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What Will Happen if the U.S. Military Pulls Out of Afghanistan Without a Peace Deal?
What Will Happen if the U.S. Military Pulls Out of Afghanistan Without a Peace Deal?
Undated handout picture of U.S., Taliban and Qatar officials during a meeting for peace talks in Doha, Qatar. Handout via REUTERS/Qatari Foreign Ministry
Q&A / Asia

Behind Trump’s Taliban Debacle

On 7 September, U.S. President Donald Trump made the startling announcement that he had invited Taliban leaders to Camp David for talks – and then cancelled the gathering. Crisis Group Asia Program Director Laurel Miller and consultant Graeme Smith explain what happened and what it means for prospects of ending Afghanistan’s war.

What was the U.S. goal in inviting the Taliban to Camp David?

The U.S. has not said what was planned for Camp David, the wooded Maryland retreat that has hosted several peace summits, but the outlines of its intentions seem clear. A week earlier, U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said negotiators had reached an agreement with the Taliban, adding that he would announce details imminently, pending President Donald Trump’s final approval. The likely explanation for the Camp David meeting is that, in light of significant criticism from various quarters, Trump was not prepared to sign off on the deal, which the parties had painstakingly negotiated over the last nine months, and wanted to better its terms for the U.S. side.

What is not yet clear is whether, by also inviting President Ashraf Ghani to Camp David, the U.S. intended to try to broker a grander bargain, including resolution of issues between the Taliban and Afghan government. If so, Trump would have been aiming for a moonshot in a peace process where victories are measured in inches. No diplomatic groundwork has yet been laid for a peace agreement among the Afghan parties, and there is no reason to think that either side would have been willing to deal on the fly.

U.S. diplomacy’s main achievement in the last year has been to persuade the Taliban to open negotiations with the Afghan government after concluding an initial agreement with Washington. Officials have indicated that the draft U.S.-Taliban agreement included a commitment by the Taliban to commence what are being termed “intra-Afghan negotiations”.  

The Taliban’s concession may sound modest, but from their perspective it is not. For years, the insurgents had vowed never to speak to a government they dismissed as a “puppet” – and never to negotiate over their country’s political future while American boots remained on Afghan soil. Months of careful diplomacy, conducted with disciplined secrecy on both sides, coaxed the process to the brink of historic intra-Afghan talks. If and when those talks start, they will undoubtedly be lengthy and complicated. 

The credibility of the U.S commitment to negotiating is harmed but not destroyed, as all sides understand that Washington will seek a political solution at some point.

Why did the planned meeting fall apart?

Trump said the primary reason why the deal fell apart was the Taliban’s recent attack in Kabul that killed one U.S. soldier, but that explanation is not credible. Both sides have been hammering each other on the battlefield, seeking leverage at the negotiating table – indeed, in the wake of the Camp David cancellation, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed out how many Taliban fighters the U.S.-led coalition had recently killed. Taliban-inflicted violence had been ramping up throughout the negotiating process, and fifteen U.S. troops had already been killed during that time, in addition to many more Afghans. For Washington’s part, its declared policy is to use military pressure to obtain Taliban concessions. The U.S. is dropping munitions on Afghanistan more frequently now than in any year since 2001. The intensified bombing has pushed up the number of Afghan civilians killed in the war. In the first half of 2019, the UN recorded more civilians deaths at U.S. or Afghan government hands than at the Taliban’s – including a marked increase in deaths from airstrikes.

More likely, plans for the meeting never truly came together in the first place because the Taliban leaders were prepared to visit the U.S. only after the deal they had already negotiated was signed and announced.

What are the consequences for the peace process?

The U.S. president has said that the talks are “dead”, but it may not be the last word from him, given reversals in similar rhetoric he has employed in other circumstances. The 10 September departure of National Security Advisor John Bolton, who is known to oppose making a deal with the Taliban, adds another wrinkle. At a minimum, however, the debacle will mean some delay in finalising a deal that had seemed on the verge of completion. And the U.S. will need to find a face-saving way to bring itself back to the table, if the process is to resume. The Afghan government, which had openly celebrated the breach in the U.S.-Taliban process, may also need to save face.

Negotiators among the Taliban and Afghan government told Crisis Group that they continue to prepare for intra-Afghan negotiations in case the U.S. returns to the table. The credibility of the U.S commitment to negotiating is harmed but not destroyed, as all sides understand that Washington will seek a political solution at some point.

