With less than a month to go before a diplomatic accord with the Taliban requires U.S. forces to withdraw from their longest-ever overseas war, the Biden administration is now trying to make their May 1 drawdown deadline irrelevant.
According to multiple sources in and close to the administration, none of whom would speak for attribution ahead of President Biden announcing a decision on Afghanistan, a forthcoming diplomatic summit in Istanbul is crucial. There, U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad will attempt to sell the Taliban and Washington’s client Afghan government on something approaching a power-sharing deal.
If they succeed, the thinking goes, then the diplomatic breakthrough will make a somewhat prolonged U.S. presence in Afghanistan palatable to the Taliban. But the downside is tremendous: a risk to a return to outright war by a Taliban that will consider the U.S. to have violated its accord. What happens around the negotiating table will shape the decision Biden must make in Afghanistan far more substantially than will his still-ongoing policy review.
All this is unfolding with no time left on the clock. It’s not even certain when the summit will convene or who will attend. The State Department only describes the summit as taking place in the “coming days.” Some analysts hear it unfolding on April 16, others as late as April 26. The State Department referred questions about it to the Turkish government; the Turkish embassy did not respond to a request for comment.
“Istanbul, if it works, is a way to break the dynamic—stay by May 1 or leave by May 1—by bringing senior leaders around a table for an ambitious conversation,” said Johnny Walsh, an Afghanistan analyst at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “Even if those leaders aren’t ready to agree on everything, it could be a success if for example they agree on some basic characteristics defining post-war Afghanistan: Is it a democracy? What is the ‘more Islamic’ system that the Taliban demand? What will happen with the current constitution?”
But some analysts consider the summit to be little more than wishful thinking—a way out of recognizing that the consequences of losing a 20-year war are the absence of desirable options.
“It’s right to be energetically trying any diplomatic possibilities for ending the war. But if you’re trying to do that on a timeline that is not realistic, because of your lack of commitment to staying until the peacemaking is done, then that can distort how you conduct the diplomacy,” said Laurel Miller, who from 2013 to 2017 was the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. “It can lead to moves that, if the diplomacy doesn’t work on this very tight timeline, could leave the Afghan government worse off in the aftermath of that kind of failure than they already are.”
In Istanbul, Khalilzad and his negotiators want instead to get the Taliban and the government in Kabul to quickly do something they’ve resisted for years: come to some sort of terms on what the future Afghan government will be. That is the ultimate goal of the peace process. Doing so will end the U.S. military’s role—unless Biden attempts to keep a residual force, either against the so-called Islamic State or as an insurance policy, and the Afghan factions consent—and sidestep the bitter meal of withdrawing from an unsettled Afghanistan. Biden, in other words, wants to eat dessert first, something that will make withdrawal more palatable.
The current dynamic also lets the client government of Ashraf Ghani play spoiler. In the February 2020 accord struck between the Trump administration and the Taliban, the U.S. cut what amounts to a separate peace process with the Taliban, sidelining and embittering a frightened Afghan government that has justified reason to fear for its survival. Biden’s calculation is that continuing with a dynamic where U.S. departure is an inducement for a peace process provides Ghani to obstruct the peace process in order to keep his uniformed patrons in Afghanistan.
The problem is the Taliban have little interest in changing the menu. For them, the deal they struck with the American government last year is ideal. The obligations it places on the U.S., chiefly withdrawal, are as specific as the obligations on the Taliban are vague. Unsurprisingly, they have yet to express any openness to delaying a U.S. withdrawal. After negotiations in Doha with Khalilzad that The Daily Beast first reported, their spokesman, Mohammed Naeem, stressed last week “foreign forces [leaving] according to their deadline.” Late last month, the Taliban unsubtly warned that they may announce their usual spring offensive before the May 1 deadline.
If these positions stay fixed after Istanbul, Biden will face a crisis. He will have to violate the accord with the Taliban and risk war against a highly motivated enemy unlikely to return to negotiations that it will believe the U.S. to have violated twice in a decade. Alternatively, Biden will have to eat his dinner and withdraw forces without the certainty of dessert—in this case, meaning the Taliban will likely take control in Kabul and leave the U.S. to watch impotently as its clients are slaughtered.
“The problem that we’re seeing here is a collision between an American war policy, which is right now a policy about withdrawal, and an American peace policy, which is about trying to create a peaceful political settlement in Afghanistan,” Miller observed. “Those objectives and what you would need to achieve those objectives are increasingly colliding.”
The calendar is not in the Biden administration’s favor. The U.S. has approximately 3,500 troops in Afghanistan, along with the settled-in machinery that comes from 20 years’ residence in the country. Extricating it in weeks, particularly from a landlocked country like Afghanistan, is a logistics challenge that stretches the plausibility the Pentagon insists exists.
“The United States will not undertake a hasty or disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan that puts NATO or American forces or our Alliance's reputation at risk,” said Army Maj. Rob Lodewick, a Pentagon spokesperson. “It’s important to remember that several conditions-based force-level drawdowns over the past year included corresponding reductions in equipment, infrastructure and personnel. This has left an optimized and manageable footprint conducive to the core functions of the current mission set while also providing policy options moving forward.”
However, Jason Campbell, a senior Afghanistan official in the Obama Pentagon, said flatly, “I don’t think there's a way you can responsibly remove U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 30 days.”
That points to a recrimination. Senior military officers and Pentagon officials came to those Trump-ordered Afghanistan drawdowns reluctantly. While military sources contend that they do not wish to stay in Afghanistan, it has been high-ranking officers who tend to publicly catastrophize at moments where withdrawal looms. Most recently, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command told the Senate that the Afghan security forces cannot operate without American military mentorship. “The Pentagon had over a year to prepare for this development,” said Will Ruger of the Charles Koch Institute, whom Trump nominated for ambassador to Kabul.
The precipice of the Istanbul conference is in some ways reminiscent of Iraq in 2011. Back then, the U.S. security establishment was convinced that the Iraqi parliament it created would permit a continued American military presence. Instead, they watched as the Iraqis insisted on a U.S. departure, and had mere months to get tens of thousands of troops out of Iraq. At the time, Biden was the senior American figure dealing with the Iraqis, aided by Antony Blinken, now secretary of state, and the general tasked with improvising a departure was Lloyd Austin, now defense secretary.
U.S. officials recognize that the Taliban will not accede to a subtle redefinition of the February 2020 deal readily, particularly when it comes to a withdrawal delay. The Taliban will require some face-saving concession in order to show its constituents that it hasn’t buckled to a foreign occupier. But it is unknown what concession could simultaneously reassure the Taliban and the Afghan government. Observers say the administration is not recognizing that its leverage is minimal—something the February 2020 agreement recognized more clearly than those in Washington who want it revised.
“It is hard to unring the bell, and the bell is May 1,” said Chris Kolenda, a retired Army colonel and Afghanistan veteran who has negotiated with the Taliban. “It just seems that this hope, that the Taliban will simply forget about May 1, it sounds like people are drinking their own bathwater and breathing their own exhaust.”