On a trip to France in April 2001, Ahmad Shah Massoud, the outgunned leader of the Afghan resistance, warned the European Parliament of an al-Qaida plot to strike the United States and requested more aid for Afghanistan. Celebrated by his French hosts, he was mostly ignored by the Americans. On September 9 of that year, a pair of al-Qaida operatives posing as journalists assassinated Massoud at his Khwaja Bahauddin base. Two days later, hijackers flew airplanes into the World Trade Center, a field in Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon. We know the rest of the story.
Choosing the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks as the deadline for U.S. troops to exit Afghanistan is poignant, but perhaps not in the way President Joe Biden hopes. Instead of a tidy end to the United States’ longest war, the date will likely mark a fresh cycle of tragedy for Afghans, and someday perhaps for Americans, too.
Reactions to the withdrawal announcement ranged from praise for Biden’s “bold leadership” to scorn and censure. Many commentators voiced deep disappointment, noting the relatively low costs of keeping the remaining 2,500 or so U.S. troops in the country, the fragility of the peace process, the Taliban’s failure to uphold its end of the Doha Agreement – including counterterrorism guarantees – and the substantial risk of another civil war engulfing Afghanistan without the deterrent of an international troop presence. While Afghan President Ashraf Ghani issued a statement acknowledging the U.S. decision, many other Afghans expressed dismay and alarm.
Only time will tell whether Biden’s pullout order is disastrous for the region and for the United States. Right now, the crucial thing is for the U.S. not to disengage from the ongoing peace process. Biden still has policy options at his disposal to prevent the collapse of the Afghan government, promote regional stability and security, and avert a cascading crisis.
Biden’s first order of business should be to pressure Pakistan into supporting a peaceable outcome in Afghanistan. Afghan analysts and officials have long maintained that the course of the war would shift if Pakistan stopped providing sanctuary and weapons to the Taliban. Pakistan, more than any other country, can determine Afghanistan’s political trajectory.
Two former U.S. presidents failed to confront the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment. Donald Trump took a more aggressive stance in 2018, punishing Pakistan with aid cuts for playing both sides of the field, but without a clear-sighted Afghanistan strategy to match. U.S.-Pakistan relations have since rebounded, and Pakistan has been anxious to prove itself useful and benign in the Afghan peace process.
But there’s little reason to think that Pakistan’s new rhetoric reflects substantive policy changes. Pakistan’s support for the Taliban is an old and open secret; Taliban leaders still move around freely in Quetta, Karachi, and Peshawar. Pakistan has spent decades courting or tolerating extremists for foreign policy ends, wreaking havoc on Afghanistan and paying a steep domestic price. Have hardliners in the Army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) really abandoned their core doctrine overnight? Highly doubtful. As recently as May 2020, the U.S. Department of Defense confirmed that Pakistan was still harboring militants.
Now that the U.S. is withdrawing from Afghanistan, there’s no reason to tread lightly with Pakistan. The U.S. soon will no longer need Pakistani airspace or supply routes. Pakistan has tilted decisively toward China, the latter pumping some $60 billion into the country through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and U.S.-India ties have steadily improved. Pakistan is neither a reliable nor a significant enough partner for the U.S. to keep overlooking its destructive role for illusory strategic benefits.
There are several ways Biden might persuade Pakistan to change its behavior. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) will review Pakistan’s “grey list” status as a funder of terror in June. Pakistan’s place on that list has already exacted heavy economic costs. Biden could dangle the possibility of lobbying FATF to blacklist Pakistan if the uncooperative country doesn’t cut off the Taliban.
How might the U.S. hold Pakistan accountable and gauge compliance? By tracking arrests, detentions, and expulsions of Taliban from Pakistani soil, but also by monitoring ground realities in Afghanistan. If the Taliban’s resilience depends on cross-border havens, then the U.S. could conceivably measure Pakistan’s commitment to peace by the number and intensity of Taliban attacks in Afghanistan over the coming months – and respond accordingly.
Biden has other options further along the spectrum of severity: targeting key ISI and Army officers with sanctions, for instance, or pushing to designate Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism. Whatever specific tools he chooses, the U.S. must set clear expectations and demonstrate consistency.
This path isn’t without risks. Predictably, it will inflame anti-U.S. sentiment in Pakistan. But if strict penalties spur the country’s leadership to act, it will be worth the price of popular outrage. Pakistan faces a familiar dilemma. It can either keep ceding ground to the increasingly assertive fundamentalist elements of society, temporarily preserving order, or do what is good for everyone by refusing to entertain radicalism – temporarily drawing fire, but ultimately preserving lives and the nation. We’ve seen where the first approach leads.
Another risk: China might use its U.N. Security Council vote to shield Pakistan from penalties, or increase air and maritime provocations against U.S. allies in a tit-for-tat. But given China’s financial stake in Pakistan, and the threats to regional integration posed by extremist violence and instability, this is one area where the international rivals may be able to reach a consensus.
Second, parallel to a pressure campaign on Pakistan, Biden should do everything possible to support India-Pakistan rapprochement. The two nuclear powers declared a ceasefire in February and have since made various conciliatory overtures. Affirming this progress and engaging closely with stakeholders who are playing a positive role, such as the United Arab Emirates, should be a top U.S. priority. Working to decrease hostilities with India could (slightly) ease Pakistan’s security paranoia, making the “strategic depth” game – and thus Pakistan’s attachment to the Afghan Taliban – seem less necessary.
Third, Biden should commit more U.S. attention and resources to transnational projects that will benefit Afghanistan in the long run. The U.S. has traditionally viewed the Central Asian states through the prism of Russian and Chinese influence, spending little energy until recently on regional partnerships. However, projects such as the Central Asia Power System (CAPS), which will route more electricity to Afghanistan via Uzbekistan, and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural gas pipeline, stalled but still expected to go forward, hold promise for a more stable and prosperous Afghanistan someday. Biden would do well to leverage U.S. diplomacy and funding to back these and similar infrastructure initiatives.
Finally, the U.S. must continue to support the Afghan state, especially the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. Never in its modern history has Afghanistan been financially self-sustaining. The post-2001 Afghan government has survived overwhelmingly on foreign aid, with grants still accounting for some 75 percent of public spending, most of which comes from the U.S. In the security sector, Washington covers 95 percent of donor contributions.
It will be a long time before Afghanistan is all or even mostly self-financing. But 1992 reminds us of what can happen when aid is abruptly cut. Najibullah’s Soviet-sponsored regime lasted for a few years after Soviet troops exited the country; it was the withdrawal of funding that proved fatal, snuffing out the regime and igniting a catastrophic civil war.
Military withdrawal might actually free Biden’s hand to push more aggressively and creatively for Afghan peace through regional policy, if he is wise enough to take the opportunity. Exerting U.S. influence responsibly – to shape a better outcome than Afghanistan seems doomed to accept at the moment – will require deft statesmanship, but it must be done. Alternatively, the U.S. can let the country splinter into many warring sides again. Or it can watch the Taliban gradually retake power, erasing two decades of uneven but hopeful gains for the Afghan people and turning Afghanistan once more into an inviting place for extremists with global ambitions. Then September 11 will mark two historic tragedies instead of one.