Writing Off Afghanistan: Does Biden Have a Choice?

This commentary is part of CSIS's Global Forecast 2021 essay series.

The United States has now spent nearly a year reducing its military, diplomatic, and aid presence in Afghanistan. It has never made the full scale of these reductions public, but it has talked about reducing its military presence to 2,500 military personnel by January 2021 and about closing many military facilities. UN and other reporting have also reflected a steady decline in aid activity.

The full scale of the cuts in diplomatic presence, U.S. aid workers, and various types of U.S. funded contractors—many of whom perform roles that belonged to the military in previous wars—has never been made clear. The same is true of the cuts in military and civil intelligence personnel as well as in military personnel who are not officially assigned full time to Afghanistan but who have been critical in supporting Afghan combat operations. There also have been no details about the cuts in the U.S. military train and assist personnel assigned to key frontline Afghan army and police units.

As for the level of conflict, the World Bank reports that,

Conflict is ongoing, and 2019 was the sixth year in a row when civilian causalities in Afghanistan exceeded 10,000. The displacement crisis persists, driven by intensified government and Taliban operations in the context of political negotiations. The number of conflict-induced IDPs increased from 369,700 in 2018 to 462,803 in 2019. An additional 505,000 refugees returned to Afghanistan, mainly from Iran, during 2019.

The Trump administration will leave office having stated that it has reduced the number of U.S. military in the country to 2,500—although the credibility of such numbers is dubious at best. Media reporting on Afghan manpower levels has quoted Department of Defense (DoD) and State Department briefs without questioning the real-world numbers. The current round of reductions has been almost universally defined as a cut from 4,500 to 2,500 military, ignoring the fact that these numbers do not include some military personnel in intelligence and special combat roles.

Moreover, reporting in the Lead Inspector General (LIG) Quarterly Report for the third quarter of 2020 stated that the current troop levels that were reported were 5,067 personnel plus 9,639 local contractors, 7,856 contractors from other countries, and 8,600 U.S. national contractors. The effective personnel levels in late 2020 were not 5,067 military personnel but 31,162 military personnel and contractors—many of them critical to supporting Afghan forces.

There have been no detailed reports on the closing or reductions in U.S. bases and facilities, cuts in air strike and related intelligence and targeting capabilities, downsizing in civilian diplomats and intelligence capabilities, or reductions in the forward train and assist efforts supporting Afghan army and police forces in the forward area that are critical to counterinsurgency capabilities in the field.

This makes it impossible to assess, using the steadily decreasing amount of credible unclassified data now available, how difficult it will be to rebuild or sustain U.S. capabilities once the Biden administration takes over. Similarly unknown is what plans the Biden administration will inherit that would lead the United States to fully withdraw as part of the May 2021 deadline for withdrawing all U.S. military forces, as called for in the peace agreement the Trump administration signed with the Taliban near the end of February 2020.

Moreover, these cuts are part of a peace agreement that is somewhat unique in the history of peace negotiations. The February 2020 agreement was made between the U.S. government and the Taliban. The divided Afghan central government was not present in the U.S.-Taliban negotiations that led to the agreement, and the Afghan central government has made it clear that it was not consulted about the details of the agreement. Yet, the agreement called for a full peace settlement between the central government and the Taliban as well as for an effort to create a new political, governance, security, and economic structure for Afghanistan that would allow both the central government and the Taliban to actually implement a peace.

Some 10 months into this peace process, there is no indication that either side has agreed on any aspect of what a peace should be, any form of interim government that can govern jointly, or some form of separation of the country. In fact, as of mid-January, President Ashraf Ghani had refused to meet with Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad—the chief U.S. peace negotiator—on trying to define a structure for any interim government.

Time is critical, and there can be no real peace until at least a new interim government is in place. Any successful effort to create a meaningful peace between truly hostile factions virtually always requires one side to have won to the point where it can dictate the terms or the creation of an interim government, a clear agreement on what happens after the peace agreement, and some form of international guarantees.

By the time it takes office, the Biden administration will have only five months left of the deadline for completing the negotiations and defining a new structure for virtually every aspect of Afghan governance. Not a single detail of such an agreement now exists, and the Biden administration has been left a legacy that could make creating a real and lasting peace almost impossible.

The Biden administration will also have to deal with an Afghanistan where the fighting between the central government and the Taliban is still so severe that the war is actually still underway and where no peace seems likely to last unless the United States is willing to guarantee such a peace and finance it almost indefinitely. Even then, it is unclear that there will be any guarantee the fighting would really halt, that the Taliban will not deal with Al Qaeda or even the Islamic State, or that any effective structure of governance and rule of law will exist in most of the county.

The Biden administration should do its best to make this flawed structure work, but it should also be prepared to write the country off despite Afghanistan’s 37 million people involved in a human tragedy. The challenges involved in staying have reached the point where the United States needs to make it clear to both the Afghan central government and the world that it will not continue to waste resources on a failed effort—both in terms of reaching a real peace and dealing with a failed and corrupt Afghan government.

The full scale of these failures is hard to measure. The Trump administration has systematically classified—or stopped reporting on—many of the data in Afghanistan. It now seems nearly certain, however, that any peace that both sides could agree upon on would simply be a preface to an ongoing struggle between a weak, divided central government and an extremist Taliban—one that will try to exploit any “peace” to win the war by other means.

What is clear—in spite of the Trump effort to classify or cease reporting on key facts—is that:

  • As of mid-January, the Afghan government and the Taliban have still not agreed on any aspect of the definition of “Islamic” to be used in shaping the government, rule of law, education, or any aspect of civil life—or that the religious interpretations of the other side could legitimately be described as Islamic.
  • Fighting and targeted killings go on throughout the country, and the Taliban tends to win in the countryside. Plus, it is steadily increasing its control outside major population centers. As a CRS report in November 2020 noted, “By many measures, the Taliban are in a stronger military position now than at any point since 2001, though many once-public metrics related to the conduct of the war have been classified or are no longer produced.”
  • The United States has stopped reporting on Taliban gains in controlling territory and the population, but the most respected source of estimates—the Long War Journal—reports that the Taliban controls 75 of the 398 Districts in Afghanistan that it reports on and contests 187 more. The Taliban controls 4.6 million Afghans and contests control for 13 million more. The Afghan central government still holds all major cities and is credited with authority over 15.2 million people, but this figure is somewhat meaningless since the central government does not really fully control many districts that are under regional politicians and power brokers—and the Taliban still makes regular attacks in Kabul.
  • The only reason the Taliban does not control far more territory and at least some population centers has been attributed to the level of past support the Afghan forces have received from U.S. airpower and U.S. allied support, especially to Afghan ground forces. U.S. and allied funding supports virtually the entire Afghan government’s military, police, and local security forces.
  • The Afghan forces are making slow progress in some areas, but it is all too clear from the quarterly reporting by the Lead Inspector General (LIG) of the Department of Defense and the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) that the Afghan forces are not ready to stand on their own. It is also clear that the Afghan government’s security efforts have major flaws and that Afghan forces cannot survive without indefinite dependence on U.S. aid funds.
  • More broadly, a deeply divided Afghan central government—dominated by leaders more interested in competing for power than the nation’s future—cannot govern or make effective use of its funding, most of which comes from U.S. and outside aid. The political structure of the Afghan central government remains a corrupt and divided mess. The World Bank rates the Afghan government as one of the worst in the world as well as one of the most corrupt.

  • SIGAR reported on November 6, 2020, that,
Corruption has substantially undermined the U.S. mission in Afghanistan from the very beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom. We have previously reported that corruption cuts across all aspects of the reconstruction effort, jeopardizing progress made in security, rule of law, governance, and economic growth. We are concerned that a failure to effectively address the problem of systemic corruption as the coalition presence shrinks, while the Afghan government continues to rely on donor assistance to protect the fragile gains of the 19-year mission, would mean that U.S. reconstruction programs, at best, will continue to be subverted by systemic corruption and, at worst, will fail.
The rule of law is so weak that nearly half of Afghanistan’s District governments do not even have a prosecutor.


  • The Afghan economy has effectively imploded under the strain of war, Covid-19, misgovernment, and corruption. The World Bank reported in October 2020 that,

The basic needs poverty rate was 55 percent at the time of the last household survey (2016/17) and is expected to have worsened after the COVID-19 pandemic that hugely impacted the living condition of households. The economy is expected to contract by up to five percent in 2020 with the negative impacts of the COVID-19 virus overshadowing improvements in weather conditions. Additional substantial downside risks remain, including political instability, deterioration of security conditions, premature reduction in aid flows, and further adverse regional economic or political developments. Poverty is expected to remain high, driven by weak labor demand and security-related constraints on service delivery.

  • There are no current prospects for the development of an Afghan economy that can stand on its own. Aside from outside aid, Afghanistan’s only major source of hard currency is narcotics—a stream of income dominated by the Taliban and regional power brokers rather than the central government.

  • There is far less progress to preserve human rights than most reporting indicates. Civil and human rights progress has been real, but far too many of the data on civil progress in areas such as the rights of women, education, rule of law, and health are dubious at best or have badly dated estimates.

The issues do not mean the United States should not play out the peace process or consider security and aid guarantees if the peace process should suddenly become far more successful. It certainly does not mean the Biden administration should not consider proposals from the Afghan central government if it can achieve any credible level of unity and show that it is capable of realistic peace negotiations.

But the United States should make clear that it will fully and actively enforce a conditions-based approach to Afghan corruption and failures and that there will be no second chances if the Afghan government continues to be as much of a threat to success as the Taliban. The United States should also make clear that it will immediately cut off aid the moment gross waste and corruption reappears and that it will actually leave if the Afghan political leadership cannot maintain greater levels of unity and effectiveness than it has to date.

The Biden administration’s message should be unequivocal. The United States is willing to write off Afghanistan. It will stand behind competent and honest partners if they can negotiate and implement a successful peace. The United States now has no obligation to keep funding corruption and failure. It should be apparent that at this point only performance, not promises, count.

Writing off the Afghan government will probably mean some form of Taliban victory. This will create increased risks in terms of extremism and terrorism, but it is far from clear that these risks will not be higher than the risks of supporting a failed Afghan central government indefinitely into the future and failing to use the same resources in other countries to support partners that are more effective. There are many other states that face the threat of extremism, have more effective governments and ability to use such resources, and are closer to the United States and its major strategic partners, posing a more important potential engagement.

Moreover, leaving the problem to Afghanistan’s neighbors, such as Russia, China, Pakistan, and Iran, may push them into commitments that will place the burden of Afghanistan on them; forcing these states to deal with the burden of Afghanistan could actually serve the strategic objectives of the United States. Strategic triage is not a pleasant process, but the United States must use its limited resources where they are most effective.

Anthony Cordesman is the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy