Leaving Afghanistan: Pulling Out without Pulling the Rug Out
The United States must at some point depart from Afghanistan and bring this costly “forever war” to a conclusion. With over 2,400 U.S. servicemembers killed, many more wounded, and nearly a trillion dollars spent to date, America’s leaders are under an obligation to design and execute a plan that stops a decades-long hemorrhaging of American blood and treasure.
Encouragingly, the prospects for ending America’s involvement in Afghanistan — or at least dramatically reducing it — received a major boost with reports of a breakthrough in ongoing talks between representatives of the United States and the Taliban. On Monday, a Taliban spokesperson announced that an agreement had been reached outlining a plan for reaching a political settlement to end the war. The plan reportedly includes a timeline for the reduction and eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops, assurances by the Taliban that they will prevent transnational terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State from operating or receiving safe haven in Afghanistan, and Taliban commitment to enter into direct talks with the Afghan government. A seven-day “reduction in violence” during which the Taliban will curtail attacks nationwide while the U.S. ceases offensive operations will serve as an initial confidence building measure in advance of a signed U.S.-Taliban agreement.
It remains to be seen whether this promising new direction for talks and a U.S. withdrawal can surmount a core challenge: how to leave without pulling the rug out from under the government of Afghanistan, and avoid clearing the path for the Taliban to achieve their maximalist aim of reconquering the country.
No compromise or peace deal can succeed, however, unless the Taliban come to the table with the Afghan government convinced that negotiating and adhering to a political settlement offers the most viable path to achieving their objectives and that failure to do so will result in a continued costly stalemate that keeps them politically marginalized. But much of the Taliban arguably are not there yet. Leaders and foot soldiers alike reportedly believe that a Taliban-led Afghanistan under their vision of Islamic law and free of foreign occupation is still attainable and that they can ultimately prevail in this protracted struggle. If only they hold out long enough, they think, the United States will eventually withdraw its forces regardless of conditions on the ground.
History provides a precedent for cautious optimism by the United States as it engages the Afghan government in charting a path forward in the execution of this conditional agreement. The Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 — the last time a great power departed this conflict-ridden region after years of occupation — offers some important lessons on achieving minimalist objectives in the wake of failure to achieve more ambitious strategic objectives. And Moscow did so with modest expenditure of resources and with some degree of success.
The Red Army Leaving Afghanistan
Soviet leaders, after failing to achieve the broad goals they maintained when the Red Army invaded over 10 years earlier, developed and initiated a strategy designed to achieve the narrow objectives of preventing the collapse of the Soviet-supported Najibullah government and the country’s transition to religious extremist rule. Contrary to widely held misconceptions, when Soviet military forces redeployed, the security situation did not entirely collapse. Despite significant challenges, Soviet-trained security forces with some limited security assistance were able to defend Kabul and avoid the fall of major population centers. Competing power factions were kept at bay by providing targeted aid and economic assistance to local authorities conditioned on support for the government in Kabul. This targeted aid, along with a range of carefully orchestrated political, economic, military, and diplomatic initiatives, combined to prop up the Soviet-installed government, ensuring its survival for nearly three more years — up until the demise of the Soviet Union itself and subsequent cessation of aid.
Of course, the Soviet experience is extremely different on many dimensions from the U.S. situation today. The development and execution of the Soviet exit strategy, however, provides instructive lessons for U.S. policymakers as they wrestle with achieving arguably similar goals of drawing down forces and leaving the country without ceding rule entirely back to extremist groups determined to overthrow the established government. Katya Drozdova and I recently explained in the Journal of Cold War Studies the key components of the Soviet exit strategy and how it was implemented. Through a systematic mining of official records and previously classified transcripts of the internal discourse of the Politburo in Moscow, we reconstruct the Soviet strategy’s critical aspects and identify salient lessons that can help inform decisions the United States must make as it plans and executes its withdrawal from the country after nearly two decades of occupation and conflict.
This focused and comprehensive review of the Politburo communications and discourse of the time reveals how Soviet leaders’ assessment of what was practical in Afghanistan evolved over the course of their occupation. By late 1986, almost seven years after the invasion, the consensus among Soviet senior leaders was that they had reached a military stalemate on the ground and that the growing costs of continuing the war were unsustainable. In a classified Politburo meeting chaired by Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev on Nov. 13, 1986, Chief of the Soviet General Staff Marshal Sergei Akhromeev, summarized the Red Army’s challenges:
The problem is that military results are not being reinforced by political ones. There is power in the center; but not in the provinces. We control Kabul and provincial centers, but on the captured territory we cannot establish power. We have lost the fight for the Afghan people. A minority of the people supports the government.
Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, who was in attendance at this same meeting of the Politburo, opined that objectives held earlier such as sealing the border with Iran and Pakistan were unattainable and must be abandoned. He emphasized the importance of clearly identifying and developing a strategy to secure the Soviets’ most important baseline strategic objective, stating:
Our strategic goal is—to make Afghanistan neutral, prevent its transition to the enemy camp. It is important, of course, that we also preserve what we can socially. But most importantly—to halt the war.
The Soviet Union focused on achieving this minimal strategic objective as it developed and executed its exit strategy two years later. The execution of their strategy included providing targeted aid and a range of other incentives to authorities and power brokers at local levels conditioned on support for the regime in Kabul. In the months after the departure of Soviet military forces, the extremist mujahideen were able to expand their grip in many areas in the countryside, but the Najibullah government remained in power in Kabul, and the Afghan military was able to defend main population centers around the country.
Soviet leaders in Moscow appreciated that continued economic and security assistance after the troop withdrawal was necessary to achieve — if even marginally — its stated strategic objective of preventing Afghanistan from falling into the “enemy camp” — a term Gromyko used to characterize the extremist mujahideen. Denying outright victory to the mujahideen through Soviet economic and security assistance and diplomatic engagement increased the odds that some settlement short of capitulation of the regime in Kabul could be reached. The importance of preventing government collapse and reaching a political settlement was voiced in an Aug. 11, 1989, memorandum to the Politburo from Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and KGB head Vladimir Kryuchkov several months after the last Soviet military forces departed:
Herewith, [we] must undoubtedly take into account that our assistance, while facilitating the maintenance of regime stability, thereby also lowers the opposition’s chances for possible victory, and therefore increases the probability of achieving a political settlement. After all, protracted war in Afghanistan is not in our interest.
The minimalist objectives of the Soviet exit strategy were initially achieved, and the Najibullah government remained in power for almost three years after the Soviet troops withdrew, albeit with continued provision of targeted economic aid and security assistance. It was not until the demise of the Soviet Union and end of critical aid that Najibullah was brutally removed from power and the country finally fell prey to extremist rule.
Without a doubt, conditions in Afghanistan during Najibullah’s tenure were extremely harsh — both during the Soviet occupation and in the initial years after its troops departed. Najibullah ruled with an iron fist and was known to have committed crimes and human rights violations against his own people. In later years, however, many Afghans came to appreciate that despite his brutalities he was able to meet the critical needs of the people like food and security as he coordinated continued aid and assistance effectively with the Soviet Union. Quality of life for the Afghan people was poor but far better than what came later — the dark days that were ushered in when the Taliban seized control and began their oppressive rule.
History for the Present
If a broad historical lesson relevant to U.S. policymakers today can be gleaned from the Soviets’ experience leaving Afghanistan, it would be to clearly identify the minimal strategic goal for the United States and to put in place sustainable incentives and disincentives that help ensure this objective can be secured in the aftermath of troop departures and loss of direct leverage. This minimal objective for the United States today should be no violent or forced regime change. To be clear, the U.S. vital interest in preventing a terrorist threat to the homeland from reemerging must be protected, but this can still be achieved working with a hybrid form of governance or power sharing arrangement determined peacefully by the Afghan parties themselves. A violent return of the Taliban would make it difficult if not impossible to safeguard this vital interest.
Encouragingly, most Afghans share a common interest with the United States in avoiding a violent collapse of the elected government and reversion to Taliban rule. The large majority of the Afghan people do not want to surrender the many significant gains made since the U.S.-led invasion removed the Taliban from power. Well over 80 percent of respondents in The Asia Foundation’s latest Survey of the Afghan People released in December, for example, are reported to express hope that a peace deal will preserve and protect the current constitution; a strong central government; freedom of the press; and freedom of speech and women’s rights.
