U.S. Should Slow Withdrawal From Afghanistan, Bipartisan Panel Urges

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration should slow the withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan, abandon the May 1 exit deadline and instead reduce American forces further only as security conditions improve, a congressionally appointed panel recommended Wednesday.

In a new report, the Afghanistan Study Group, a bipartisan panel charged by Congress to examine the February 2020 peace agreement made under the Trump administration, found that withdrawing troops based on a strict timeline, rather than how well the Taliban adheres to the agreement to reduce violence and improve security, risked the stability of the country and a potential civil war once international forces withdraw.

“It’s not in anyone’s best interest right now for precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan,” said Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., a retired four-star Marine general, former top commander in the country and past chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who helped lead the commission.

Kelly A. Ayotte, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire and another leader of the commission, said that the group did not want the war to go on indefinitely, and was not arguing that troops remain long-term.

“It is not whether we leave, but it’s how we leave,” she said in a meeting with reporters.

The Biden administration faces an early decision point on its Afghanistan policy. Later this month allied defense ministers including Lloyd J. Austin III, the defense secretary, will gather in Brussels to discuss the future of the NATO mission in Afghanistan. North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies weighing their own commitment to the country are expecting the Biden administration to make clear its plans for American forces during the next few weeks.

The Trump administration promised to end America’s long overseas wars and pushed to draw down forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere. President Biden has long viewed a large troop presence in Afghanistan with skepticism, but the new administration is reviewing the peace agreement and its Afghan policy.

The recommendations of the study group will probably be embraced by NATO. Jens Stoltenberg, the alliance’s secretary-general, has long said that decisions about troop levels in Afghanistan are best made by considering the security situation on the ground, not artificial timelines.

The commission advocated a renewed diplomatic push by the United States and Afghanistan’s neighbors with the Taliban, prodding them to actually adhere to the peace deal. While members of the commission acknowledged that the Taliban would be angered by a failure to adhere to the agreement’s May 1 deadline, the United States still has leverage. The Taliban, General Dunford said, want international recognition as a legitimate political movement and a relief from sanctions.

Still, that most likely will not stop the Taliban from launching a bloody spring offensive across the country. There is no cease-fire agreement between the Taliban and the Afghanistan government. And despite talks of peace, violence in Afghanistan has gone unchecked, with targeted killings in major cities and Taliban attacks in the countryside leaving thousands of security forces and civilians killed and wounded over the past year.

Analysts say the threat of civil war described by the study group is real.

As western military support dwindles and the peace negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban in Qatar remain stalled after starting in September following the U.S.-Taliban agreement, factions in parts of Afghanistan are rearming. Regional militias have been emboldened by the uncertainty around any deal with the Taliban, the fragility of the central government that could fracture under the weight of its own rampant corruption and its continuing inability to unify the many ethnic groups across the country.

Over the weekend, armed militia members under the command of Abdul Ghani Alipur fought government forces for control of a district center in Wardak, a province in the country’s mountainous east that neighbors Kabul, the country’s capital. While the cause of fighting, and who started the attack, is not exactly clear — the reasons range from tribal migration routes to the theft of government armored vehicles — the violent struggle only highlights the government’s declining influence across the country.

While violence in Afghanistan remains high, the Taliban have refrained for targeting American troops. Taliban officials have suggested that if international forces are not withdrawn by May, they will withdraw from the peace process and restart attacks against American and NATO forces.

Despite the Taliban’s position, the report said that the Biden administration can make the case that delays in starting talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government meant there has not been sufficient time to create the conditions under which international forces could leave.

“A withdrawal would not only leave America more vulnerable to terrorist threats; it would also have catastrophic effects in Afghanistan and the region that would not be in the interest of any of the key actors, including the Taliban,” the report said.

In a discussion of the report ahead of its official release, members of the group repeatedly emphasized the need for a new diplomatic push with Afghanistan’s neighbors. But the report acknowledges that those countries agree on little except for an opposition to a long-term American presence and a fear that a hasty U.S. withdrawal could provoke a civil war.

The Biden administration and the Pentagon have begun considering a number of options. The administration could look at temporarily increasing the number of troops in the country, reversing President Donald J. Trump’s order to cut forces in the closing weeks of his term.

General Dunford said that experts told the study group that 4,500 American troops, the force presence that was in Afghanistan last fall, was the right number. Still, he said any decision on increasing forces back to that level was best left to commanders in Afghanistan. The current number of American troops in Afghanistan hovers around 2,500.

General Dunford said the group’s report had a generally positive reception from Mr. Biden’s transition team when members were briefed late last year. The group met this week with Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born American envoy to Afghanistan who is being kept on by the Biden administration.

Mr. Khalilzad is the architect of the peace deal and has a strong working relationship with the Taliban. General Dunford said he expected that if the Biden administration embraced the recommendations of the Study Group, so would Mr. Khalilzad.

Julian E. Barnes reported from Washington, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Kabul. Fatima Faizi and Fahim Abed in Kabul contributed reporting.

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