Editorial: Slowing the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan could bolster peace talks

Zalmay Khalilzad
Zalmay Khalilzad has been retained by President Biden as U.S. representative to talks over the future of Afghanistan.
(Associated Press)

The United States last year signed an agreement with the Taliban that contemplated the withdrawal of all U.S. and allied forces from Afghanistan by May of this year. At long last, it seemed that America’s longest war, which began with the October 2001 invasion, might be coming to an end.

But now President Biden and America’s NATO allies are pondering whether they might have to extend that deadline in light of the Taliban’s undermining of the agreement — and in hopes of pressuring it to engage in good-faith negotiations with the Afghan government. NATO countries have about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, including 2,500 U.S. trainers, advisors and counterterrorism forces, a small fraction of the 100,000 Americans deployed at the height of the Obama administration’s Afghan “surge” in 2010.

The issue was discussed at this week’s meeting of NATO defense ministers, though they made no decision about whether to seek to postpone the deadline. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Thursday that “there is still time to reach a political agreement to see progress before the deadline” of May 1.


That, of course, would be ideal. But the United States and its allies should make it clear that they aren’t bound by the May deadline if the Taliban doesn’t abide my its obligations under the agreement.

The case for a delay was made earlier this month in a report by the Afghanistan Study Group, a bipartisan panel commissioned by Congress to examine the Afghan peace agreement. The group cited the Taliban’s failure so far to adequately distance itself from “groups or individuals threatening the security of the United States and its allies.”

Moreover, although the Taliban has refrained from launching attacks on U.S. forces since the agreement, it has continued military operations against Afghan security forces. Not surprisingly, negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which were supposed to follow the U.S.-Taliban agreement, have stalled.

The study group acknowledged that “Americans generally agree that it is time to end this war” and it said that “a real opportunity to reach a peaceful resolution exists.” But it warned that “withdrawing U.S. troops irresponsibly would likely lead to a new civil war in Afghanistan, inviting the reconstitution of anti-U.S. terrorist groups that could threaten our homeland and providing them with a narrative of victory against the world’s most powerful country. “

Some of the study group’s conclusions are debatable. For example, we question whether preventing the Taliban from capitalizing on a “narrative of victory” against the U.S. is sufficient reason to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The panel was more persuasive in arguing that a “rash and rushed approach could increase the chances of a breakdown of order in Afghanistan.” But the argument that may appeal most to Biden is the panel’s insistence that America’s future in Afghanistan must be decided in collaboration with NATO allies that have also have been involved in that country. Biden has emphasized the importance of consulting with U.S. allies.


We understand that to many Americans the study group’s recommendations will sound like another appeal by the foreign policy establishment to prolong a military presence that has stretched on for decades without either a military victory or the transformation in Afghan society that some naively thought the U.S. could accomplish. We also recognize that postponing the withdrawal of U.S. forces isn’t guaranteed to revive the peace process and that the Taliban might choose to fight on, assuming that the U.S. will leave eventually in any case.

That’s a real possibility, but for now the U.S. and its allies need to preserve the option of delaying withdrawal as a way to bring the Taliban to the table.

Biden, a skeptic about U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan when he was vice president, said during last year’s campaign that it was past time to end “forever wars.” His administration retained former Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who served as President Trump’s representative in talks with the Taliban. Biden can make it clear that he still supports a negotiated settlement while also making it clear that the Taliban must negotiate in good faith.