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The best case for withdrawing all US troops from Afghanistan

President Biden must decide by May 1 if the US will stay in or leave Afghanistan.

A US Army soldier holds his 1-year-old son after returning from a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan on December 10, 2020.
John Moore/Getty Images

This is a two-part series examining the arguments for and against withdrawing all US troops from Afghanistan by May. Read the case for staying in Afghanistan here.

President Joe Biden has a big, looming decision to make by May 1: Whether or not to withdraw all 2,500 US troops from Afghanistan and end America’s 20-year war in the country.

Biden, very broadly, has two paths to choose from. He can abide by former President Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban, which would require all American service members to leave Afghanistan by that deadline. Or Biden can extend the US military mission, either unilaterally or by negotiating an extension with the Taliban, as a way to pressure the Taliban to strike a peace deal with the Afghan government.

Both options are fraught with risk. Experts warn that ending America’s presence will almost certainly lead the Taliban to take over the country, including the capital city of Kabul. Staying, though, will invite the insurgent group to restart killing American personnel in the country, adding to the over 2,300 US personnel who have already been killed in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001.

There’s simply no overarching consensus on which is the best course of action, underscoring just how difficult Biden’s decision — expected in a few weeks — will be.

But retired US Army Col. Chris Kolenda, who commanded troops in Afghanistan and also served as a senior adviser on the country to top US civilian defense officials and four-star generals, believes that, absent a short, six-month negotiated extension agreed upon by both the US and the Taliban, it’s time to bring the troops home.

In 2018, Kolenda and US diplomat Robin Raphel also privately engaged in secret talks with the Taliban aimed at bringing the war to an end. Those talks helped pave the way for the agreement the Trump administration later signed with the Taliban.

Should the US overstay its welcome, said Kolenda, now the founder of Strategic Leaders Academy, “The Biden administration will own the consequences of what looks to be an increasing calamity in Afghanistan.”

I called Kolenda and asked him to lay out the best case for why Biden should withdraw all remaining US troops from Afghanistan. A transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Alex Ward

Why should the Biden administration lean more toward leaving Afghanistan than staying?

Chris Kolenda

The administration should aim for a six-month extension to see if we can get the stalled peace process back on track. If we don’t get that extension, and getting one will require a heavy lift, then we should pull out the remaining 2,500 troops and apply penalties to whichever side breaks the peace process.

The US is in a reverse-Goldilocks position: 2,500 troops is too little to really do any good with what’s coming from the Taliban, and too big to get away quickly. We’re entertaining a lot of risk if we simply abrogate the agreement [signed between the Trump administration and the Taliban]. The United States will blame the Taliban for not meeting their end of the bargain, but at the end of the day, it’ll be the United States making the decision to tear up the agreement.

What happens then? From the Taliban’s point of view, the West can’t be trusted, and they’ll decide to go on an all-out offensive. The Taliban right now are surrounding eight to 10 provincial capitals. With 2,500 troops and the limited airpower that we have in Afghanistan, the math just simply doesn’t work that [we would be able to] sort all of that out. The Taliban is likely to gain some serious momentum.

For the Taliban to thrive, they’re going to need support from the West. But if the West proved itself untrustworthy by breaking the deal, then they will look to Russia and China, even knowing any aid will come with huge strings attached.

Alex Ward

Why seek an extension agreement at all? Why not just continue the status quo military mission as a way to keep the pressure on the Taliban? That would provide the US leverage in any peace-deal talks, wouldn’t it?

Chris Kolenda

Staying beyond May 1 without any extension agreement encourages the worst behaviors on the part of all of the actors.

The Afghan government is slow-rolling talks in hopes that we will stay. The Taliban is slow-rolling talks to see if we’re going to leave. And the regional actors are transferring security onto our shoulders while they stir up their proxies within Afghanistan.

And what are the advantages of the status quo? The status quo locks in misery that the 38 million or so Afghans are living in. The only ones who are outside of that misery seem to be the elite bubble within Kabul. Afghanistan has among the most perennially corrupt governments in the world; it’s the second-worst place in the world to be a woman right next to Yemen.

That status quo is just not sustainable.

Alex Ward

The status quo is terrible, sure, but withdrawing all US troops condemns Afghanistan to an even worse fate. If the US leaves, so will other NATO countries, which will invite a free-for-all for terrorists and extremists to settle in. Won’t that imperil the lives of Afghans further and spark another refugee crisis Europe desperately wants to avoid?

Chris Kolenda

I’m just not convinced that 2,500 troops is going to stop all that from happening.

The Taliban have already prepared militarily for this scenario. We’ve had a false sense of confidence over the past 14 months in which the Taliban have not attacked any US bases or facilities. If we tear up the agreement, we can look forward to a Vietnam-style, Tet-like offensive by the Taliban in the summer of 2021. Some of those major attacks are going to be much more successful than the Tet Offensive was.

The Biden administration will own the consequences of what looks to be an increasing calamity in Afghanistan. One of the biggest risks for the United States is the specter of a C-17 [plane] screaming out of Bagram [Air Base] on the heels of a Taliban offensive army.

The risk is, it replaces the fall of Saigon in 1975 as a black eye for America. The alternative is that you leave in the manner in which it was agreed, while putting the peace process on a more stable platform.

The evacuation of Saigon in 1975.
Getty Images

If fighting resumes, and it’s likely to resume, the Afghan government is going to be forced to get its act together and stand up and fight the Taliban to a new stalemate, which is what I personally think is likely to happen. Or they’re just going to collapse. And after 20 years of international investment, the Afghan government needs to earn the public support.