The question is therefore not whether the U.S. will return to negotiations, but when. A quick resumption of talks could jolt the process back on track. Without that, the most plausible scenario is that the U.S. and Taliban heighten their military confrontation. The Taliban may feel compelled to make good on their threat to disrupt Afghanistan’s 28 September presidential election. The year 2019 may be remembered as the most violent ever, judging by recent trends.

What do the Taliban, U.S. and Afghan government want out of a U.S.-Taliban deal?

Both the Taliban and U.S. seek the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the end of America’s longest war. They disagree, however, over the terms and pace of a U.S. exit.

The Taliban want to regain control of centralised government, allowing them to install what they call an “Islamic system” in Afghanistan, though they seem to understand that their desires will collide with opposing views at the negotiating table. The degree of Taliban willingness to compromise on this matter is unknown, raising questions about whether they will be able to make peace with the Afghan government. It will also help determine whether Afghanistan’s donors, who pay most of the security sector and civilian government’s bills, will bless a peace deal.

The U.S. wants a peace agreement offering guarantees that the Taliban will combat the Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate. This pledge should be easy to obtain considering that the Taliban battle daily with the Islamic State, which they consider a sworn enemy. Getting the Taliban to renounce al-Qaeda, as Washington would also like, could be more difficult because some of the Taliban’s hardline supporters idolise Osama bin Laden. The Taliban seem ready, however, to deliver at least on the U.S. demand for a public declaration not to allow terrorists to abuse their territory as a staging ground for international attacks.

For Kabul, the U.S.-Taliban agreement could have been a first step toward kick-starting talks between the insurgents and the Afghan government. To their credit, some Kabul officials continue working toward the eventual moment when they sit down with the Taliban and both sides compare visions of Afghan state structure and ways of drafting a new constitution.

What can be done to revive talks?

Trump scuppered the talks, and the onus is on Washington to press ahead with diplomacy. Taliban interlocutors say they are puzzled by U.S. behaviour and, though they have indicated their continued openness to concluding talks, they are unlikely to take the initiative in pressing for a restart. Washington will also need to manage criticism of the deal out of Kabul, which has spiked in the wake of the Camp David debacle.


Program Director, Asia
Senior Consultant, Afghanistan
President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani (R) receives U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) in Kabul, Afghanistan on March 23, 2020. AFGHAN PRESIDENCY PRESS OFFICE / / ANADOLU AGENCY / ANADOLU AGENCY VIA AFP
Briefing Note / Asia

What Will Happen if the U.S. Military Pulls Out of Afghanistan Without a Peace Deal?

This is the first in a series of three Briefing Notes that discuss and analyse the nascent peace process in Afghanistan while focusing on frequently raised questions.

The U.S. stated in a 29 February agreement with the Taliban, signed in Doha, Qatar, that it would immediately begin a fourteen-month phased military withdrawal. The agreement made the withdrawal contingent on Taliban compliance with anti-terrorism commitments but not explicitly contingent on a successful Afghan peace process. The deal commits the Taliban to starting peace talks with other Afghans but does not speak to scenarios in which talks might fail to begin or to generate momentum, or in which they fail to proceed for practical reasons such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 23 March statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo strongly criticising the Afghan leadership for failing to come together and prepare for peace talks, and announcing that Washington will cut assistance to Kabul by $1 billion this year if they do not do so, makes prospects of an early, unilateral U.S. military withdrawal if not likely, at least more plausible if the process stalls at any point.

This note explores what might happen if the U.S. were to go beyond its partial military drawdown in Afghanistan, already in progress, and implement a full withdrawal in a context in which intra-Afghan negotiations do not reach a political settlement or fail to commence.

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What Would Happen to the Peace Process

It is unlikely that the U.S.-steered negotiations would proceed in the event of a full U.S. military withdrawal implemented before talks at least built substantial momentum. The Afghan government would have comparatively little leverage to attract or compel the Taliban to remain at the bargaining table, while the Taliban would have less incentive to negotiate if they feel they have already achieved their primary objective – expelling foreign forces from Afghanistan. The Afghan government might be able to keep the Taliban at the table should it be willing to offer highly concessionary terms, but at present such an offer seems unrealistic. 

