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One of the Biden administration's primary foreign policy challenges is how to end the United States' longest war. A new bipartisan report urges the administration to remain committed to Afghanistan and ongoing peace talks. Nick Schifrin reports.
One of the Biden administration's primary foreign policy challenges is how to end the U.S.' longest war.
Nick Schifrin is back with a look at a new bipartisan report that urges the administration to remain committed to Afghanistan and peace talks.
A thousand miles from peace talks, Kabul is haunted by despair and death, by a campaign of assassinations, by violence aimed at stealing Afghanistan's future, like this attack on Kabul University that killed dozens of students, including Ali.
His father shows a reporter his son's diplomas.
Moosa (through translator):
I cannot see any benefits brought by the foreign troops. Every day, there are suicide attacks, explosions, kidnappings, and robberies.
The country's on edge. Last December, residents in Eastern Afghanistan ran after a roadside bomb explosion. The violence is unrelenting. The U.S. military says attacks are up over last year.
Shraduffin Azmi is a psychologist.
Shraduffin Azmi (through translator):
Many of our loved ones, the youth, women, men and children, are terrified. They feel they might die at any time.
Last February, there was some cautious hope. The Taliban and U.S. agreed to fully withdraw American troops by May the 1st if the Taliban prevented al-Qaida from harboring in Afghanistan and discussed a cease-fire with the Afghan government.
But, today, those talks are stalled, and, instead, Taliban leaders are on a diplomatic blitz, including a visit to Tehran. The Biden administration acknowledges the Taliban haven't attacked U.S. troops, but says the Taliban have not broken with al-Qaida.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby:
As long as they are not meeting their commitments, it's going to be difficult for anybody at that negotiating table to meet their commitments. In fact, it wouldn't be the wise course.
It is under discussion with our partners and allies to make the best decisions going forward.
This is a new opportunity and a new approach to more fully align our messages and our practices and our policies.
Nancy Lindborg is the former president and CEO of the United States Institute of Peace. I spoke to her, New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joe Dunford about their new bipartisan report that recommended abandoning the May 1 exit deadline, withdrawing only as conditions improve, and renewing diplomacy with the region and the Taliban.
As a part of our regional diplomacy, being very clear of our commitment to the peace process as envisioned with the conditions, and our long-term commitment to both the state of Afghanistan, but also, very importantly, to the people of Afghanistan.
The report also calls to reinforce U.S. conditions on all parties, including the fragile and factionalized Afghan government.
It's important to support the Afghan government, but also that we were going to have conditionality in terms of their importance of them rooting out corruption and the things that they need to do to govern properly for Afghanistan, as well as conditionality for the Taliban in terms of its — their behavior in reducing violence.
Dunford was Joint Chiefs chairman until 2019. From 2013 to 2014, he commanded all troops in Afghanistan.
The report finds that the Taliban have not met its obligations under last year's peace agreement. And you write that the U.S. military presence is undergirding those peace negotiations, helping the Afghan government.
Does that mean that the U.S. service members currently in Afghanistan need to stay there past the May 1 deadline?
Nick, what it means is, specifically, that we believe that the U.S. should take a conditions-based a approach.
And so we don't associate the departure of U.S. forces with any date. We specifically associate the departure of U.S. forces to the conditions that were outlined in the agreement in February 2020 being met.
The Taliban, as you know, have threatened the U.S. to once again start attacking U.S. troops if, in fact, the U.S. stays past the May 1 deadline.
Is it worth the risk of the deaths of U.S. service members in order to keep them in Afghanistan?
We have not had the time to implement that agreement fully.
All of the parties, to include the Taliban, would be well-served if the agreement was implemented as it was written in February of 2020. So, in my view, it's not about the life of U.S. service members and their association with the peace agreement. It's about U.S. national interests in the region and about the resources that are necessary to preserve our interests, until the conditions in the region change.
And what is the risk to U.S. national security and to Afghanistan if the U.S. withdraws too quickly?
We made it very clear in our report, Nick, that there's a high probability of a civil war in Afghanistan in the event of a precipitous U.S. withdrawal.
And we also talk about the Taliban's relationship with al-Qaida, the opportunity that al-Qaida would have to reconstitute, whether there would be precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces, the potential of mass migration, terrorist attacks associated with that Al-Qaida presence in the region. And then, clearly, the cost to the Afghan people as well is addressed in the report.
The Trump administration recently reduced the number of troops in Afghanistan down to 2,500. Do you believe that number is sufficient right now for the changes that you're calling for?
We know that, in the course of our deliberations back in the fall, it was identified that about 4,500 U.S. forces were optimal under the conditions we found ourselves in, in the fall.
There's clearly issues associated with risk to the mission and risk to the force at various levels of troop levels. But I think the folks that are actually engaged right now in implementing policy are better able to judge the specific level of forces that are necessary.
Do you believe that there is political support and willingness from the U.S., from the West, from NATO to commit to the government of Afghanistan and the country that you're suggesting?
Yes, Nick, what I would say is that we have interests in South Asia. And pursuing those interests is going to require long-term diplomatic action, some security action, some economic action.
But the form of that support is going to change over time as the conditions change. And we're not suggesting a long-term presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. In fact, we assert that the administration should commit to the agreement in February 2020, and that U.S. forces would eventually leave Afghanistan when the conditions are being met.
There has been great concern about the impact of the Trump administration, especially some of the hires and announcements inside the Pentagon in the last few weeks before inauguration.
Are you concerned today about any lasting impact of what some believe was a bit of chaos over the last few months?
You know, Nick, I'm very confident that, in the weeks and the months ahead, we will have proper civilian-military relations within the department, and, more importantly and necessarily, a proper focus on taking care of the mission, while we take care of the people inside the Department of Defense.
And, again, knowing the people both in uniform and not in uniform, I know that those are the two things that they will be focused on in the months ahead, and not relitigating what might have happened in the past, but looking forward and saying, what is it that needs to be done in order to secure the interests of our country?
Chairman Dunford, thank you very much.
Hey, thanks so much, Nick.
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