Beyond the expressed preferences of the Afghan people, a return of Taliban rule and the conditions expected to accompany it are also not in the interests of influential regional stakeholders. Russia, for example, has an interest in avoiding religious extremist rule in the country today just as it did when its troops departed in 1989 and an enduring interest in the security of former Soviet states — Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan — on Afghanistan’s northern border. And India, a rising major power in the region, has a long-standing interest in preventing a resurgence of the Taliban and curbing Pakistan’s efforts to exert even greater influence and political control in Afghanistan if it does.
Short of a political settlement, the withdrawal of all U.S. forces, along with the cessation of aid and assistance for the elected government in Kabul, will likely result in the rapid loss of even larger swaths of the country back to the Taliban, squander many of the costly gains made since 2001, and risk plunging the long-suffering Afghan population back to the darkest days of the Taliban’s rule in the 1990s. With even a limited number of troops on the ground, the United States can still exert the leverage needed to help avoid these outcomes as well as conduct its critical counter-terrorism mission. U.S. and Afghan interests can be protected if all sides adhere to the conditionality of the reported new peace deal, which ties phased troop withdrawals to sustainable reductions in violence, intra-Afghan talks, and demonstrated progress toward reaching a political settlement.
Taliban leaders have long believed in their ability to wait out the foreign occupation, and many anticipate this wait may finally be over sooner than later. But some level of continued targeted aid and security assistance could help extend the time the elected and U.S.-supported government in Kabul remains minimally viable and ensure any future change in governance structure is implemented peacefully. The Afghan government today is plagued by endemic corruption and limited capacity, and its legitimacy is questioned by many. But, despite its flaws, Afghans are far better living under this elected government — one positioned to coordinate aid and assistance from the United States and international community — than the one they can expect to be imposed on them should the Taliban once again come to power through violence and without process.
Importantly, a significant degree of the support from potential opposition groups for the current regime stems from trading their allegiance for continued access to aid and assistance provided by the United States and international community. This “purchasing” of cooperation from among Afghan factions that otherwise would be vying for power and undermining the government can continue with a modest commitment of resources — far less than would be needed to maintain a substantial troop presence. It is a relative bargain compared to the costs of violent government collapse at the hands of an emboldened Taliban should the centrifugal forces from unchecked internal divisions be unleashed. Changing the Taliban’s calculus of how long they have to wait and their odds of seizing power when U.S. and coalition forces depart will not be easy. Adjusting these perceptions is critical, however, to convincing the Taliban to view a negotiated settlement as providing the most viable path to achieving their objectives, which is key to any prospect of acceptable — and enforceable — compromise.
To their credit, U.S. negotiators in recent Taliban talks were able to get explicit agreement that U.S. withdrawal must be tied to reductions in violence levels, holding intra-Afghan talks, and demonstrated progress toward reaching a political settlement. To increase the odds that the Taliban will comply with these conditional agreements, Afghan parties must also demonstrate commitment to work with regional stakeholders to ensure economic aid and other assistance are more broadly resourced and coordinated. India, for example, is a major partner the United States should coordinate and work more closely with to foster the conditions needed to avoid government collapse and a violent Taliban seizure of power.
The Taliban are well aware that the United States, regional powers like India and Russia, and most importantly the Afghan people have aligned interests in avoiding violent or forced regime change and return to outright Taliban rule. The domestic and geopolitical reality is that the Taliban are not in the advantageous position they may perceive themselves to be and that their track record of launching attacks on the eve of earlier scheduled talks would indicate. The facts on the ground — at least today — favor the ability of U.S. interlocutors and the Afghan government to continue to negotiate from a position of relative strength and oblige the Taliban to significantly lengthen their calculation of the time the current costly stalemate could be maintained while lowering their expectations of total victory. If Washington and Kabul are successful in shaping these beliefs, forward progress in reaching the milestones outlined in the newly announced peace deal and ultimately negotiating a durable, peaceful, and mutually acceptable power sharing arrangement may be achieved.
Joe Felter is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and William J. Perry fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. He is a former director of the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point and led the COMISAF Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assistance Team (CAAT) in Afghanistan. From 2017 to 2019, he served as U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia.