests that could lead to lasting peace. The latest Asia Foundation survey reports that 64 percent of Afghans believe an intra-Afghan peace settlement is possible, the highest percentage since the survey started in 2004. To provide a peace settlement with the highest probability of success, the United States must use its military, economic, and diplomatic elements of power in the years ahead to help create and implement a durable political settlement in Afghanistan. While neither a residual US military force nor continued financial and diplomatic engagement will ensure stability, their absence will greatly increase the likelihood of repeating the tragedies of Indochina in 1975.
Dr. John Ciorciari is an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy and director of the Weiser Diplomacy Center; Dr. Phil Potter is an Associate Professor at the University of Virginia’s Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and director of the National Security Policy Center; Mr. Javed Ali is the Towsley Policymaker in Residence at the Ford School of Public Policy and served as Senior Counterterrorism Director on the National Security Council from 2017 to 2018; Capt. Ryan Van Wie is a US Army Infantry Officer, Master of Public Policy candidate at the Ford School of Public Policy, and future international affairs instructor in the Department of Social Science at West Point.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: 1st Lt. Henry Chan, US Army