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As peace talks with the Taliban stall, deadline to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan looms

Last February, former President Trump made a deal with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 1st, 2021. After two decades of partnership with the U.S. and its NATO allies, foreign forces are preparing to go home, leaving the Afghan National Security forces to fight the Taliban alone--at a time when peace negotiations with the Taliban have stalled. Special Correspondent Jane Ferguson reports the final installment in the series: “The Longest War.”

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    As we've been reporting, President Joe Biden's foreign policy agenda includes weighing the former administration's deal with the Taliban to withdraw all U.S. Troops from Afghanistan by May 1st of this year.

    With that deadline looming, two decades of foreign support and the teaching Afghan forces to lead without military allies hangs in the balance.

    NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Jane Ferguson and producer Emily Kassie have the final report in their series: "The Longest War."

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Afghanistan's security forces have faced vast challenges before, but none quite like this. After two decades of partnership with the U.S. and its NATO allies, foreign forces are preparing to go home, leaving these men to fight the Taliban alone.

    On a base just outside Kabul, the troops and their commanders put on a brave face when talking to journalists.

  • Ramin Moqbel:

    You will see that the foreign forces have no physical presence amongst our forces. The Afghan National Security forces are the ones taking the fight forward. Yes, they advise. But there will be no major changes if they leave."

  • Jane Ferguson:

    In reality, even with the limited U.S. air and ground support they currently have, the Taliban is stronger than it has ever been in this two-decades-long war. They continue to bolster their positions around cities. Reassuring the local population that these soldiers are in control is increasingly tough to do.

    As the Taliban strengthen their stranglehold on major urban centers in Afghanistan, trying to keep these major roads open is a challenge for the Afghan forces. Trying to secure the capital, even more important.

    The February 2020 deal President Trump's administration signed with the Taliban says all foreign forces will leave Afghanistan by May 1st. In return, the group were to promise to prevent Afghanistan becoming a staging ground for terror groups attacking the U.S., and engage in peace negotiations with the Afghan government.

    Those peace talks have stalled, and as the deadline to leave looms, violence rages across the country.

    The new Biden White House, inheriting both the deal and its deadline, has hinted at delaying that exit date.

    At an annual summit of defense ministers this week, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told the NewsHour they haven't given the Taliban a free ride.

  • Jens Stoltenberg:

    The promise to leave Afghanistan is conditions-based. Our presence in Afghanistan is conditions-based. And Taliban has to meet their commitments. We will only leave when the time is right. I think the main issue is that the Taliban has to reduce violence. Taliban has to negotiate in good faith. And Taliban has to break all ties, has to stop supporting international groups like al-Qaida.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Ultimately, NATO troops will follow whatever decision the White House makes.

  • Jens Stoltenberg:

    As you know, we went into Afghanistan together, NATO allies, partners, and the United States, after 9/11. We have made decisions on adjusting our presence together and we will also make the decision when the time is right, to leave together.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The Biden administration has yet to decide how to make peace with the Taliban, but keep fighting al-Qaida.

  • Laurel Miller:

    I think there is not a lot of enthusiasm for continuing to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan, but there are a few factors and dynamics that pull towards maintaining troops and not pulling forces out of Afghanistan.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Laurel Miller is a former Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan for the State Department.

  • Laurel Miller:

    One is what Biden has said as a candidate and previously, which is that there are still concerns about terrorism risks emanating from Afghanistan directed at the United States and he has spoken about keeping some American forces in Afghanistan for purposes of counter-terrorism. When pressed as a candidate on how large of a force he said 'small, but a few thousand.' Well, a few thousand is what there is now, so that, if it actually became policy, would suggest really not much change from the present.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    That would however break the deal. While it's possible to get an extension of a few months from the group, she argues, it's hard to imagine the Taliban allowing any U.S. troops to stay permanently, no matter how few.

  • Laurel Miller:

    It's not realistic. Ultimately there is a choice that has to be made. The Taliban's number one objective, these last two decades, has been the removal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, all foreign forces from Afghanistan. They are not going to do a 180 turn and reverse on that number one objective, so I see no possibility that the U.S. could negotiate with the Taliban maintaining some even relatively small number of forces in the country.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Getting them to break entirely with al-Qaida has proven impossible so far. Even the wording of the deal doesn't ask the Taliban to renounce the group, instead promising they won't allow them to use Afghanistan to launch attacks on America.

