As President Biden signaled this week that he would let a May 1 deadline pass without withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan, some officials are using an intelligence assessment to argue for prolonging the military mission there.
American intelligence agencies have told the Biden administration that if U.S. troops leave before a power-sharing settlement is reached between the Taliban and the Afghan government, the country could fall largely under the control of the Taliban within two or three years after the withdrawal of international forces. That could potentially open the door for Al Qaeda to rebuild its strength within the country, according to American officials.
The classified assessment, first prepared last year for the Trump administration but not previously disclosed, is the latest in a series of grim predictions of Afghanistan’s future that intelligence analysts have delivered throughout the two-decade-long war.
There is at least some reason to be optimistic that the inevitable pushback won’t work this time. First of all, Biden has seen this movie before and didn’t even like the first screening. Second, it’s encouraging that the story asks appropriately skeptical questions about the perpetual-occupation narrative rather than Judy Millering it:
Some senior Biden administration officials have expressed skepticism of any intelligence prediction of a resurgence of a weakened Al Qaeda or of the Islamic State. Taliban commanders remain opposed to the Islamic State in Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda, which has little current presence in the country, could regroup instead in any number of other lawless regions around the world.
Also left unanswered by the intelligence warning is the question of whether Afghanistan could really prosper if American troops remain indefinitely. Their presence would most likely prevent a collapse of the nation’s own security forces and allow the government in Kabul, the Afghan capital, to retain control of its major cities, but the Taliban are still likely to gradually expand their power in other parts of the country, including curbing the rights of women.
The obvious problem with the arguments against withdrawal is that if there was One Magic Trick available to build a viable alternative government, why haven’t we used it at some during our first 20 years there? Indeed the whole point of the surge under Obama, which Biden sure looks prescient to have opposed contemporaneously, was to create the conditions under which the US could withdraw without Kabul immediately collapsing. If the intelligence estimates (which are almost certainly driven to justify non-withdrawal) turn out to be correct, this is just a condemnation of the previous arguments the Perpetual War Blob has been making to justify occupation until now. Either way enough is enough.