Since the Taliban launched their offensive in May, they have made rapid advances in Afghanistan while US troops have been withdrawing from the country. Ambassador Earl Anthony Wayne, SIS professor and distinguished diplomat in residence, served as coordinating director for development and economic affairs and deputy ambassador in Kabul, Afghanistan, from 2009 to 2011. Ambassador Wayne has written numerous pieces about the US’s presence in Afghanistan and shared with us five important things to know about the Taliban’s advance in the country.
Why are the Taliban advancing so quickly? The US announcement in April of a full withdrawal by September, combined with little evidence that the US would provide the robust support that it had promised after its troops departed, accelerated the already flagging morale among Afghan security forces. The rapid collapse of Afghan government control results from a combination of factors that include the badly sagging morale among Afghan security forces, structural weaknesses in those forces and in the civilian portions of the government, including pervasive corruption.
Afghan forces had been operating effectively with US air, logistical, and technical support until the US decisions to reduce and then to suddenly withdraw that support undermined that Afghan capacity. The US did not have plans ready that would allow continuing effective defense support from afar. Divided political leadership in Kabul has also provided weak leadership for the past several years, and leaders have not yet been able to rally together. The Taliban launched their offensive this year believing they can win now that the US is leaving. That confidence has grown from victory to victory.
Can the Taliban be stopped? The Afghan government forces have the numbers and equipment to hold the Kabul region as well as the potential to rally support from portions of the Afghan population that resisted the Taliban in the past. The Taliban is not popular among many Afghans. The continuation (and expansion) of over-the-horizon US air support in the current fighting and on-the-ground technical (e.g., contractor) assistance to the Afghan Air Force would make a difference. Clear and concrete signs of ongoing support from the US and others would boost morale. The Taliban is likely overstretched at present, and if they can be slowed, they will face the challenges of governing large swaths of Afghanistan that they have taken. A pause could also give Afghans who do not favor the Taliban and those who fear a return to its authoritarian rule an opportunity to regroup. For that to happen, however, some combination of moves to change the momentum in the current situation is needed.
US and other diplomats will continue to work for a ceasefire, which might be more possible if the Afghan government can hold. The Taliban may well be willing to negotiate in order to avoid a bloody battle for Kabul, but they will almost certainly enter any negotiations seeking to assume power in a new regime given their substantial gains in recent weeks. At present, Kabul is rife with rumors of governmental changes and that the US and other international players are negotiating with the Taliban for a ceasefire in exchange for a new government in Kabul (perhaps with Taliban participation) and some Taliban guarantees to reassure other Afghans and international players.
Was the US presence sustainable if the US had not withdrawn? Was there another way out for the US other than troop withdrawal? By 2020–21, the Afghans were doing most of the fighting and dying and had been doing so for several years. The number of US soldiers killed in action has been very low for the last six or seven years, and US budgetary costs were greatly diminished. With US logistical and air support, the Afghan Special Forces and Air Force were doing a credible job of maintaining a stalemate. In this situation, the US, working with other international partners, could have pressed for a serious Afghan-to-Afghan peace process and a sustainable settlement that involved a formula for power sharing among Afghanistan's parties. The US did not achieve this, however, in the negotiations it held with the Taliban without the participation of the Afghan government, which led to a US-Taliban agreement in February 2020.
In the subsequent Doha negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government, the Taliban did not seriously engage in the substance of a future peace arrangement with the representatives of the Afghan Republic (the government in Kabul). They violated the terms and spirit of the agreement with the US, including by maintaining ties with Al-Qaeda, according to UN reports. The US, in effect, undermined the credibility and standing of the Kabul Republic by excluding them from the initial negotiations with the Taliban, by not working more effectively to assure that the Taliban would enter into serious peace negotiations, and by taking steps such as forcing Kabul to release 5000 Taliban fighters as part of the US-Taliban agreement. Simultaneously, the US reduced its own leverage (military presence) that could have been used to get the Taliban to negotiate seriously. The Spring 2021 US announcement of an unconditional withdrawal by September thus came after a series of morale-sapping messages already sent to the non-Taliban Afghans and their security forces.
Does the US have any leverage over the Taliban now? Yes, but its leverage is limited. The US is currently threatening international isolation and a cut off from future international financial and development assistance, which the Taliban will need. About 80 percent of the Afghan government's funds are provided by international donors. On top of development and budget needs, the humanitarian requirements in the country are massive—fed by COVID 19 and conflict. The fighting this year has sent hundreds of thousands fleeing their home regions. It is far from clear that this US and international leverage is sufficient to produce serious changes in Taliban behavior, let alone serious peace negotiations. On the other hand, the Taliban may well be willing to negotiate a peaceful surrender of Kabul and assumption of power. The Taliban have been fighting for power after over a decade of effort and believe that goal is now achievable.
What needs to be done now? The US needs to ramp up diplomatic and international efforts to put pressure on the Taliban to engage in peaceful negotiations. This effort should include pursuing new UN sanctions on the Taliban if it continues its offensive. The US has a very difficult diplomatic path forward. It should be very careful not to facilitate a surrender of Kabul to an authoritarian regime, but there are good reasons to try to avoid a bloody battle for Kabul and a massive humanitarian crisis. Beyond diplomacy, the US should also take very concrete steps to deliver financial, economic, and security assistance to the current government in Kabul. Specifically, the US should revisit the decision to cut off vital contractor/logistical support to the Afghan Air Force and should consider continuing and expanding US air support for Afghan security forces around Kabul in the weeks and months ahead. The US could, for example, send clear messages to the Taliban that it will reinforce its air engagement if the Taliban move against the Kabul region.
The US is deploying some 3,000 soldiers to Kabul with a mission to protect the US Embassy and safely allow a reduction in numbers of employees at the embassy. Protecting US officials is a top priority. The US has also promised to help Afghans who worked for the US and who are now under threat from the Taliban. Those former employees and family members are estimated to total up to 70-80,000, but the numbers are uncertain. The US should do all it can to evacuate these former employees under threat as rapidly as possible including via a special airlift. Also, plans need to be made to protect current employees if the situation deteriorates further.
The US arguably also has a serious responsibility to help the thousands of Afghans who worked with and supported the US during its twenty years in the country and who will be in danger under a Taliban regime. These include those working for women's rights, those supporting democratic reforms and practices, those supporting a free press, and a range of government officials from the civilian and military sectors who worked closely with the US. While it is not clear how many of these individuals might seek to leave Afghanistan, it is not hard to imagine the total reaching well over a hundred thousand. Afghanistan may also be on the verge of an even more massive refugee crisis with millions displaced in the country and many seeking to leave for neighboring nations. The US, working with its international partners, should immediately undertake a serious initiative designed to provide refuge to the Afghans most threatened should there be a Taliban victory, and separately, they should begin urgent consideration of a humanitarian intervention designed to protect and care for civilians endangered by the fighting.
Finally, it is important to note the broader international implications of the way the US handles its departure from Afghanistan and the situation it leaves behind. An ignominious departure will reinforce the messages being heard from the Chinese, the Russians, and other rival powers about America as a declining power whose security guarantees cannot be counted upon. That is not the message that the US administration desires to convey.