Report to Congress on U.S. Policy Toward Afghanistan

March 31, 2021 8:07 AM - Updated: April 1, 2021 12:27 PM

The following is the March. 25, 2021 Congressional Research Service report, Afghanistan: Background and U.S. Policy In Brief.

Afghanistan emerged as a significant U.S. foreign policy concern in 2001, when the United States, in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, led a military campaign against Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban government that harbored and supported it. In the intervening 19 years, the United States has suffered over 22,000 military casualties (including around 2,400 fatalities) in Afghanistan and Congress has appropriated approximately $143 billion for reconstruction and security forces there. In that time, an elected Afghan government has replaced the Taliban; improvement in most measures of human development is limited; and future prospects of gains remain mixed.

In January 2021, the Trump Administration reported that it had reduced U.S. forces in Afghanistan to 2,500, the lowest level since 2001, in advance of the potential full military withdrawal by May 2021 to which the United States committed in the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement. As part of that agreement, in return for the full withdrawal of international forces, the Taliban committed to preventing other groups, including Al Qaeda, from using Afghan soil to recruit, train, or fundraise toward activities that threaten the United States or its allies. The agreement is accompanied by text which, according to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, contains additional Taliban commitments, including to not attack U.S. or international forces. U.S. officials contend that the Taliban have not fulfilled their commitments, and describe the prospective U.S. withdrawal as “conditions-based,” but have not specified exactly what conditions might halt, reverse, or otherwise alter the withdrawal timeline laid out in the agreement.

Afghan government representatives were not participants in U.S.-Taliban talks, leading some observers to conclude that the United States would prioritize a military withdrawal over a complex political settlement that preserves some of the social, political, and humanitarian gains made since 2001. After months of delays, on September 12, 2020, Afghan government and Taliban representatives officially met in Doha, Qatar, to begin their first direct peace negotiations toward such a settlement, a significant moment with potentially dramatic implications for the course of the ongoing Afghan conflict. Talks do not appear to have made progress and remain complicated by a number of factors, including high levels of violence.

In light of the approaching withdrawal deadline and the stalling of intra-Afghan talks, the United States appears to have intensified its efforts to broker an intra-Afghan agreement. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reportedly wrote to Afghan government officials in March 2021 to express “urgency” that they form a united front and participate in planned multilateral diplomatic efforts, including talks in Turkey in April 2021. The United States also reportedly produced a draft peace agreement to “jumpstart” negotiations that includes a variety of options, including the establishment of an interim “transitional” government, which Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has rejected. Observers speculate about what kind of political arrangement, if any, could satisfy both the elected Afghan government and the Taliban to the extent that the latter fully abandons armed struggle. Future political arrangements and/or changes in the security environment may in turn influence U.S. policymakers’ consideration of future levels and conditions of development assistance. Given the outsized role that U.S. support plays in bolstering the Afghan government, many experts warn that a full-scale U.S. withdrawal and/or aid cutoff could lead to its collapse and perhaps even to the reestablishment of formal Taliban rule over some or all of the country.

By many measures, the Taliban are in a stronger military position now than at any point since 2001, though many once-public metrics related to the conduct of the war have been classified or are no longer produced. Some Afghan officials reportedly suspect the Taliban of remaining in negotiations long enough to secure a full U.S. withdrawal, after which the Taliban would capitalize on their advantage on the battlefield to seize control of the country by force.

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