Editorial: Don’t bring America’s longest war to an end just yet

Bloomberg Opinion

President Joe Biden, a longtime critic of U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan, can’t be eager to preside over the 20th anniversary of what is already America’s longest war. But if he’s to secure U.S. interests and give Afghans a chance at achieving peace, he won’t have much choice.

According to the Trump administration’s agreement with the Taliban, U.S. forces were to leave Afghanistan by May 1. But follow-on peace talks between the Afghan government and the insurgents have faltered. Fighting is likely to intensify as spring approaches, and the Taliban is threatening to build on recent battlefield gains. A May withdrawal might lead to renewed civil war and, ultimately, a resurgence of the threat posed by al-Qaida and other terrorist groups based in Afghanistan.

Granted, simply ignoring the deadline would be risky too. The Taliban would likely resume attacks on U.S. forces and major Afghan cities. This would increase pressure on the Biden administration to expand the U.S. military commitment, which has now shrunk to a scant 2,500 troops. Any such surge would relieve pressure on the Kabul government to negotiate seriously. Afghanistan’s neighbors, all of which oppose a permanent U.S. military presence, wouldn’t rush to help out.

There’s a middle way. The U.S. should press the Taliban to agree to a six-month extension of the deadline. It should say withdrawal was understood to depend on certain conditions, including that the Taliban would cut ties to al-Qaida and enter into good-faith negotiations with the Kabul government. In fact, other than an apparent directive to local commanders not to welcome foreign fighters into their ranks, the insurgents have shown little sign of breaking with al-Qaida. They joined peace talks six months later than scheduled. And, by refusing to sign a cease-fire or even reduce levels of violence, the Taliban have undermined those negotiations from the start.

In making this demand, the U.S. is not without leverage. The insurgents want United Nations sanctions against their organization lifted and all remaining Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government released. And Taliban leaders are keen to avoid the international isolation they suffered while in power in the 1990s. The U.S. and other donor nations should make clear that they won’t support a regime imposed by force.

The administration should coordinate its efforts to extend the deadline with NATO, which now has more troops in Afghanistan than the U.S. does, as well as with other regional powers. Russia, China and Pakistan appear willing to help the U.S. press for a cease-fire, and the Taliban would find a unified demand hard to resist. Appointing a U.N. mediator to nudge peace talks along is worth exploring.

A six-month delay would push any withdrawal beyond the October anniversary of the U.S. invasion in 2001 — a depressing thought, to be sure. But if a little extra time helps secure peace, as it might, it will have been well spent.


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