Protecting Wider U.S. Interests after a Troop Withdrawal
May 26, 2021
The Biden administration is committed to withdrawing all remaining U.S. armed forces and contractors from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, a process that began in late April. Many Democrats and Republicans have praised the move for “ending” the 20-year war in Afghanistan. But the removal of personnel only signals that the United States is taking its military options off the table, the best source of leverage in the peace process; this action will not bring about an end to Afghanistan’s ongoing violence or the involvement of other states in the conflict. In fact, violence is escalating, and U.S. interests are still at play. A mismanaged withdrawal risks a return to civil war, the empowerment of terrorist groups, a renewed refugee crisis, and severe political consequences for the United States. Without ongoing international support to the Afghan security forces, other terrorist groups, neighboring states such as Pakistan and Iran, and emerging citizen self-defense forces will compete with the Taliban to fill the security vacuum. Congressional action that looks at a wider scope of U.S. interests can help manage and even avoid these consequences.
Despite the hopes for peace fostered by the U.S.-Taliban February 29 agreement and the intra-Afghan negotiations, civil war is a very real possibility. The emboldened Taliban have been expanding and currently control 22 percent of districts in Afghanistan and contest a further 51 percent. Their recent abandonment of the planned Istanbul peace summit leaves little hope for their commitment to a peaceful resolution. Simultaneously, violence has increased, including unattributed urban bombings and a Taliban attack in Helmand province. The absence of the U.S. and NATO military leaves Afghan security forces much more vulnerable to Taliban assault as they rely heavily upon coalition support for air and special forces capabilities. In addition, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR) has warned that the withdrawal of U.S. contractors will significantly degrade the operational effectiveness of Afghan security forces. The DNI Annual Threat Assessment voices similar concerns about the post-withdrawal stability of the government of Afghanistan.
U.S. counterterrorism interests are also poorly served by a withdrawal delinked to conditions. One of the key tenets of the February 29 agreement is that the Taliban will refrain from cooperating with groups that threaten U.S. national security. However, there are signs that the Taliban have continued to maintain ties with terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, while the Islamic State operates unchecked. CIA director William J. Burns and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton have both warned of potential resurgences in terrorism. The United States’ human intelligence capabilities are central to an effective counterterrorism strategy and are severely degraded by withdrawal.
Afghan civilians are already at higher risk. Civilian casualties were 29 percent higher in the first three months of 2021 compared to 2020, with women being especially vulnerable. Civil war may result in a large refugee crisis, destabilizing regional governments and Western Europe and requiring enormous sums of humanitarian aid. So far, the United States spent more than $12 billion on the refugee crisis in Syria, a country with less than half the population of Afghanistan. Moreover, the forced movement of non-combatants during the Covid-19 pandemic may cause further devastation. Currently, only 0.1 percent of the Afghan population is fully vaccinated.
The fall of the government of Afghanistan would also significantly degrade the political reputation of the United States in other fragile contexts at a time when the Biden administration is attempting to return to international engagement. It would hurt the United States’ ability to combat insurgencies in countries like Mali and Somalia that might become skeptical about the effectiveness of U.S. aid and military cooperation. Such a loss of confidence would be especially damaging in the context of U.S. competition with authoritarian powers like China who could take advantage of the political vacuum created by withdrawal.
While the decision to withdraw cannot be reversed, Congress has a pivotal role to play in preventing disaster in Afghanistan. In particular, it must hold the administration accountable and require it to take a more holistic approach to its legislated responsibilities, rather than an approach focused solely on the military. Several relevant laws specifically address the wider needs of conflict zones but have either not been applied to the context of Afghanistan or not been implemented effectively.
- In the 2019 Global Fragility Act, Congress made a clear commitment to preventing violent conflict. An ill-considered withdrawal achieves the opposite effect. The U.S. Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability (Global Fragility Strategy) notes that “[s]trategic investments in prevention can save billions of U.S. dollars and achieve better outcomes over the long run.” The costs of supporting the government of Afghanistan and maintaining the capabilities of the Afghan security forces pale in comparison to the costs of civil war. Afghanistan is one of the countries where U.S. involvement is critical in determining the outcome of conflict. But there is no mention of Afghanistan in either the Report to Congress Pursuant to Section 504(c) of the Global Fragility Act or the State Department’s Global Fragility Strategy. The Global Fragility Act calls for a coordinated cross-government approach to prevention, the promotion of peacebuilding, and addressing the drivers of conflict, yet U.S. action in Afghanistan does not reflect this.
- The Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocity Prevention Act of 2018 establishes a duty on the part of the United States to “identify, prevent, and respond to the risk of atrocities.” There is no mention of Afghanistan in the 2020 Report to Congress Pursuant to Section 5 of the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act of 2018. This is a mistake—the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s annual Early Warning Project report of December 2020, even before the pullout was announced, listed Afghanistan as the country with the second highest risk in the world for mass killings. As the May 2021 bombing of a Hazara girls’ school amply demonstrates, women and ethnic minorities are in grave danger.
- The 2017 Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) Act affirms U.S. commitment to involve women in conflict prevention, peacebuilding, and post-conflict recovery, as well as to protect the rights of women and girls around the world. Although Afghanistan has made significant progress on women’s rights in the years since 2001, the expansion of Taliban control threatens complete reversal. Congressional inaction on the issue of Afghanistan means ignoring an important context for the application of the WPS. The United States has already failed to ensure the meaningful participation of women in the Afghan peace process. By neglecting to use the existing WPS implementation plans, the United States is defaulting on the promise it made to the women and girls of the world.
- The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act Section 1215 places limitations on the use of funds for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. Before any disbursements can be made, the executive branch must produce a report justifying withdrawal and evaluating its possible consequences. Similarly, Section 1217 mandates a report on the status of the February 29 agreement, which is particularly important given concerns about Taliban violations of its commitment to break ties with al Qaeda and commit to substantive negotiations. The Biden administration has yet to provide either report.
In order to support the United States’ comprehensive security, human rights, violence prevention, and peacebuilding goals, Congress must maintain public attention on and oversight of U.S. policy and engagement with multilateral institutions and partners in Afghanistan. The April 27 Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) hearing with U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and the May 12 House Armed Services Committee hearing with Pentagon officials are good examples of Congress holding the Biden administration accountable for the consequences of withdrawal; questions at these briefings reveal clear member concern about the wider policy ramifications, especially the status of planning for how to reinvigorate the peace process and maintain regional stability. These congressional efforts should continue, lest emerging issues let Afghanistan fall to the wayside—as history shows, when U.S. troops depart, American attention goes with them.
Alongside public awareness should be congressional oversight of White House preparations for worst-case scenarios. As was made clear by the SFRC hearing, there is no one in charge of efforts to prepare for a crisis in Afghanistan and coordinate among the various stakeholders. As another example, the Biden administration does not appear prepared for the large refugee crisis that would likely result from civil war. It only recently adjusted the worldwide refugee cap and is unable even to manage the discrete flow of fewer than 20,000 special immigrant visas without multiyear backlogs. At the height of the Afghan refugee crisis in 1996 after Afghanistan’s civil war and the Taliban takeover, over 2.6 million Afghans had official international refugee status, while others were seeking employment and refuge in neighboring states and a further 1.4 million were estimated as internally displaced.
Even more directly, Congress should use the power of the purse to provide long-term and sustainable funding for Afghan security forces, working with the Pentagon to ensure adequate oversight in the absence of an extensive ground presence. A strong commitment to this security relationship, delivered in tandem with NATO partners, will serve as an important message of hope amid the Taliban onslaught.
Sanctions are another critical tool for addressing the situation in Afghanistan. The February 29 agreement included provisions for lifting U.S. sanctions against the Taliban and working to delist the Taliban at the United Nations. However, this was conditional on the Taliban upholding their end of the bargain, something that has clearly not taken place. If the Taliban continue to obstruct the path to peace, Congress must ensure that financial restrictions are maintained. If the Biden administration attempts to lift sanctions against the Taliban, Congress should legislate new ones, perhaps as an amendment to the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.
Afghanistan is often perceived as a particularly risky context for aid. SIGAR issues an annual High-Risk List that details various threats to spending in Afghanistan such as corruption and a lack of monitoring. However, expenditures and attendant risk need to be weighed against the enormous cost that would accompany a new Afghan civil war and refugee crisis, as well as the uncontrolled spread of terror groups. In the past, the United States has been willing to accept similar levels of risk for both foreign assistance and security spending. In 2020, the United States spent nearly as much in foreign assistance in the Horn of Africa as it did in Afghanistan. The instability of the former has most recently been demonstrated by the Ethiopian civil war. Although Afghanistan is the single largest destination for security spending at $4 billion in fiscal year 2021, the United States has provided significant security assistance to other fragile contexts: $930 million to the Counter-Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Train and Equip Fund in FY 2019 and $250 million to the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative in FY 2020.
At this moment, the situation in Afghanistan is extremely fragile. A poorly managed withdrawal of U.S. troops that does not ensure continued support for the constitutionally mandated Afghan government would have severe consequences. In the absence of proper planning and consideration on the part of the Biden administration, and with crisis looming on the horizon, Congress should use the tools at its disposal to effectively address the rapidly changing situation in Afghanistan.
Annie Pforzheimer is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Project on Prosperity and Development (PPD) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Samuel Matthews is an intern with PPD at CSIS.
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