Afghan Study Group advocates Biden to delay US withdrawal

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WASHINGNTON: The Afghanistan Study Group, a US congressionally mandated panel on Wednesday advocated the Biden administration to extend the impending deadline of a full US withdrawal from Afghanistan by May, reported The Hill.

As per the Group, the Taliban has not met conditions that would warrant a full US withdrawal from Kabul and recommended Biden administration to refocus on the conditions of the withdrawal as agreed to last year and work to extend the impending deadline.

The Group “believes that it will be very difficult, and perhaps impossible, for those conditions to be achieved by May 2021, when the agreement states that troops should be withdrawn,” said the report.

U.S. President Joe Biden

“Achieving the overall objective of a negotiated stable peace that meets US interests would need to begin with securing an extension of the May deadline,” the report continued, adding that “the United States must elevate the importance of the conditions allowing the withdrawal of US troops.” 

The 15-member panel was created by Congress in 2019 amid the Trump administration’s negotiations with the Taliban. But the release of the group’s final report comes as the new Biden administration is crafting its Afghanistan strategy.

Speaking to reporters ahead of the report’s release, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff retired Gen Joseph Dunford, whose tenure as the nation’s top general spanned both the Obama and Trump administrations said, “We think that right now the focus ought to be on taking advantage, to the extent possible, the Afghan peace negotiation and setting the conditions for a pathway for the Afghans eventually to come up with a construct where they can address the political extremes of the Taliban and the Afghan government.”

As per the Trump administration’s agreement with the Taliban, a full US military withdrawal from Afghanistan by May was agreed upon if the Taliban uphold commitments including breaking ties with Al Qaeda.

However, the US military officials have repeatedly said that the Taliban had not yet broken with Al Qaeda and condemned increased attacks on Afghan forces. Meanwhile, peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Doha have been halting, at best. 

But, former President Trump five days before leaving the office hit the goal of dropping 2,500 troops,  the lowest level of US troops in Afghanistan since 2001, reported The Hill.

The group briefed Biden administration officials on the report starting during the transition in December and going until as recently as Monday, Dunford said. He said he thinks the administration found the report “helpful” since it will quickly have to make a decision about the May deadline, as well as plan for a NATO defence ministerial in mid-February where allies are expected to press for a decision.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon did not respond directly to the report, but pointed to recent statements from administration officials that “prudent reviews of the US-Taliban agreement are occurring across the interagency,” reported The Hill.

Since taking office, Biden administration officials, including national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have said they are reviewing the agreement to see if the Taliban has met its commitments, while Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said the Taliban has not yet upheld its end of the deal and suggested the withdrawal could be delayed if that does not change.

Furthermore, the Taliban has largely refrained from attacks on U.S. and NATO forces since signing the withdrawal agreement last year, though it has shelled some bases with US forces a couple of times. It has vowed to renew attacks if foreign forces do not leave by May, reported The Hill.

Dunford acknowledged there is “not a simple answer” on how the Biden administration should extend the May deadline given the Taliban’s threats.

While the report recommends pushing back the full withdrawal, it also lays out alternative scenarios and assesses their risks.

For example, a “calculated military withdrawal” where the U.S. military leaves but the U.S. government still tries to influence the situation in Afghanistan with an embassy presence and actors inside and outside the country has “obvious” drawbacks, the report said, including that the “the United States is highly unlikely to meet even a minimal definition of its interests, and Afghanistan is highly likely to fall into chaos.” Still, the report acknowledged that while that approach is an “inadvisable choice,” circumstances “could compel” the United States to pursue that path, reported The Hill. (ANI)