The Biden administration hasn’t answered critical questions on Afghanistan
The latest Lead Inspector General report for Operation Freedom’s Sentinel raises a number of important questions that are central to the ongoing withdrawal of U.S. military personnel from Afghanistan. These questions relate to the Taliban’s compliance with its counterterrorism obligations, the ability of the Taliban to continue recruiting and making gains on the battlefield, the capabilities and intentions of ISIS-K, ongoing support to the Afghan security forces, and the disposition of training and maintenance contracts.
Based on information in the report, it does not appear that the Taliban is fully meeting its obligations. The report states that “al Qaeda continues to rely on the Taliban for protection and the two groups have reinforced ties over the past decades,” which, according to the Defense Intelligence Agency, likely makes it difficult for the Taliban and al Qaeda to split. Previous Lead IG reports also have stated that al Qaeda members in Afghanistan continue to coordinate and train with the Taliban.
The Taliban’s ongoing close ties with al Qaeda members in Afghanistan are problematic and raise serious questions about the Taliban’s compliance with its obligations to prevent terrorists from using Afghan soil to threaten the security of the United States under the February 2020 agreement with the United States. While I have voiced support for President Biden’s decision to honor the Trump administration’s agreement with the Taliban and the obligation to withdraw all military personnel from Afghanistan, I believe that the Biden administration has failed to adequately address the question of whether the Taliban is honoring its commitments.
The 2020 agreement includes conditionality that if the Taliban takes certain actions, then the United States will withdraw. If the Taliban is not in compliance, the United States is not obligated to withdraw — and should not. During a recent congressional hearing, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, stated that while the Taliban has made strides in meeting its obligations, there is more to be done.
The United States has one overarching foreign policy interest in Afghanistan: ensuring that terrorists are not using the country to threaten the security of the United States or its allies. The Biden administration must state clearly whether it believes the Taliban is complying with the agreement and, if it is not, what leverage is there to force the group into compliance if military personnel are on the way out.
Related to this concern, the Lead IG report states that the Taliban is spinning the U.S. withdrawal as a Taliban victory and using this as a recruiting tool. This is an area that needs more discussion — the Taliban’s ongoing ability to recruit. The Taliban has lost tens of thousands of fighters on the battlefield over the years, yet it is able to replenish and grow its ranks.
One of the reasons for this is the failure of the Afghan government and power brokers to come together and offer the people of Afghanistan a clear alternative to the Taliban. The Afghan government has been unable to provide security, stability and economic opportunity, despite the investment of hundreds of billions of dollars to promote security and governance from the international community. Afghan leaders often have chosen the path of power grabbing and self-enrichment over nation building. As a result, the Taliban continues to woo frustrated Afghans into its ranks.
The international community must hold the Afghan government and elite accountable for these failures and pressure them to put their country, rather than their bank accounts, first. This is the most critical factor in Afghanistan’s future: If Afghan leaders do not unify behind a (realistic) vision for Afghanistan, it does not matter whether U.S. forces stay in the country or not, because the Taliban will continue to chip away. If anything, there are indications of greater splintering among Afghan power brokers and the Taliban is trying to drive wedges and benefit from the divisions.
Regarding divisions, this brings up questions about ISIS-K. As I reported in 2015 when ISIS started to emerge in Afghanistan, there have always been questions about the extent to which the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan Province is a true ISIS franchise bent on conducting international attacks versus disaffected Taliban fighters or people who have splintered off from other groups in the region. The reality is that ISIS-K is still a mix, so while statements in the Lead IG report about ISIS-K stabilizing and growing are concerning, it does not necessarily translate to an increasing threat to U.S. security. Fortunately, the Taliban and ISIS-K are enemies, but the United States will need to work with all parties in Afghanistan to keep a lid on ISIS-K.
Lastly, the Lead IG report did not address critical questions about how the Department of Defense will handle training and maintenance contracts that run in some cases for years beyond the September deadline for all troops and contractors to leave Afghanistan. There are two dimensions to this: What are the cost implications of ending contracts early, and what are the alternative ways that the U.S. and coalition partners can continue providing training and maintenance support?
While I continue to believe that withdrawing military personnel from Afghanistan is the least bad option, there are a number of questions the Biden administration has not answered. Those answers are overdue.
Sean D. Carberry is a foreign policy and national security writer. He most recently served at the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General as managing editor of the Lead Inspector General reports to Congress on overseas contingency operations, but did not work on the latest report. Previously, he was a foreign correspondent for NPR based in Kabul and has reported from more than two-dozen countries including Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Follow him on Twitter @sdcarberry17.
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