Leaving Afghanistan Shouldn’t Mean Abandoning It


President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 — the 20th anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks — is on balance right, though it involves serious risks. The focus for the next five months and beyond should be on reducing them as far as possible.

The dangers of this withdrawal are obvious. By setting such a specific deadline — chosen, what’s more, for his domestic political audience — Biden has given the Taliban reason to run out the clock on intra-Afghan peace talks and then try to seize power by force. U.S. intelligence thinks the insurgents might well succeed. A return to warlordism and civil war, let alone an outright Taliban takeover, could wreck the progress won by women, minorities and Afghan youth in the past 20 years. Al-Qaeda and Islamic State might thrive in a security vacuum, gaining a platform from which to stage attacks on the U.S. 

Yet the costs of staying on indefinitely are prohibitive. Suppose the administration had simply torn up the deal that the Trump administration negotiated with the Taliban, which promised that U.S. troops would leave by May 1. This would almost certainly have prompted the Taliban to renew direct attacks on U.S. forces, adding pressure on the U.S. to send in reinforcements and relieving the Afghan government of any need to compromise. In short, more war, more casualties, and after 20 years still no end in sight.

Biden’s limited delay is an effort to split the difference. It offers one last chance of progress. The question is, can this extra time be put to good use — especially now that the Taliban say they won’t negotiate until all U.S. troops leave?

In urging the insurgents to talk before September, the U.S. still has some leverage. Taliban leaders are eager to see several thousand of their fighters released from Afghan custody and United Nations sanctions on their movement lifted. The Biden administration should make clear that neither will happen unless the Taliban agree to a ceasefire and begin negotiating seriously.

The U.S. should also work with other countries — Russia, China and Iran, as well as its NATO allies — to put coordinated pressure on the insurgents. Many of Afghanistan’s neighbors are as eager as the Taliban to see U.S. troops leave. But they also know they’ll bear the consequences if the country falls into chaos, and refugees, drugs and potential terrorists spill across their borders. As a start, they should be pressing hard for Taliban leaders to join United Nations-sponsored peace talks in Turkey later this month.

They should also make it clear that the Taliban can’t expect diplomatic recognition, aid or investment if they try to seize power violently. Some of the movement’s leaders remember how isolated they were in the 1990s and have suggested they don’t want to be global pariahs once more. They should be left in no doubt that this will be the standing of any government established by force.

The U.S. should pay special attention to Pakistan. It has long provided covert support to the Taliban. Without safe havens there, the insurgents would never have been able to rebuild their movement. Pakistani leaders should be told that their only hope of reestablishing good relations with the U.S., which has been tilting toward their arch-rival India, is to push the Taliban toward a negotiated settlement and help the U.S. track future terrorist threats in Afghanistan.

In a visit to Kabul shortly after Biden’s announcement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken affirmed that the withdrawal of forces won’t mean disengagement. The U.S. should indeed remember its obligations to ordinary Afghans. Biden should keep his promise to fund the Afghan government, military and civil society, and should press other governments to help. The U.S. should give fast-track visas to the roughly 17,000 Afghans and their families who’ve become targets because of their work for the U.S.

Many Afghans already see Biden’s decision as a betrayal. In a sense, it is. Sadly, there’s no sustainable alternative.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.