    Although al-Qaida has been massively weakened since the U.S.-led invasion, the United Nations believes there are still between 200 and 500 al-Qaida fighters in the country.

    And a report released earlier this month by their sanctions monitoring team stated:

    "Member States report little evidence of significant changes in relations between al-Qaida and the Taliban. Al-Qaida assesses that its future in Afghanistan depends upon its close ties to the Taliban, as well as the success of Taliban military operations in the country."

  • Jessica Donati:

    If they declare that they are no longer, that they break with al-Qaida, they open themselves up to attack by other groups and it suggests they have sold out. So it's not really an option for them.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Jessica Donati is a Wall Street Journal reporter, former Kabul bureau chief and author of "Eagle Down," examining the U.S.'s reliance on Special Forces in Afghanistan in recent years. She says separating the fight with the Taliban from the fight with al-Qaida, or pure counter-terrorism has been a challenge for years.

  • Jessica Donati:

    Counter-terrorism has always been this sort of catch-all phrase to describe what U.S. troops are doing there. In the past, it's meant a broad range of things depending on what the U.S. posture is, so when the U.S. has been a little more strict on what they have been doing it's perhaps limited to strikes on targets and even Taliban targets that have links to al-Qaida.

    When the definition has been more broad, you have seen counter-terrorism missions get approved to help the Afghans, for example, re-take control of major cities or district centers because the argument is if the Taliban regain control of a major area then al-Qaida have a chance to regain a foothold there and then threaten the U.S. So there has been a really broad definition of that over the years and it has been deliberately vague because the U.S. does not like talking about the war in Afghanistan at the moment.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    In a situation where there are zero U.S. forces on the ground in Afghanistan, as soon as in a few months, counter-terrorism would become logistically difficult to do. Sending Special Forces and intelligence personnel in for specific operations would rely on having partners on the ground they could depend on.

  • Jessica Donati:

    If they leave on terrible terms where the Afghan government doesn't want anything more to do with the U.S. or the U.S. feels that they can't trust them, it would be really difficult for the U.S. to send in troops on any kind of short term deployment because they couldn't trust their partners. It would be really difficult. If they do leave with this sort of under the table agreement that they will do everything possible to back them up, then there is some kind of option to bring in troops on short-term deployments that don't count towards an official number, so you can still say you have zero troops and you can bring them in.

    If you have a situation where the U.S. has left, the Afghan government has splintered, and you have different forces loyal to one commander or another, then it's going to be difficult for the U.S. to send in people to help. If you have a situation where everything is fractured and it's a horrible civil war, people are going to be more focused on getting rid of their rival than helping the U.S. take out one Taliban– or one al-Qaida or ISIS commander.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Success in the peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government will be remarkably difficult to pull off. Instead, a deepened, bloody civil war looms as a more likely outcome when the U.S. troops leave.

    Dr. Abdullah heads up the Afghan Government's peace negotiations.

  • Dr. Abdullah Abdullah:

    If you look at the situation today, while the United States is still committed to support Afghanistan, but in the eyes of the people of Afghanistan, the focus has been on their interests first and foremost. That's the sense of the people. I think I have not made a mistake in that. I do understand that we cannot expect another country, a friendly country, to do everything for us forever. That also we understand. But the people are concerned today.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Those concerns are not lost on the new U.S. administration. Fighting al-Qaida is one thing, but precipitating the potential fall of the Afghan government is a serious risk for Biden.

  • Laurel Miller:

    To actually be the President on whose watch, a worsening of the civil war, the degradation of the rights of Afghan women and others occurs, is a political risk to take. And I think if the U.S. did pull out completely you would see a rapid unravelling of the current political order and the security situation would worsen in Afghanistan, and that's a tough thing to see happen on your watch. It could make what is not now much of a political issue at all a political issue that you have to deal with.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Away from the politics, the Afghan security forces continue to try to hold the line here, unsure as to how much support they will have in the coming months. America's war here is winding down, while theirs continues.

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