The U.S. war in Afghanistan is scheduled to end on May 1. So says the deal with the Taliban negotiated by Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan appointed by the Trump administration and retained by President Joe Biden. If the deadline is met, the United States will finish our longest war a few months shy of the two-decade anniversary of invasion.
But will the deadline be met? The Biden administration is waffling, the president calls meeting the withdrawal deadline "tough," and this week’s revelation that the U.S. footprint in Afghanistan is nearly 50% larger than previously thought (3,500 troops rather than 2,500) means the logistics of withdrawal would be slightly more complicated than anticipated. Meanwhile, the drumming insistence that it’s too soon to leave — perhaps the steadiest beat in American politics for more than 19 years and four presidential administrations — is only growing louder.
Biden should ignore it. He was a voice of comparative restraint as a member of the Obama administration, and this inherited deadline would let him begin to deliver on his pledge to “end the forever wars.”
A unique opportunity for Biden
U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will never be smooth, but keeping this deal is the best foreseeable option. It stands the greatest chance of retaining some degree of Taliban cooperation. It gives Biden a unique political opportunity. And, crucially, it extricates the United States from a disastrously counterproductive intervention that will never succeed.
Taliban cooperation is not required for U.S. withdrawal, of course, and premising our foreign policy choices on the whims of the Taliban isn’t reasonable. Still, if we can leave with a U.S.-Taliban pact in place to lower violence and stabilize Afghan politics, we should, and breaking faith on the May 1 deadline will make that nigh impossible.
This isn’t difficult to divine: Broken promises don’t speed diplomatic progress. Moreover, the Taliban themselves have indicated how much stock they place in Washington honoring the May 1 departure date. Any alternative talks outside the schema Khalilzad negotiated (and continues to negotiate in Qatar) are “doomed to failure,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said this month. Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban negotiator, warned Friday that U.S. troops should not stay beyond May 1: "After that, it will be a kind of violation of the agreement. That violation would not be from our side. … Their violation will have a reaction."
Honoring the deadline is in the Biden’s domestic political interests, too. Every success would be his to claim. He could tout promises fulfilled and declare the exit evidence of his respect for the will of the American people, most of whom say the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting and needs to end.
Afghan Interior Minister Masoud Andarabi said this month he believes “Afghan security forces are fully capable” of defending government-controlled territories, like Kabul, and precluding Taliban advances after the United States is gone.
Yet insofar as there are setbacks and unintended consequences of U.S. withdrawal — as is certainly possible, given that Afghanistan was functionally in civil war before America invaded and will remain so after we leave — Biden can blame those on his predecessor. After all, the White House can explain, the Trump administration set the date! The deal was done. Biden’s hands were tied if he wanted to restore Washington’s good name as a reliable negotiating partner, which he did.
What makes this a strong argument for the Biden team is that it’s true. Or, at least, it should be.
If I sound a bit cynical here, it’s only because the subject at hand is a futile two-decade war that has accomplished remarkably little at enormous cost. We’ve churned through deployments small and large, 18 commanders and trillions of dollars, much of it debt funded and lost to waste. More than 2,000 U.S. troops have been killed and 10 times that many injured. Afghan civilian deaths and injuries numbered over 100,000 between 2010 and 2020 alone; and Afghan casualties, including in the police and security forces, hit new highs in recent years as the U.S. air war surged.
Better ways to help Afghan women
And for what? Negligible effects on U.S. security and a record of nation building and “spreading democracy” that would be laughable were it not so tragic. Our record on helping Afghan women and girls is particularly dismal. In 2010, diplomat Richard Holbrooke wrote in his diary, Biden told him: "I am not sending my boy back there to risk his life on behalf of women’s rights, it just won’t work, that’s not what they’re there for." Another decade has shown he was right on both counts.
Indeed, as Biden said a year ago on CBS News' "Face The Nation," "women and or children and or people are being persecuted or being hurt" all over the place, but the U.S. military can't "solve every single internal problem that exists throughout the world."
If we want to help Afghan women, and we should, supporting Afghan women’s organizations and inviting Afghan women and their children to come to the United States as refugees will do far more concrete good than bombing their villages.
Jarrett Blanc, principal deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan during the Obama administration, argues that there is no way to justify "the human, strategic and financial costs" of our continued presence in Afghanistan: "It is long past time to accept the risks and difficult compromises of a negotiated settlement; they only become more severe the longer we delay.”
That was true in 2019, when The Washington Post published his opinion column. It is even truer now.
If the Biden administration jettisons the May 1 agreement, the Taliban will use that betrayal to justify more violence, chaos and perhaps even total rejection of diplomacy. It is no exaggeration to say canceling this deadline could lead to a U.S. presence in Afghanistan essentially unchanged (or even expanded) by the end of Biden’s term. This is not an acceptable risk, which means May 1 is our date to bring all our troops home.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week and columnist at Christianity Today. Follow her on Twitter: @BonnieKristian
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden can keep promises and cut US losses by leaving Afghanistan May 1