USA TODAY US Edition
Our View: Trump’s unconditional retreat leaves Biden little choice
When the United States and the Taliban reached an initial peace deal last year, it held out the promise of ending America’s longest war. There was widespread praise for President Donald Trump, including from this page.
Sadly, it proved to be nothing like that at all.
The Taliban only increased attacks in the country, and commander in chief Trump’s plan turned out to be little more than a cynical ploy to create a nice campaign sound bite: “We’re bringing our soldiers back home.”
The risks and dangers associated with what amounted to a U.S. retreat from Afghanistan would be someone else’s problem. And that someone else today is Joe Biden.
President Biden’s only choices are to either stick with Trump’s plan and pull the remaining troops out by May 1 — risking collapse of the Afghan democracy. Or delay withdrawal to provide time and space for the insurgency and the Kabul government to strike an agreement — however difficult that might be.
We believe the second option is the only real choice.
Under the terms of the U.S.-Taliban accord reached by the Trump administration last February, America promised an initial troop drawdown from 14,000 to 8,600 by July. And the Taliban agreed to negotiate peace with the Afghan government.
Further reductions were to be conditioned on progress toward an overall reconciliation.
Except they weren’t. And there wasn’t.
Trump just kept pulling troops out, even with zero progress in peace talks. The Taliban launched major offensives across southern Afghanistan in November. The insurgency began targeting journalists, civil servants and activists for assassination. And the Taliban recently closed in on several major cities, reportedly telling field commanders the peace agreement is a ruse to achieve overall military victory once the Americans leave.
“Certainly the Taliban (are) looking emboldened,” said Heather Barr, a Human Rights Watch official who works on Afghan issues.
She characterized the mood in Kabul as “incredibly grim.”
American troop levels are now at 2,500 — the lowest since 2001.
NATO allies, with more than 7,000 service members in Afghanistan, would almost certainly follow an exit by the United States.
Thanks to Trump’s craven effort to win political points regardless of consequences, Biden has no good choices. But the stakes remain high:
h The threat of terrorism. It’s no accident that there hasn’t been a major terrorist attack on the United States since Sept. 11, 2001. The counterterrorism work by U.S. forces in Afghanistan has apparently checked the ability of al-Qaida and the Islamic State militants to launch that kind of violence. Though Biden made his own campaign promises to pull out U.S. service members, he carved an exception for maintaining a counterinsurgency force to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a terrorist haven.
h The preservation of human rights. Hard-won freedoms for a generation of Afghan women — and the girls growing up behind them — would be lost under a Taliban regime. This is already the case in rural areas occupied by the insurgents. But in areas controlled by the government, millions of girls attend school, tens of thousands of women are educators, thousands serve in the justice system and dozens are in parliament.
h The imperative of a stable Afghanistan. If peace negotiations were allowed the time and space to succeed, a successful result could ultimately quell a region fraught with extremist ideologies, a vast opiate drug trade and dangerous rivalry between nucleararmed rivals Pakistan and India. All six neighboring countries, including China and Iran, share an interest in avoiding an all-out civil war should the United States leave. And the regional economic benefits of a stable nexus country like Afghanistan are limitless.
There are risks to negotiating a delay in troop withdrawals with the Taliban. The insurgency could claim that the United States is violating the 2020 accord and resume attacks on American service men and women.
Nevertheless, the Taliban also have a viable interest in a power-sharing agreement that carries the promise of widespread diplomatic recognition, international economic support and peace. They were a pariah state before America’s intervention in 2001. That’s no future.
The Biden administration still has leverage, and good reasons, to delay a final withdrawals of U.S. troops in order to push the Taliban and the Afghan government toward a negotiated end to the conflict.