Biden Needs to Leave Afghanistan the Right Way

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As U.S. troops prepare to leave Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of combat, the situation on the ground could hardly be more disheartening. Taliban insurgents are already racking up battlefield gains; deprived of U.S. close air support and help maintaining its equipment, the Afghan military may well crumble against concerted onslaught. Al-Qaeda maintains ties to the Taliban and could pose a renewed threat to the U.S. in as little as two years. That timeline could shrink if the Kabul government falls to the Taliban or the country devolves into civil war.

At their meeting in the White House on Friday, with the U.S. withdrawal well underway, President Joe Biden told Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that the U.S. would continue to support his country, promising $266 million in humanitarian aid and $3.3 billion in security assistance. Ghani expressed his thanks but can be under no illusions. Biden is leaving him severely weakened, even if not (for the moment) entirely stranded.

Washington’s ability to influence events will only diminish once the formal withdrawal is complete. Starting now, Biden needs to be clear about how bad things could get — while doing his best to mitigate the inevitable damage.

Without Americans on the ground, spies will lose direct contact with informants. Special-operations forces will only be able to launch raids in rare circumstances. Any access to bases in neighboring countries is likely to be heavily restricted. Flying missions from the Persian Gulf instead will take longer and dramatically shorten the time aircraft can spend on target. Stationing an aircraft carrier offshore would diminish capabilities elsewhere.

The question is how, given such constraints, the U.S. can protect its own vital interests. To start, the mission needs to be defined carefully. As one top U.S. commander has already suggested, that likely means limiting targets to global threats such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State. Even then, the U.S. won’t be able to maintain constant pressure on such groups as it does now. The priorities should be to disrupt attacks on the U.S. and its allies, and to destroy bases and training camps where recruits might gather.

Achieving even those more modest goals will require new sources of intelligence, which need to be developed quickly. The U.S. should be investing now in increasing Afghan capabilities. It should also deepen relationships with local power brokers and ethnic leaders, who have their own reasons to oppose foreign extremists.

It might also be worth exploring a more formal intelligence-sharing arrangement with Afghanistan’s neighbors in the region. Whatever their differences with the U.S., China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan all know that they are equally if not more vulnerable to attacks emanating from Afghanistan. Once U.S. troops are out of the region, they should be more willing to support targeted counterterrorism efforts.

Those neighbors can also do more to prevent a collapse in Afghanistan that would allow extremist groups to thrive — not to mention push refugees, drugs and terrorists across their borders. The U.S. should press them to use their influence with their Afghan proxies, including the Taliban, to revive the stalled intra-Afghan peace process. All should make clear that any government imposed by force will suffer international isolation and be starved of aid and development funds.

Finally, absent direct combat support, the U.S. should do what it can to sustain the Afghan military’s ability to fight. The new funding commitment will help. U.S. and NATO forces should train Afghan troops outside the country, while pressing reforms to produce a leaner and more sustainable army. Most important, they should help the Afghan government pay for contractors to maintain its air force, which might otherwise be ineffective within months. Civil and humanitarian aid should also continue.

In all this, clarity is best. For weeks now, uncertainty about U.S. plans has been accelerating the spread of fears and doubts throughout Afghanistan’s government, military and society. Further confusion will only heighten the risk of swift Taliban victories, and collapsing morale could cause a devastating brain drain.

One more thing. The Biden administration needs to move immediately to evacuate Afghans who face threats after working with the U.S. military. Leaving Afghanistan to its fate already represents a betrayal of sorts. Abandoning its most loyal allies there would leave a moral stain the U.S. might never eradicate.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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