A study mandated by the US Congress called Wednesday for a delay in a troop pullout from Afghanistan planned by May, warning that it would effectively hand the Taliban a victory.
The Afghanistan Study Group, whose co-chairs include former top US general Joseph Dunford, said that the goal should be not simply to end America’s longest war but to ensure an “acceptable peace agreement” between the Taliban and the internationally recognized government.
“Withdrawing US troops irresponsibly would likely lead to a new civil war in Afghanistan, inviting the reconstitution of anti-US terrorist groups that could threaten our homeland and providing them with a narrative of victory against the world’s most powerful country,” said the long-awaited report.
“Supporting peace negotiations offers the United States the chance to honor US sacrifices, secure core US interests and show this nation’s enemies that they cannot prevail,” it said.
The Afghanistan Study Group comprises 15 members across party lines. The other co-chairs were Kelly Ayotte, a former Republican senator, and Nancy Lindborg, a former US aid official who until last year led the US Institute of Peace.
Congress mandated the study in December 2019 as then president Donald Trump stepped up efforts to finish what he described as an “endless war” — launched by the United States after Al-Qaeda carried out the September 11, 2001 attacks.
On February 29 last year, the Trump administration signed an accord with the Taliban under which the United States would withdraw by May 2021 in return for Taliban promises not to let Afghanistan be used by terrorists — the original goal of the US invasion.
The co-chairs in a letter said that the United States should prioritize encouraging a peace agreement between the Taliban and the Kabul government, who started their first-ever negotiations following the US withdrawal pledge.
The United States “should not, however, simply hand a victory to the Taliban,” they wrote.
Deadline ‘perhaps impossible’
The report said that US troops face lessening dangers and could stay with a goal of pressing a peace deal rather than prosecuting a war.
It noted that the agreement laid out benchmarks for the US withdrawal and said “it will be very difficult, and perhaps impossible, for those conditions to be achieved by May 2021.”
“Achieving the overall objective of a negotiated stable peace that meets US interests would need to begin with securing an extension of the May deadline,” it said.
As of January 15, in Trump’s final days in office, the United States had reduced forces in Afghanistan to just 2,500 troops — the lowest since the start of the war.
President Joe Biden broadly shares Trump’s desire to end the war, of which he was an early skeptic, but has spoken of preserving a residual force to carry out anti-terrorism operations rather than completely pulling out US forces.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that the new administration will review Trump’s agreement with the Taliban including assessing annexes that were never made public.
The study group recommended that Biden clarify what the United States seeks in Afghanistan — an “independent, democratic and sovereign” state.
A future Afghanistan would protect the rights of minorities and women — who were heavily repressed under the former Taliban state — but could also include Taliban figures.
The report said that Pakistan maintains great influence over the Taliban but said that the insurgents resented being seen as puppets of the neighboring country.
“The group does not want to return to its international pariah status of the 1990s” or be the “North Korea of Central Asia,” the group said.
“But how much of its doctrinaire positions the group is willing to give up for US and Western aid is clouded in uncertainty,” it said.