To the fears about a refugee crisis out of Afghanistan, it’s already happened, for the most part, and most of the refugees in Afghanistan are internally displaced people in a very, very bad state of affairs. Again, the longer the status quo remains, the more we lock in the misery already felt by millions in that country.

Alex Ward

Well, let’s even put the civil war aside. What about the terrorism problem? If the US leaves, and NATO follows, won’t it be harder to keep tabs on al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other groups operating throughout Afghanistan? Won’t they have an easier time planning a 9/11-style attack if they want to?

Chris Kolenda

I’m not convinced the evidence for those assertions exist. There’s no evidence that 2,500 troops is a difference-maker in maintaining stability in Afghanistan.

And al-Qaeda is a shadow of its former self in Afghanistan. There are a lot of groups, the Taliban included, that are interested in fighting ISIS. You also get all sorts of reports coming out of the Afghan government about 20 or 25 terrorist groups in Afghanistan. Well, maybe they exist, and maybe they’re about three or four people sitting in a cave.

Again, I’m just not convinced that a withdrawal is just a prelude to another 9/11. The evidence for that is almost nonexistent.

Plus, our capabilities 20 years after 9/11 — to detect and to strike any sort of emerging terrorist threat in a place like Afghanistan — are much, much higher. Our information networks in Afghanistan itself, as well as our detection and strike capabilities, really are the best insurance against a terrorist attack against the United States. It’s far better than keeping a small force presence in the country.

Alex Ward

But if we leave, the Taliban will get to say it defeated another empire. It can credibly claim it won against the US, and that might excite other groups to consider joining the Taliban or carry out their own extremist plans.

Chris Kolenda

The Taliban are going to say what they want to say, and we can’t control that. But their narrative will be a lot more credible if they pull off a Tet Offensive of their own this summer and then the US flees in a panic.

We therefore might as well leave when we said we would, absent an extension agreement. Let the Taliban say what they want to say — who really cares? At the end of the day, if Afghanistan is at peace with itself and its neighbors, if Afghanistan is no longer an international terrorist threat and stays that way, and Afghanistan as a whole becomes a better place to live, then I’d say that the United States attained its interests in Afghanistan and the future of Afghanistan became much brighter.

Alex Ward

Let’s talk about the peace process for a moment. What gives you confidence the Taliban would agree to an extension? And even if they did, shouldn’t the US keep troops in Afghanistan beyond the agreement to ensure the insurgent group sticks to the deal?

Chris Kolenda

Right, wrong, or indifferent, the US-Taliban agreement is fraught with problems. One of those major problems is that a sitting US government said all troops would leave by May 1. The Taliban’s side of those agreements are much less demonstrable. Outside of no attacks on the US or its allies, the other elements are much more difficult to prove or disprove.

That gives the Taliban the ability to say, “We held our end of the bargain, please leave.” They can claim no attacks on the US or its allies coming from Afghanistan, that they’ve told foreign fighters they’re unwelcome, that they’ve relieved commanders who have had foreign fighters in their ranks.

If the US proves itself untrustworthy by abrogating the deal, though, then it’s no-holds-barred. It’s back to the war, and they’re in a much stronger position than they were 14 months ago to pull off a major offensive.

So we need to put the peace process on a more stable footing. We should look at the peace process in terms of a three-circle Venn diagram. Those circles are an internal peace process, a regional peace process, and then international guarantees. They’ve all got overlap.

Until now we’ve been too focused on internal Afghan politics, and not focused enough on the regional relationships. Part of a reset in the peace process, then, is getting the regional and international components moving forward. The hope is an extension helps with all that.

Alex Ward

Say we get an extension, we try to do all that, and we fail. If the US leaves at that point, won’t that just be rewarding the Taliban’s bad behavior and unwillingness to deal?

Chris Kolenda

It takes two to tango, and the Taliban has had their share of prevarication during this peace process. But the Afghan government has had more of the prevarication. Both parties are at fault here.

The United States is going to find its diplomatic leverage with both parties and with the region increased when we no longer have to have 2,500 troops in the mix of this. The US is going to be able to apply much more diplomatic leverage to gain productive behaviors from the Afghan government, the Taliban, and regional actors, instead of encouraging their worst behaviors.

Alex Ward

This war is personal for you. You’ve fought and killed in it, you’ve had friends die there, you still have friends living there. You also worked secretly to open the door to Taliban talks. What are you personally feeling as the May 1 deadline approaches?

Chris Kolenda

The US has a history of missed opportunities in Afghanistan, and we’re at risk of adding another one. In 2001, the Taliban in effect offered to surrender. Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai not only said “No,” but “Heck no,” in terms of accepting the Taliban’s offer to stop fighting and just live in peace.

There were also other overtures, some written about and others I’ve personally heard about, and again the United States and the Afghan government said, “No, we don’t agree.”

In the negotiations I was involved in as the secretary of defense’s representative from 2010 to 2012, the United States did not put the political capital behind the effort. Washington just simply couldn’t get its act together to move forward [in] a peace process. The result was the Taliban eventually got frustrated and left the talks.

Each time we forfeited these opportunities — the last time, when there were 100,000-plus international soldiers on the ground — the Taliban’s only demands were to do a detainee exchange, [Bowe] Bergdahl for the Gitmo Five, open a political office in Doha, and lift sanctions on their version of diplomats.

You fast-forward all these years later to what we’re left with — an agreement where we essentially traded no troops for no terrorism with the Taliban — and it’s the best we could’ve gotten at this point.

Are we ready to miss another opportunity? It breaks my heart to see the suffering of Afghans, and it breaks my heart to see continued policy- and strategy-making in the United States that is leading us to worse outcomes at huge costs in blood, treasure, and time.