WASHINGTON – The Biden administration should slow the withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan, abandon the May 1 withdrawal period and instead only further reduce American forces if security conditions improve, a Congress-appointed body recommended on Wednesday.
In a new report The Afghanistan Study Group, a non-partisan body tasked by Congress to review the February 2020 peace agreement signed under the Trump administration, found that troop withdrawal is on a strict schedule, not how well it is Taliban’s compliance with the agreement to reduce violence and improve security risked the country’s stability and a possible civil war once international forces withdrew.
“It is not in anyone’s best interest to withdraw from Afghanistan right now,” said General Joseph F. Dunford Jr., a retired four-star Navy general, former country chief in chief and former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. who helped run the commission.
Kelly A. Ayotte, a former Republican Senator from New Hampshire and another chairwoman of the commission, said the group did not want the war to go on indefinitely and did not argue that the troops would last for the long term.
“It’s not about whether we go, it’s how we go,” she said at a meeting with reporters.
The Biden government is facing an early decision point for its Afghanistan policy. Later this month, Allied Defense Ministers, including Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, will meet in Brussels to discuss the future of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan. Allies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, weighing their own commitment to the country, expect the Biden administration to clarify their plans for the American armed forces in the coming weeks.
The Trump administration pledged to end America’s long overseas wars and urged the dismantling of forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere. President Biden has long viewed a large troop presence in Afghanistan with skepticism, but the new administration is reviewing the peace agreement and its Afghan policies.
The study group’s recommendations are likely to be adopted by NATO. Jens Stoltenberg, the Alliance’s General Secretary, has long said that decisions about troop strength in Afghanistan can best be made taking into account the security situation on the ground and not under consideration of artificial timetables.
The commission advocated a renewed diplomatic push by the United States and Afghanistan’s neighbors against the Taliban and called on them to actually abide by the peace agreement. While members of the commission recognized that the Taliban would be angry if they failed to meet the May 1 deadline of the deal, the United States still has leverage. The Taliban, General Dunford said, want international recognition as a legitimate political movement and the easing of sanctions.
Still, this most likely will not stop the Taliban from launching a bloody spring offensive across the country. There is no ceasefire agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government. And despite peace talks, the violence in Afghanistan has remained uncontrolled. Thousands of security forces and civilians were killed and wounded in the past year as a result of targeted murders in large cities and attacks by the Taliban in the countryside.
Analysts say the danger of civil war described by the study group is real.
With Western military support waning and peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban stalling in Qatar after the US-Taliban deal began in September, factions in parts of Afghanistan are rearming themselves. The regional militias have been encouraged by the uncertainty surrounding a deal with the Taliban, the fragility of the central government, which may break under the weight of its own rampant corruption, and the continued inability to unite the many ethnic groups across the country.
Over the weekend, armed militiamen under the command of Abdul Ghani Alipur fought government troops for control of a district center in Wardak, a province in the mountainous east of the country bordering Kabul, the country’s capital. While the cause of the fighting and who started the attack is not exactly clear – the reasons range from tribal migration routes to the theft of government armored vehicles – the violent struggle only shows the declining influence of the government across the country.
While violence in Afghanistan remains high, the Taliban have failed to attack American troops. Taliban officials have suggested that if international forces are not withdrawn by May, they will withdraw from the peace process and resume attacks against American and NATO forces.
Despite the Taliban’s position, the report says the Biden government can argue that delays in opening talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government have resulted in insufficient time to create the conditions under which international forces could depart.
“Withdrawal would not only make America more vulnerable to terrorist threats. This would also have catastrophic effects on Afghanistan and the region, which would not be in the interests of any of the main actors, including the Taliban, ”the report said.
Discussing the report prior to its official publication, the group’s members repeatedly stressed the need for a new diplomatic push with Afghanistan’s neighbors. However, the report acknowledges that these countries are only agreeing on opposition to a long-term American presence and fears that a hasty US withdrawal could spark civil war.
The Biden administration and the Pentagon have started to consider a number of options. The government could try to temporarily increase the number of troops in the country and reverse President Donald J. Trump’s order to dismantle the armed forces in the final weeks of his tenure.
General Dunford said experts on the study group said 4,500 American troops that were present in Afghanistan last fall were the correct number. Still, he said any decision to bring the armed forces back to this level is best left to commanders in Afghanistan. The current number of American troops in Afghanistan is 2,500.
General Dunford said the group’s report was generally well received by Mr Biden’s transition team when members were briefed late last year. The group met this week with Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born American envoy to Afghanistan who is run by the Biden government.
Mr Khalilzad is the architect of the peace agreement and has close ties with the Taliban. General Dunford said he expected Mr Khalilzad to do the same if the Biden government accepted the study group’s recommendations.
Julian E. Barnes reported from Washington and Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Kabul. Fatima Faizi and Fahim Abed in Kabul contributed to the coverage.