President Biden still has an option if he chooses to use it in Afghanistan. He can take Erik Prince up on his offer to privatize the intelligence gathering, logistics support and military training functions currently being done by our residual troop presence.
For the ever-cautious Mr. Biden, this approach carries few risks and — in the long run — is cheaper than formal military presence. The Taliban would howl, but they do not have any votes in the Electoral College.
If the Taliban believe that — when American and other NATO troops leave — they will walk into Kabul as easily as the Communists overran Saigon in 1975, they are likely mistaken. The Afghan army can protect the cities, but its power projection capability into the mountainous rural hinterland is limited. The United States military made a major mistake in not building up the capability of the Afghan airforce to sustain the army in remote rural areas that are inaccessible by the nation’s still horrible road system. Consequently, the Taliban will likely continue to make gains in the largely Pashtun mountains in the south and east of the country.
Afghanistan has changed since 2001. A majority now live in — and around — the major cities and are fiercely opposed to a return to harsh Taliban rule. Urban and rural Pashtun-dominated Afghanistan are two different countries now, and that is a fact that both the central government and the Taliban will have to deal with. A “one nation two systems” approach is the most likely outcome, but it is probable that the Taliban will have to learn that the hard way with failed offensives against government-controlled areas.
If we assume that the Taliban will try to take over by force, they have two options. If they are smart, they will build up their strength and bide their time until the September pullout before attempting to deal the government a knockout blow. On the other hand, they might try to further humiliate Mr. Biden by trying to create a mass casualty event among the remaining Americans. That could well backfire and anger the American public. By choosing the contractor option, Mr. Biden would undermine both options.
If contractors slowly replace our uniformed troops, the Taliban will have no “golden moment” to look forward to as 9/11 approaches. The Afghan population and security forces will be heartened that the United States has not completely abandoned them. The threat of creating a mass casualty event will be diminished as the American people would be less affected by a Beirut bombing-style event on contractors than they would be by losing their uniformed sons and daughters.
What we would be doing by implementing this proposal is adopting the same proxy war strategy that Iran and Russia have used to prop up the Assad regime in Syria. However imperfect, the government in Kabul is far more deserving of support than the tyranny in Damascus.
The most important part of this proposal is that it gives the United States continued leverage in negotiations that might lead to an Afghanistan where people can make a choice of living in the conservative theocratic areas controlled by the Taliban or the relatively enlightened urban areas where the Kabul government holds sway. I would bet that the areas of Taliban influence will shrink exponentially as word of the possibilities of freedom of choice gets out.
As important as Afghan morale is the fact that the Biden administration would still have leverage in holding the Taliban to their promise of ridding Afghanistan of international terrorists is critical. In other words: “We’ll withdraw our foreign mercenaries when you get rid of yours”. There is no doubt in my mind that the Taliban will try to take Kabul and the other cities once uniformed IS troops leave. This proposal helps to ensure that they will fail and be forced back to negotiations.
Other than incurring the wrath of Republican isolationists and the extreme peacenik wing of his party, Mr. Biden faces little political danger in such an approach, but he faces real blowback if the Taliban take over. Few Americans who have not served there think about Afghanistan.
Placing Mr. Prince — or someone like him — in charge of the things that our uniformed service people are now doing under the supervision of the Department of State has far more advantages than disadvantages, and Mr. Prince is far tougher and smarter than several of the generals that we have had commanding in Kabul over the course of the last two decades.
• Gary Anderson lectures on wargaming and red teaming at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He served as a civilian adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan.