The Biden administration has been suggested to delay exit from Afghanistan beyond May 1 deadline and reduce the number of US troops only if Taliban reduce violence and situation improves.
The suggestion was given by the Afghanistan Study Group, a bipartisan panel charged by Congress to review peace agreement signed by the Trump administration. The group was co-chaired by retired Marine General Joseph Dunford, a former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, and Republican former senator Kelly Ayotte.
A report filed by the group found that withdrawing troops, as envisaged in the deal, may risk the stability of the country and a potential civil war as violence upsurged recently and revive the al-Qaeda. The Taliban are blamed for the rise in the violence, an accusation that they deny.
“It’s not in anyone’s best interest right now for precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan,” said Gen Dunford.
Dunford told reporters that the report was shared with aides to President Joe Biden, including Zalmay Khalilzad, the peace negotiator kept on from the Trump administration, who “found it helpful.”
Kelly Ayotte said that the group did not want the war to go on indefinitely, and was not arguing that troops remain long-term.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said that the Biden administration “plans to support” the peace process, and is assessing the Taliban’s commitment to cutting ties to al-Qaeda, lowering violence and engaging in peace talks.
The Biden administration has to take an early decision on Afghanistan policy.
The group advocated a renewed diplomatic push by the United States and Afghanistan’s neighbours with the Taliban, asking them to adhere to the peace deal. While members of the commission acknowledged that the Taliban would be angered by a failure to adhere to the agreement’s deadline, the United States still has leverage. The Taliban, General Dunford said, want international recognition as a legitimate political movement and a relief from sanctions.
Still, that most likely will not stop the Taliban from launching a bloody spring offensive across the country. There is no cease-fire agreement between the Taliban and the Afghanistan government. And despite talks of peace, violence in Afghanistan has gone unchecked, with targeted killings in major cities and Taliban attacks in the countryside leaving thousands of security forces and civilians killed and wounded over the past year.
Analysts say the threat of civil war described by the study group is real.
As western military support reduces and the peace negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban in Qatar remain stalled after starting in September following the US-Taliban agreement, factions in parts of Afghanistan are rearming. Regional militias have been emboldened by the uncertainty around any deal with the Taliban, the fragility of the central government that could fracture under the weight of its own rampant corruption and its continuing inability to unify the many ethnic groups across the country.
Despite the Taliban’s position, the group said that the Biden administration can make the case that delays in starting talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government meant there has not been sufficient time to create the conditions under which international forces could leave.
“A withdrawal would not only leave America more vulnerable to terrorist threats; it would also have catastrophic effects in Afghanistan and the region that would not be in the interest of any of the key actors, including the Taliban,” the report said.
In a discussion of the report ahead of its official release, members of the group repeatedly emphasised the need for a new diplomatic push with Afghanistan’s neighbours. But the report acknowledges that those countries agree on little except for an opposition to a long-term American presence and a fear that a hasty U.S. withdrawal could provoke a civil war.
The Biden administration and the Pentagon have begun considering a number of options. The administration could look at temporarily increasing the number of troops in the country, reversing former president’s order to cut number of troops.
Gen Dunford said that experts told the study group that 4,500 American troops, the force presence that was in Afghanistan last fall, was the right number. Still, he said any decision on increasing forces back to that level was best left to commanders in Afghanistan. The current number of American troops in Afghanistan hovers around 2,500.
Gen Dunford said the group’s report had a generally positive reception from Biden’s transition team when members were briefed late last year. The group met this week with Zalmay Khalilzad, who is the architect of the peace deal. He has a strong working relationship with the Taliban.