The United States is looking to further draw down its involvement in Afghanistan as Washington focuses on its great power competitions. But fears that a withdrawal will leave a security vacuum Islamic State and al Qaeda extremists can fill have compelled the White House to negotiate an agreement with the Taliban over the past year.
Editor's Note: This assessment is part of a series of analyses supporting Stratfor's upcoming 2019 Fourth-Quarter Forecast. These assessments are designed to provide more context and in-depth analysis on key developments over the next quarter.
On Sept. 7, U.S. President Donald Trump called off a nearly yearlong U.S. effort to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan — citing a recent attack that killed a U.S. soldier (among other victims) as proof of the insurgency's insincerity in peace efforts. The announcement has since halted U.S. efforts to continue its drawdown from its nearly 18-yearlong involvement in Afghanistan. The White House, however, has not deviated from its goal of forging a political settlement to end the conflict, which suggests talks will resume at some point. But even if the United States extracts a partial cease-fire and counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban in exchange for a troop withdrawal under a peace deal, the wider Afghan conflict will continue apace until the Taliban and Kabul agree to a nationwide cease-fire.
How Did We Get Here?
In October 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush launched the invasion of Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks as part of his erstwhile "Global War on Terrorism." Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization was able to plot the attacks — which killed 2,977 people — from Afghanistan under the shelter of the Taliban government, which ruled the country at the time. By December 2001, U.S. forces had toppled the Taliban government and begun supporting state-rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan. In the years that followed, a diversion of U.S. resources toward the war in Iraq enabled the Taliban to regroup in neighboring Pakistan — the insurgency's primary external sponsor.
The wider conflict in Afghanistan won't end until the Taliban and the Afghan government agree to a nationwide cease-fire
The Taliban's growing presence would later prompt U.S. President Barack Obama to authorize a massive counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, which peaked at over 140,000 combined U.S. and NATO troops in 2011. A drawdown of NATO forces from the country was completed in 2014, after which the United States transferred combat responsibilities to the Afghan government. But the Taliban's resurgence continued to threaten U.S. security gains. And in 2017, President Donald Trump deployed several thousand more troops in an effort to tip the stalemate in Kabul's favor. But the additional forces did little to change the balance on the battlefield, which ultimately led the U.S. State Department to begin talks in October under Zalmay Khalilzad, the former ambassador to the country.
Where Are We Now?
Current U.S. presence: Today, the United States still maintains roughly 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, serving in two complementary missions. 8,500 troops serve in the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission tasked with training, advising and assisting the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (which include the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police), as well as advising the ministries of Defense and the Interior. The United States, Germany, Turkey and Italy — the "framework nations" in the 39-member NATO-led coalition — each oversee regional commands based in five hubs across the country. The United States currently accounts for half of the 17,000 total NATO forces. Separately, the United States also maintains 5,500 troops in Operation Freedom's Sentinel program, a counterterrorism mission targeting al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria-Khorasan.
Current U.S. efforts: According to a report released by the U.S. Department of Defense in July 2019, Washington's "ultimate goal" in Afghanistan is a "political settlement between the Afghan Government and the Taliban" to prevent transnational extremists from using the country to plot attacks abroad against the United States and its allies. Under this goal, the United States named Khalilzad its special envoy and opened negotiations with the Taliban in October 2018, leading to nine attempted rounds of talks between the two sides — the majority of which have taken place in Qatar. Khalilzad sought a comprehensive peace deal including a cease-fire, U.S. troop withdrawal and a Taliban pledge to hold talks with the Afghan government, as well as a Taliban counterterrorism pledge against al Qaeda and the Islamic State-Khorasan.
On Sept. 2, Khalilzad announced the two sides had a draft peace deal "in principle" that included withdrawing 5,400 U.S. troops from the country and closing five U.S. military bases over 135 days, in exchange for the Taliban taking action to reduce violence in the Afghan provinces of Parwan and Kabul. In response to Trump's decision to halt talks, the Taliban revealed Sept. 8 that they were planning on beginning talks with the Afghan government Sept. 23, provided the draft deal with Washington had been signed.
What To Watch For
Fighting in Afghanistan: In its Sept. 8 statement, the Taliban also vowed to continue fighting until they secure a withdrawal of foreign forces. On Sept. 9, U.S. Central Command outlined it will ramp up operations against the Taliban. Insurgent attacks in Afghanistan are often higher in summer; warmer weather heralds the arrival of the Taliban's annual spring offensive. This has remained the case over the past year despite U.S. negotiations. When talks first began, insurgent attacks steadily declined during winter — dropping from 1,017 attacks in October 2018 to 567 attacks in February 2019. But violence resurged in March 2019 and has continued apace. According to the latest reports, the conflict has been especially tense in the country's northern provinces, including Badakhshan, which borders China.
Kabul-Taliban talks: The wider conflict in Afghanistan, however, won't end until the Taliban and Kabul agree to a nationwide cease-fire. The intra-Afghan talks to reach such a truce have yet to begin. But if and when they do, they will undoubtedly amount to the most contentious phase of the peace process, as the two sides debate fundamental questions on the nature of a post-conflict government, women's rights and the Afghan Constitution. And until those talks resume, the war will persist this quarter as U.S.-backed Afghan security forces pressure the Taliban, which view the presence of foreign forces as justifying their insurgency.
Afghan Elections: Trump's pullout from talks will enable Afghanistan's U.S.-backed central government to finally hold already twice-delayed elections on Sept. 28. Implementing a peace deal with the Taliban while simultaneously holding elections risks further complicating the logistics and corruption challenges that already plague the Afghan electoral process. In 2014, widespread fraud allegations led to a contentious recount in which President Ashraf Ghani, who now heads the National Unity Government, emerged as the winner. The United States intervened to broker Kabul's postelection transition to prevent any political instability. How the September elections play out — and whether the government can avoid a repeat of 2014 — will determine how strong of a unified posture Kabul can present in its negotiations with the Taliban, should they resume. A smooth exchange of power will also test the strength of the government's democratic system, which is key to Kabul's quest to decrease its reliance on external funding and support.
U.S. 2020 elections: Though Trump said talks with the Taliban are "dead," he hasn't ruled out a partial troop drawdown. With an eye on the 2020 elections, such a move would enable him to tout his foreign policy credentials on the campaign trail.
Changes in U.S. foreign policy: Trump's decision to pull out of Taliban talks was shaped by an ideological clash between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who supported the plan, and U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, who opposed it. On Sept. 10, Trump fired Bolton, which could reduce infighting in his administration over crucial foreign policy issues such as Afghanistan.
Khalilzad's testimony: On Sept. 19, Khalilzad will testify to the U.S. House of Representatives. Khalilzad's testimony will likely provide the most concrete clues as to the White House's next steps in Afghanistan, such as whether the United States will revive talks with the Taliban before the end of the year.