President Biden has made a big decision on Afghanistan, with significant risks. After much consideration, I believe he has done the right thing — but it’s a big gamble. It will have particularly serious consequences for Pakistani behavior.

A long history

I have been involved in U.S. policy vis-à-vis the wars in Afghanistan since Christmas Eve 1979, when I was in the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) operations center as the Russians invaded the country. The National Security Agency reported detecting 300 Russian flights that day from Soviet bases in Central Asia to Kabul, air-lifting an elite airborne division to the capital.

Washington was taken by surprise, but in less than a month President Jimmy Carter put together a strategy and an alliance with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to fight the Soviets that went on to win the final and decisive battle of the Cold War. Two weeks after the invasion, the CIA shipped the first weapons to Karachi for the mujaheddin.

We have made many mistakes in Afghanistan. We paid almost no attention to the country after the Soviets left, and it descended into a failed state that was misruled by the Taliban and hosted al-Qaida. President George W. Bush took his eye off the ball after the invasion in 2001 and let Osama bin Laden escape into Pakistan. By 2005, he was encased in his hideout in Abbottabad. With America bogged down in Iraq, al-Qaida regenerated.

By 2006, it was more dangerous than ever. The British foiled an al-Qaida plot that summer to simultaneously blow up a half-dozen airplanes en route from the United Kingdom to America and Canada over the Atlantic Ocean. Bin Laden had directed the plot from his hideout and used Pakistanis living in England as suicide bombers. It would have been worse than 9/11.

President Barack Obama’s so-called AfPak report in March 2009 identified the principal goal of America’s policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan to be “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida.” It recognized that it was Pakistan where al-Qaida was most entrenched. Obama ordered the CIA to ruthlessly destroy the organization with drones based in Afghanistan, operating across the border.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, President Barack Obama, Senior Advisor Bruce Riedel, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the public rollout of the president’s Afghanistan-Pakistan policy in March 2009.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, President Barack Obama, Senior Advisor Bruce Riedel, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the public rollout of the president’s Afghanistan-Pakistan policy in March 2009. Source: The author’s collection.

He also ordered a full-scale hunt for bin Laden. In 2009, the search was stone-cold: The CIA had no idea where he was. After brilliant analysis, he was located less than a mile from Pakistan’s top military academy. Ten years ago — on May 2, 2011 — the Navy SEALs delivered justice. Al-Qaida has never recovered. It is still present in the region but it has been decimated and defeated. Last September, Ayman al-Zawahri — bin Laden’s successor — issued a statement on the anniversary of 9/11. No one noticed. It was a sign of how marginalized the group has become.

Al-Qaida, the Taliban, and civil war

Of course, the United States is also fighting in the Afghan civil war that escalated when the Russians left Kabul in 1989. The war against the Taliban is impossible to win as long as Pakistan provides sanctuary and safety, training, equipment, and funds for the Taliban. We cannot defeat Pakistan, which is a nuclear-armed state and has the fifth largest population in the world. As Obama wrote in his memoir “A Promised Land”: “The Riedel report made one thing clear: Unless Pakistan stopped sheltering the Taliban, our efforts at long term stability in Afghanistan were bound to fail.”

Our troops accomplished the top priority in 2011 by killing bin Laden. They cannot defeat the proxy army of the Rawalpindi generals. It is that reality that underscores Biden’s decision.

Unfortunately, our intelligence capabilities will be hurt without a military presence in the country; that is part of the gamble Biden has chosen. If al-Qaida does regenerate and plots an attack on the U.S., the intelligence community will have less capacity to uncover the plot and to block it. It’s a big gamble.

Moreover, Biden inherited a terrible deal from Trump’s feckless negotiators: a May 1, 2021 deadline to get out of Afghanistan or face renewed attacks on the more than 10,000 American and NATO troops. In return, the Taliban was to renounce al-Qaida and sever ties to the group. It did neither, but it has largely refrained from attacking American troops for the last year. Biden knew that if he ignored the May deadline, the Taliban would resume attacks on foreign forces. Indeed, they would be prime targets. He is gambling that the Taliban will accept his new timeline to withdraw by this September.

What happens next is unclear. The civil war will certainly escalate further. The Taliban will have little or no interest in the political process with the government in Kabul, but they have never been interested in it nor have they ever lived up to the obligations in the agreement with Trump. Whether the Taliban will keep from disrupting the NATO withdrawal is unclear.

The victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan is not inevitable. The Communist government in Kabul survived for three years after the Red Army left. It only collapsed when its top military commander, Abdul Rashid Dostam, defected to the side of the mujaheddin. He still runs his home province Jowzjan in the north. I have a lovely carpet from Dostam, when we met in the Pentagon; he is also a unrepentant gangster.

The Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazari groups do not want to be governed by the Pashtun Taliban. Urban Afghans don’t want the medieval Islamic Emirate. Nearly three-quarters of Afghans are under 30 years old and have lived their lives in a relatively open society. The civil war will go on, most likely, with the Taliban seizing some cities in the south. We should continue to fund the Afghan army, as Biden has promised.

We should be proud of the very significant changes the last 20 years have brought to Afghanistan, especially for its women. They go to school now, they have jobs and opportunities that had been denied by the Taliban. The notion that the Taliban have mellowed in the last 20 years, or that they crave international recognition, is delusional.

The Pakistan piece

Pakistan is a winner again in Afghanistan. It has now outlasted two superpowers. The Pakistani army generals will be more hubristic and dangerous than ever. The army intelligence service known as the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) will be the one of the most dangerous patrons of terror in the world, especially with the Haqqani network.

Pakistan does not control the Taliban and it will suffer negative as well as positive consequences from their improved position. The Pakistan Taliban will be stronger and more inclined to strike inside Pakistan. The Afghan Taliban will become more independent.

We will need a coherent strategy to deal with Pakistan. Biden has so far failed to engage with Prime Minister Imran Khan, as my colleague Madiha Afzal has written. Only belatedly was Pakistan invited to the virtual climate change conference. Ignoring Pakistan is a mistake. It is not too late to repair. There is no simple way to change Pakistani behavior especially given its strong alliance with China. But engagement is better than isolation and sanctions.

The president should follow up the Afghan decision with the withdrawal of American combat troops from Saudi Arabia and a modest drawdown of forces elsewhere in the Gulf. The current force dispositions in Kuwait and other Gulf states are relics of our previous wars in Iraq and are no longer necessary. The militarization of American policy in the region needs to be reversed.

The NATO alliance will also need attention. Afghanistan is the alliance’s first significant out-of-area operation. Allies labored hard to support expeditionary forces in Central Asia. Some, like Canada, sustained heavy casualties. The perception of failure in Afghanistan will weigh heavily on future challenges and opportunities for the alliance.