U.S. military disengagement probably would be accompanied by at least a diminution in, if not a complete end to diplomatic activity aimed at pushing the peace process forward. Moreover, Afghan government and regional perceptions of Washington’s abandonment of Afghanistan would make it far more difficult for the U.S. to exercise political leverage. Other regional states or international organisations might attempt to step in to mediate, but they would have difficulties if the U.S. were executing a policy of disengagement. Afghan parties would question the neutrality of neighbouring states were they to seek a leading diplomatic role. Other states further abroad – in Europe, for instance – would likely lack sufficient influence over parties to the conflict to mount such an initiative on their own. The UN Secretary-General could in principle authorise some form of mediation, but it would be hard for him to achieve broad consensus. Although the UN Security Council’s five permanent members formally supported the U.S.-Taliban agreement, a sharp pivot from that framework almost certainly would complicate further UN action.

Why the U.S. Would Withdraw before a Peace Settlement

U.S. domestic political considerations would likely play some part in any sudden decision to withdraw. The Trump administration has a track record of abrupt, if incomplete, foreign policy and military reversals, ranging from the announcement of a withdrawal from north-eastern Syria and the targeted killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani to the 2019 halt in talks with the Taliban, suggesting that a politically driven decision regarding the withdrawal timetable is not out of the question. A growing number of U.S. voices, both Republican and Democrat, have voiced opposition to so-called endless wars, focusing in particular on the intervention in Afghanistan – the longest war in American history. Most of the Democratic presidential candidates expressed support for withdrawal during their campaigns. There have also been mounting expressions of dissatisfaction with the U.S. agreement with the Taliban, with some voicing a preference for a unilateral withdrawal as opposed to one tied to what some consider a “bad deal”. In a U.S. presidential election year, it is difficult to know whether the security risks of a rapid withdrawal would outweigh President Donald Trump’s long-expressed political preference for bringing U.S. troops home or vice versa.

U.S. policymakers may also decide to pull the plug on their country’s military engagement if they come to believe that staying will not improve prospects of a political settlement. Already, several challenges have surfaced since the 29 February signing of the U.S.-Taliban agreement that – if they persist or if similar issues arise later – could give Washington pause. 

The intended starting date for intra-Afghan negotiations, 10 March, was delayed and no new date has been set so far. The delay is largely tied to domestic political turbulence in Kabul. President Ashraf Ghani’s chief rival in last year’s election, Abdullah Abdullah, continues to contest the results – to the point of holding a rival inauguration ceremony and declaring a “parallel government”. At the same time, Ghani has been slow to name a negotiating team for peace talks that represents the full range of Afghan power-brokers whose consent will be needed to negotiate from a position of consensus and strength. That issue appeared to have been resolved on 25 March, although it remains to be seen how effectively the team will function. The U.S. special representative for Afghanistan peace and reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, shuttled between different factions of the Afghan political elite for weeks in an attempt to help form a compromise government and negotiating team. A surprise 23 March visit by Secretary of State Pompeo was designed to break the logjam but both sides held firm. That same day, Pompeo released his statement harshly reprimanding both Ghani and Abdullah for failing to reach a compromise and thereby impeding intra-Afghan talks, and declaring the U.S. would cut aid to Afghanistan by $1 billion this year and potentially by more in the future. Even if the aid cut decision is reversed, the announcement shows the extent to which U.S. patience is wearing thin.

The global COVID-19 pandemic could prompt decision-makers in Washington to rethink the U.S. troop presence in the country.

Meanwhile, just days after their signing ceremony with the U.S. in Qatar, the Taliban resumed offensive operations against Afghan security forces. Although not specifically prohibited by the agreement, the fresh attacks inevitably damaged the good-will established during February’s seven-day “reduction in violence” that preceded the signing. This in turn led some U.S. officials to claim publicly that the Taliban was not abiding by the deal and soured the mood in Kabul, according to civil society activists who spoke to Crisis Group. The two sides have also been deadlocked over the issue of a prisoner exchange, which is spelled out in the U.S.-Taliban agreement but does not appear to have the Afghan government’s full buy-in; in the wake of the renewed violence, the Taliban and Afghan government traded hardline rhetoric on this matter. Both the resurging violence and prisoners issue reinforced pre-existing scepticism in Kabul about the Taliban’s good faith and commitment to prioritising a negotiated political settlement over attempts to achieve military victory, despite their stated willingness to discuss the issue of a ceasefire once intra-Afghan negotiations actually begin. 

Finally, the global COVID-19 pandemic and its potential to wreak havoc on Afghanistan’s population, health services and economy could prompt decision-makers in Washington to rethink the U.S. troop presence in the country. Afghanistan shares a long, porous border with Iran, one of COVID-19’s global epicentres. The Afghan government has yet to shut down or restrict access through this border; tens of thousands of people have transited in both directions even as the virus spread across Iran. Afghanistan’s weak national health infrastructure means there is a dearth of testing and lack of reliable indicators, but observers fear that COVID-19 could cripple the country. Even dramatic steps by Kabul could prove insufficient to achieve social distancing fast enough; moreover, the country suffers from an acute shortage of medical facilities and equipment that cannot be adequately remedied in the short term. Under such conditions, the U.S. military might decide to redeploy soldiers out of Afghanistan, at least gradually, for health reasons, especially as the U.S. grapples with its own response to the virus. 

The Afghan Government’s Chances of Survival Should the U.S. Withdraw Absent a Peace Deal

In late January, President Ghani said decreasing the number of U.S. troops based in Afghanistan would have “no material impact” on the country’s “ability and willingness to move forward” in improving the security situation. In late 2019, his national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, told a Council on Foreign Relations audience that he believed military victory was attainable for the Afghan government, even should U.S. troops withdraw.

Whether or not the Afghan security forces could weather a U.S. withdrawal likely depends at least in part on how much financial assistance would be provided in its wake.

There are a number of reasons to question these assessments. Currently, the U.S. and other donors fund around 90 per cent of the Afghan security forces’ annual budget, with Washington alone providing more than $4 billion this year. Whether or not the Afghan security forces could weather a U.S. withdrawal likely depends at least in part on how much financial assistance would be provided in its wake. It is highly improbable that the U.S. would maintain this level of spending on Afghan security forces – significantly higher than U.S. military aid to any other country in the world – if the U.S. military disengages, certainly not for an extended period of time. 

Furthermore, Afghan forces remain reliant on back-up, including air support, from the U.S. military in fending off major Taliban offensives. U.S.-provided contractors also deliver critical services and technical support for the Afghan air force, special operations units and more. The 29 February agreement between the U.S. and Taliban specifies that all foreign contractors would be included in a full withdrawal as defined by the deal; in any event, it is unlikely that such contractors could safely remain behind in the wake of a U.S. pullout. 

The impact of a U.S. military withdrawal on the Afghan government would extend beyond its security forces’ fate; any negative shift in the country’s already tenuous security situation could prompt an end not only to civilian and humanitarian assistance but also to vital foreign commercial investments. Some Afghan political analysts have told Crisis Group that they fear this scenario and worry that too many of their fellow citizens ignore it as a real possibility: “Those who say the fight can continue are thinking about the conflict today, not what it might become”.

None of the above necessarily means that a U.S. withdrawal would precipitate the total collapse of the Afghan state or a Taliban takeover of Kabul. A Taliban push to take the capital and other urban centres would surely encounter strong resistance, even if anti-Taliban political forces fragment – an entirely possible scenario. While commentators have noted superficial historical similarities between today’s Islamic Republic and the Soviet-backed Democratic Republic that fell apart shortly after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, substantive structural and institutional differences exist: for instance, the country’s current constitutional system enjoys wide support, notably in urban areas, and today’s security forces do not suffer desertion rates akin to those in the 1980s.

Even partial erosion of government control and functionality could deprive millions of essential services, humanitarian aid and disaster relief.

But even in the most optimistic scenario in which the Afghan government were to survive, the withdrawal of U.S. forces and end to any peace effort would likely see the country’s conflict remain high on the list of the world’s deadliest wars. Even partial erosion of government control and functionality could deprive millions of essential services, humanitarian aid and disaster relief. The loss of feasible options for a peaceful settlement to the conflict might well send into overdrive regional states seeking to hedge their bets by backing various factions and armed groups, further exacerbating domestic political fragmentation. For a country where 10,000 civilians – along with tens of thousands of combatants on both sides – have been killed or injured annually for the past several years, such a U.S. withdrawal would probably ensure a continued enormous, and tragic, human cost.