The New York Times reported on Tuesday that the Obama administration is now seriously considering leaving no troops behind in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of combat troops in 2014. There are some signs that the White House is already backing away from this— and the leaks themselves might have been nothing more than a negotiating tactic aimed at scaring Hamid Karzai.
Still, it’s an option worth at least discussing. After all, beside the residual troops themselves—said to be between 8,000 to 12,000 military trainers and advisers—the Afghan government and security forces are expected to need about US$70 billion of foreign aid between 2015-2024 just to stay afloat. Even if they receive this largesse, few observers are willing to state with any degree of confidence that the current Afghan government can survive the insurgency.
So the question becomes: is trying to prop up the Afghan government worth this level of investment, or could NATO member states live with the cheaper option of not actively preventing the Taliban from reassuming power?
Given the horrendous record of the Taliban, it could be argued that NATO countries should provide this aid if it was to support a democratic government that upheld the human, social, and economic rights of the Afghan people.
But this is hardly the case— by all accounts Karzai and those around him are merely powerful warlords that have used foreign support to enrich themselves at the expense of ordinary Afghans. Even with NATO troops in the country there have been widespread reports of Karzai and his associates doing everything from building drug empires and ransacking the national bank, to sexually abusing Afghan boys.
Although they still might compare favorably to the Taliban on some issues like women’s rights, even their record here has been rapidly deteriorating as the deadline for foreign troops to withdraw has neared. In an ultra-conservative country, there’s little reason to think the Afghan government is going to spend much political capital on upholding women’s rights post-2014.
Another reason NATO might make this kind of investment to prop up the Afghan government is if member states viewed doing so as vital to their nation securities. Most likely, this would be the case if they viewed the Karzai government as the last barrier between an Afghanistan as it is today and one in which al-Qaeda roamed freely plotting terrorist attacks against the West. After all, denying al-Qaeda Afghanistan as a base to plot terrorist attacks was the sole reason the West ended up in Afghanistan in the first place.
But it’s hardly clear that Karzai or his successor are indeed the last obstacle standing in the way of a return to an Afghanistan of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Indeed, even though hopes of negotiations with the Taliban appear to have been dashed for now, the militant group has suggested that it would not allow al-Qaeda to use Afghanistan as a base to mount terrorist attacks if it were to regain power.
Of course, the group has every reason to make this statement in order to precipitate a speedy withdrawal of foreign troops and a cessation of aid to the Afghan government. But the U.S. and its allies can hardly base their Afghan policy on the Taliban upholding their promises solely out of moral duty. So the question ultimately becomes: would NATO retain any leverage over events in Afghanistan in general, and the Taliban in particular, once it has withdrawn militarily from the country?
As Vali Nasr and others have argued persuasively, the U.S. held the greatest amount of leverage vis-à-vis the Taliban during and immediately after the troop surge. That being said, it is wholly untrue that the U.S. would have no ability to influence the Taliban after withdrawing from the country.
There is at least one carrot the U.S. could offer the Taliban: greater autonomy from Pakistan. Indeed, although seldom acknowledged, the U.S. and the Taliban have an overlapping interest in limiting Pakistani influence in Afghanistan.
For Washington, this interest derives from Islamabad’s support for fundamentalist groups that attack the U.S. and its allies, as well as its increasingly cozy relationship with China. Although the Taliban rose to power in no small part because of Pakistani assistance, all reports suggest that the group has soured on its patrons during its stay in Quetta, as a result of being repeatedly treated like a pawn by Pakistan’s powerful security and intelligence forces.
While dependent on Pakistan’s hospitality, the Taliban have had to live with this humiliation. If they returned to power in Afghanistan, one of their first goals would almost certainly be to reduce this dependency on Islamabad. The most practical way of doing this would be to establish some sort of relationship with other powers, which could then be used to counterbalance Pakistani influence. The Western powers (possibly with regional buy-in) could offer to play this role if the Taliban were to respect their most basic interests in Afghanistan—principally, preventing terrorist groups from operating inside Afghanistan, and preferably some degree of respect for the human rights of Afghan citizens, especially women and minorities.
Ultimately, however, the West could never be sure that the Taliban would accept these terms and, even if they did, would have to consider that the group could later renege on them.
Fortunately, the U.S. and its allies wouldn’t be completely dependent on the Taliban upholding the bargain as they’d retain a trump card to prevent Afghanistan from returning to the country of the 1990s and early 2000s.
This trump card would simply be to take unilateral action to prevent al-Qaeda from operating freely in Afghanistan. This option is nothing new; as Steve Coll and others have documented, during the later years of the Bill Clinton administration, the U.S. had ample opportunities to eliminate Osama bin Laden and his senior advisors, relying on either missile strikes or hired local help.
In the pre-9/11 era, concern over the possibility of civilian casualties led the White House to forgo this option. No such restraint would exist in contemporary times. Furthermore, having just spent over a decade inside the country, it’s reasonable to assume the U.S. has built up greater local networks than it had in the 1990s. These could be used for intelligence purposes and as hired guns against the terrorists. The fact that since 9/11 the U.S. has acquired a global fleet of armed predator drones would also aide in its fight against global jihadists seeking to use Afghanistan as a base to conduct foreign attacks.
In fact, this policy would not be unlike the one being pursued in Pakistan, albeit local collaboration would not come from the national government as it often does in Pakistan, but rather from various non-governmental Afghan groups.
In many ways, it would be preferable for the U.S. to conduct covert action (including drone strikes) against terrorists inside a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan rather than Pakistan. To begin with, the U.S. has stronger local networks inside Afghanistan than it does in the foothills of Pakistan. Moreover, the Taliban would be far less capable of defending Afghanistan’s sovereignty than is true of the government along its eastern border. Similarly, destabilizing Afghanistan through drone strikes would also be inherently less risky than destabilizing a much more populous and nuclear-armed Pakistan.
To be sure, this scenario is far from an ideal settlement to the Afghan conflict, which has become the longest war in American history. And certainly the prospect of the Taliban returning to power in Afghanistan would greatly concern many regional states, including U.S. partners like India.
But at this juncture there are no ideal conclusions to the Afghan conflict available, and not actively trying to prevent the Taliban from returning to power is hardly an unacceptable one.