Study group recommends Biden delay Afghanistan withdrawal
The Taliban has not met conditions that would warrant a full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan by May, a congressionally mandated panel said in a report released Wednesday, recommending the Biden administration instead refocus on the conditions of the withdrawal as agreed to last year and work to extend the impending deadline.
The Afghanistan Study Group “believes that it will be very difficult, and perhaps impossible, for those conditions to be achieved by May 2021, when the agreement states that troops should be withdrawn,” the report said.
“Achieving the overall objective of a negotiated stable peace that meets U.S. interests would need to begin with securing an extension of the May deadline,” the report continued, adding that “the United States must elevate the importance of the conditions allowing the withdrawal of U.S. troops.”
Speaking to reporters ahead of the report’s release, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff retired Gen. Joseph Dunford, who co-chaired the group, said the panel “tried to not be emotional … about the, ‘Should we stay or should we go, we’ve been there 20 years.’ ”
“We think that right now the focus ought to be on taking advantage, to the extent possible, the Afghan peace negotiation and setting the conditions for a pathway for the Afghans eventually to come up with a construct where they can address the political extremes of the Taliban and the Afghan government,” added Dunford, whose tenure as the nation’s top general spanned both the Obama and Trump administrations.
“So I understand from an emotional perspective people who would say to leave. But from a pure logic, unemotional, analytic approach, we think the approach that we’ve offered to the administration is the right way to go,” Dunford said.
Former Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), another co-chair, added the question is “not whether we leave, it’s how we leave.”
The 15-member panel was created by Congress in 2019 amid the Trump administration’s negotiations with the Taliban. But the release of the group’s final report comes as the new Biden administration is crafting its Afghanistan strategy.
President Biden inherited the Trump administration’s agreement with the Taliban that sets a full U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan by May if the insurgents uphold commitments including breaking ties with al Qaeda.
During the Trump administration, U.S. military officials repeatedly said the Taliban had not yet broken with al Qaeda and condemned increased attacks on Afghan forces. Meanwhile, peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government have been halting, at best.
But former President Trump continued to draw down. Five days before Trump left office, the U.S. military hit his goal of dropping to 2,500 troops, the lowest level of U.S. troops in Afghanistan since 2001.
The Afghanistan Study Group found the number of U.S. troops in the country in the fall, 4,500, was “about the right number” for the conditions on the ground at that time, Dunford said, but he did not take a position on whether Biden should now send more troops back to Afghanistan.
The group briefed Biden administration officials on the report starting during the transition in December and going until as recently as Monday, Dunford said. He said he thinks the administration found the report “helpful” since it will quickly have to make a decision about the May deadline, as well as plan for a NATO defense ministerial in mid-February where allies are expected to press for a decision.
“Success for us, and I think I speak for the other co-chairs, is less, do they take all of our recommendations, than that this document and the substance in this document helps them navigate the issues and get to the place that President Biden wants to be,” Dunford said.
A spokesperson for the National Security Council declined to comment on the report, but a State Department spokesperson said Wednesday afternoon officials are “deeply appreciative” of the panel’s “thoughtful work” and “look forward to closely examining the recommendations contained in the comprehensive report.”
“We are still unpacking the [study group] report, but we understand that it aligns with our emphasis on supporting the ongoing peace process to end the war through a just and durable political settlement, to mobilize the regional consensus for peace, and to reaffirm a conditions-based withdrawal,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
The Pentagon did not respond directly to the report, but pointed to recent statements from administration officials that “prudent reviews of the U.S.-Taliban agreement are occurring across the interagency.”
“There is no military solution to conflict in Afghanistan,” Department of Defense (DOD) spokesperson Maj. Rob Lodewick said in a statement to The Hill. “After more than 19 years of war, the path to a lasting peace for the people of Afghanistan is paved by an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led process to achieve a political settlement and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire. This is happening and the U.S. will continue to support the Afghan peace process.”
“As with all defense-related matters, DoD provides its best military advice, assessments and other requested input during such reviews, but no decisions have been made regarding any future conditions-based force level revisions,” he added.
Since taking office, Biden administration officials, including national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have said they are reviewing the agreement to see if the Taliban has met its commitments, while Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said the Taliban has not yet upheld its end of the deal and suggested the withdrawal could be delayed if that does not change.
Ayotte said the study group is encouraged by the administration’s initial comments that “they’re taking a thoughtful analysis of Afghanistan.”
“We already know that the administration has reached out to the leadership in Afghanistan,” Ayotte added. “Our view is that they seem open to certainly considering our report. We hope it’s helpful in some way to their analysis. And the initial comments, also the reach out to NATO, seems encouraging. We know that this decision is upcoming for the administration with the February ministerial, but they’re clearly already conducting a careful analysis.”
But, in what some outside observers have seen as a mixed signal, the Biden administration is also keeping on Trump’s envoy in Taliban negotiations, Zalmay Khalilzad, who Afghan officials felt cut them out of the process.
Last week, though, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani brushed off any concerns about Khalilzad staying, telling the Aspen Security Forum the ambassador will now “be reporting to a very organized decision-making process.”
Dunford similarly expressed confidence that “whoever is the lead negotiator would reflect the change in administration.”
The Taliban has largely refrained from attacks on U.S. and NATO forces since signing the withdrawal agreement last year, though it has shelled some bases with U.S. forces a couple times. It has vowed to renew attacks if foreign forces do not leave by May.
Dunford acknowledged there is “not a simple answer” on how the Biden administration should extend the May deadline given the Taliban’s threats. But he said after spending “a lot of time wrestling with” it, the panel recommends a joint statement from all stakeholders, rather than a unilateral U.S. declaration, saying “it’s not in anyone’s best interest right now for a precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan.”
“We think a communique from regional stakeholders and a concerted diplomatic engagement is the preferable way to do it. If that is unsuccessful, well then that’s up to President Biden who will have a choice, right. He’ll have a choice of, we stay and the Taliban elevate the level of violence. Or we leave, our national interests aren’t addressed, and there’s a high probability of a civil war resulting,” Dunford said.
“I don’t know … and I don’t think anybody does at this point, whether what the Taliban are doing now is posturing or whether in the event, confronted with a concerted diplomatic effort that includes regional stakeholders, whether they will accept a delay in 1 May,” Dunford added. “But I think I’ve made it pretty clear what the outcomes are, whether we stay or whether we go on 1 May.”
While the report recommends pushing back the full withdrawal, it also lays out alternative scenarios and assesses their risks.
For example, a “calculated military withdrawal” where the U.S. military leaves but the U.S. government still tries to influence the situation in Afghanistan with an embassy presence and actors inside and outside the country has “obvious” drawbacks, the report said, including that the “the United States is highly unlikely to meet even a minimal definition of its interests, and Afghanistan is highly likely to fall into chaos.” Still, the report acknowledged that while that approach is an “inadvisable choice,” circumstances “could compel” the United States to pursue that path.
Meanwhile, the report said, “a washing of hands” where the United States quickly withdraws and disconnects from the diplomatic process would be a “highly risky and even dangerous approach that could foment more conflict than it resolves and create the sort of threats that imperil U.S. security.”
Updated at 4:03 p.m.