Afghanistan’s political and security situation is quite precarious given the intensity of Taliban advances, lack of progress in intra-Afghan talks, and, most importantly, the accelerated US withdrawal. This is not to overlook the American quest to establish bases in the neighborhood to keep an eye on Afghanistan.
Yet things seem to be proceeding in the absence of either the required calculations or realistic considerations. The US is now reportedly departing by the new unconditional deadline of July 4, American Independence Day. That this has been unilaterally revised upwards since the mid-April announcement of an extended final date of September 11 — suggests that Washington’s Afghan policy is in the doldrums.
The American quest to find neighboring countries willing to host its military bases indicates that the US wants to maintain a presence in the region on the pretext of counterterrorism efforts while holding those elements at bay that could harm its interests. However, this policy remains both suspicious and vague. The Taliban, who have around 100,000 men in their ranks control 57 percent of the district headquarters and 70 percent of the urban area; that is, they either have control or are struggling to take control according to reports. The Taliban have also strongly condemned the US intention to maintain some of its forces in neighboring countries — especially Pakistan — and warn of serious consequences if any nation hosts or leases out bases.
There are likely two reasons for the US’s haste to exit Afghanistan.
Firstly, the US overstay is delaying intra-Afghan talks and any subsequent outcome. Consider, President Biden’s initial delayed timeline announcement paved the way for the Taliban to refuse to attend the Istanbul conference. Since then, there has been no substantive advancement either in Doha Afghanistan, and Pakistan, except the efforts to convince the Taliban on Istanbul. The Taliban, after insistence from many countries — especially Pakistan — agreed to conditionally participate in the Istanbul conference by sending a small and low-level team. However, this thwarted any concrete result and actually killed the purpose of the meeting. Hence, Washington may assume its rapid exit can inject new impetus to the peace process; which has to be the final objective of US disengagement. The Americans, after all, want a face-saving end to the Afghan war where they were unable to dismantle the Taliban even after two decades of intensive struggle.
Secondly, the July withdrawal could also signal a warning bell for Kabul to negotiate sincerely and seriously a way forward for intra-Afghan peace, thereby providing the US relief. Thus, Washington will be able to say that it played a positive role in ensuring the US-Taliban peace deal and then the intra-Afghan agreement. President Ghani has been opposing the US proposal regarding any final peace settlement since the Taliban-US Doha agreement of 2020. Indeed, the Afghan president the very next day announced that Kabul would not release any Taliban prisoners as a goodwill gesture, thereby delaying the intra-Afghan talks for at least six months. Similarly, when the Biden administration floated the idea of an interim government, which would have seen Ghani step down, he refused the idea and stood firm. Presently, the peace process has stalled and the US departure timeline is looming. The message is clear: Kabul must prepare to secure any sort of peace deal with the Taliban — no matter if it favors the latter, as in the case of the Doha agreement. The Ghani administration knows that it cannot withstand the Taliban, which have accelerated their advances in recent days. In such a situation, Kabul must seriously think about the country’s future and do the needful.
Elsewhere, Pakistan is quite concerned for two reasons: no progress in intra-Afghan talks and the rapid US withdrawal. Pakistan’s national security advisor recently told the media that Islamabad wants a responsible American withdrawal. To Pakistan, this means a done deal on Kabul-Taliban peace. If the current violence endures and Washington pulls out — the security situation will likely deteriorate and spill over into Pakistan. In addition, the potential refugee influx, if civil war erupts, will have drastic consequences for Pakistan’s debt-ridden economy. Lastly, Pakistan may well hope to see a group enter the Afghan political scene that has a soft spot for this country.
This is the last chance that Washington has to determine a clear policy for Afghanistan. Anything less will not work. If the US puts considerable pressure on Kabul, Islamabad continues its sincere efforts, and the Taliban show willingness to compromise — then, the Afghan quagmire may be settled, leaving the US free to respectfully withdraw. And to claim that it helped resolve the Afghanistan conundrum.