- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 18, 2021

President Biden has put a date certain on the U.S. military‘s withdrawal from its 20-year mission in Afghanistan, but that might be the only thing certain about Afghanistan‘s short- and long-term future.

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan insisted Sunday that the U.S. military and intelligence agencies will be able to closely monitor any threat of global terrorism from Afghanistan even after the last U.S. and allied troops leave by Sept. 11. But he also acknowledged there were “no guarantees” about the fate of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul or whether Afghanistan‘s struggling democracy can survive in the face of an increasingly emboldened Taliban insurgency.

Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” Mr. Sullivan strongly defended Mr. Biden‘s decision last week to set a firm withdrawal date despite misgivings from current and former generals. He said U.S. intelligence can still monitor the terrorism threat in Afghanistan from outside its borders and noted that much of the focus of activity from the Islamic State group and al Qaeda these days is in the Middle East and Africa, not Afghanistan.

“We will have months of warning before ISIS or al Qaeda could have an extremist plotting capability from Afghanistan,” Mr. Sullivan said. “We are not going to take our eye off the ball.”

But whether the Afghan government can survive social reforms and whether advances in civil liberties and women’s rights can be preserved can’t be predicted, he said.

“I can’t make any guarantees about what will happen inside the country,” Mr. Sullivan said. “No one can.

“All the United States can do is provide the Afghan security forces, the Afghan government and the Afghan people with the resources and capabilities so they can stand up and defend their own country,” he added.

That is not the only question concerning Mr. Biden‘s decision, which has played to mixed reviews on Capitol Hill.

Still unknown is how the Taliban leadership will react, having accused the Biden administration of reneging on a promise made by President Trump last year to have all American troops out of Afghanistan by May 1.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking Sunday to “This Week” on ABC News, said he found support “across the board” for Mr. Biden‘s pullout plan on a hastily arranged trip to Afghanistan last week. He noted that the Taliban made a series of promises in the deal they cut with the Trump administration last year and argued “it was in no one’s interest” for Afghanistan to descend into an endless civil war.

Leaders of the radical Islamist group, which was in charge in Kabul 20 years ago before a U.S.-led invasion drove them from power, have warned darkly that they are no longer bound by the Trump agreement, which called for them to break ties with global terrorist groups including al Qaeda, cut down on violence and enter power-sharing talks with the Kabul government. It is not clear whether Taliban leaders intend to show up for negotiating sessions of U.S.-backed peace talks in Doha, Qatar, or will attend a Turkish-organized multinational “peace summit” due to start Saturday.

U.S. military commanders and many private analysts fear the Taliban, having waited 20 years for foreign forces to depart, can wait a few months longer to allow the American and NATO forces to pack up and go.

“The Taliban‘s recent success on the battlefield will almost certainly motivate the group to fight on — regardless of when the United States departs,” Carter Malkasian, author of a new book on the Afghanistan War, wrote over the weekend in Foreign Policy.com.

Taliban commanders now see that battlefield gains are possible, and they will be compelled to continue achieving them. Some openly claim that their objective is total victory,” he wrote.

The dangers of getting out

The 2,500-plus U.S. troops face a period of maximum uncertainty and vulnerability in the next few months, trying to manage the logistical feat of a pullout in the midst of a hot civil war. Analysts say the Pentagon may have to send more U.S. forces to Afghanistan, at least temporarily, to help speed the withdrawal.

Another question hovers over the regional players surrounding Afghanistan and how they will react to the departure of Western forces. Afghanistan has always been a playing field for geopolitical rivalries, and a number of nearby powers, including Pakistan, India, Iran, Russia, China and Turkey, are already jockeying to protect their interests and fill the vacuum left by the U.S. withdrawal.

Mr. Biden‘s decision, aside from a reflection of war weariness in the Oval Office and in the American population in general, marks in part a bet that Afghanistan‘s historically feuding factions have finally learned to coexist after having exhausted all the alternatives.

The Taliban, during their last stint in power, imposed a harsh form of Islamic observance, alienated minority ethnic groups and earned international condemnation for the destruction of priceless cultural treasures such as the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan statues just months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Mr. Blinken said realpolitik was the strongest reason for thinking the Taliban will be willing to temper its more radical elements.

“Ultimately, it is in no one’s interest in Afghanistan, whether it’s the Taliban or anyone else and certainly not the people of Afghanistan, for the country to descend once again into civil war, into a long war,” he said. “And if the Taliban is going to participate in some fashion in governance, if it wants to be internationally recognized, if it doesn’t want to be a pariah, it’s going to have to engage in a political process.”

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who spoke with Mr. Biden last week and hosted Mr. Blinken on a surprise trip to Kabul, rejected the idea that his government would go the way of South Vietnam, which fell to an advancing communist army a few short years after American troops withdrew in 1972.

“Afghan Defense Forces have been carrying out 90% of the operations” against the Taliban in the past two years, Mr. Ghani said in an interview on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS.”

“The risk 20 years ago was entirely borne by the U.S. and international forces ,” Mr. Ghani said, “but from the day I became president [in 2014], every year we have assumed more of the burden.”

Outside military analysts are skeptical of those claims. They note that the Taliban forces have had the military offensive and now control more of the countryside than at any other point since the U.S. invasion.

The U.S. Office of the Special Investigator for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a relentless critic of the U.S. military mission and of the capacities of the Afghan government, wrote in a recent audit, “Although Afghanistan‘s leadership have often stated that their goal is self-reliance, Afghanistan today is nowhere near to being self-reliant — especially in funding its government operations, including military and police — from its own resources.”

U.S. officials say Mr. Biden is determined to support the Kabul government economically and militarily even as American troops depart. Mr. Ghani on Sunday sketched out a hopeful vision in which Afghans would be left in peace to build up what now is one of the world’s poorest countries.

Afghanistan we would like to become permanently neutral ,” he said on CNN. “That offers the opportunity to preempt — God forbid — Afghanistan becoming a battleground for proxy warfare in the region.”

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