WASHINGTON – As President Biden pointed out this week that he would let the May 1 deadline pass without withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan, some officials are using an intelligence assessment to defend the extension of the military mission there.
US intelligence agencies have told the Biden administration that if US troops leave before a power-sharing agreement is reached between the Taliban and the Afghan government, the country could largely fall under the control of the Afghan government. the Taliban within two to three years after the withdrawal of international governments. cash. That could potentially open the door for al Qaeda to rebuild its strength within the country, according to US officials.
The classified assessment, first prepared last year for the Trump administration but previously undisclosed, is the latest in a series of grim predictions about the future of Afghanistan that intelligence analysts have delivered throughout the two-decade war. .
But the intelligence has landed in a changed political environment. While President Donald J. Trump pushed for all forces to be withdrawn even before the terms of the peace deal required it, Biden has been more cautious, saying Thursday that he does not see May 1 as a deadline that must comply, although yes He also said that “he could not imagine” the troops in the country next year.
The decision is shaping up to be one of the most critical of Biden’s young presidency. While he was vice president, he long advocated a minimal presence in Afghanistan, but has been said to have privately described the prospect of allowing the country to collapse as disturbing.
Some senior officials in the Biden administration have expressed skepticism of any intelligence prediction of a resurgence of a weakened al Qaeda or the Islamic State. Taliban commanders continue to oppose the Islamic State in Afghanistan, and al Qaeda, which currently has little presence in the country, could regroup in other lawless regions of the world.
The intelligence warning also left unanswered the question of whether Afghanistan could really prosper if US troops remain indefinitely. Their presence would likely prevent a collapse of the nation’s own security forces and allow the government of Kabul, the Afghan capital, to retain control of its main cities, but the Taliban will likely continue to gradually expand their power in other parts of the country. . , including the limitation of women’s rights.
A Taliban spokesman said on Friday that the group was committed to last year’s peace deal “and wants the US side to remain firmly committed as well.” If the troops do not withdraw before May 1, the spokesman promised, the Taliban “will continue their jihad and their armed struggle against foreign forces.”
Officials in the Biden administration insisted that no final decision had been made. However, with the deadline looming, administration officials are racing to influence Biden and his top national security officials. While Lloyd J. Austin III, the defense secretary, has not indicated which course of action he prefers, some Pentagon officials who believe US forces should stay longer have pointed to the intelligence assessment predicting a takeover of the country. by the Taliban.
Some military commanders and administration officials have argued that any date set for withdrawing the roughly 3,500 remaining US troops, either May 1 or at the end of the year, will doom the mission. The only way to preserve the gains made in Afghanistan, they said, is to maintain the small American presence there long enough to force a lasting agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
These officials have used the intelligence assessment to point out that a withdrawal this year will lead to the fall of the current government, a sharp erosion of women’s rights and the return of international terrorist groups. A rush to exit, some officials said, will only drag the United States back to Afghanistan shortly after leaving, just as was the case in Iraq in 2014, three years after the Obama administration withdrew troops from that conflict.
The White House has held a series of meetings on Afghanistan, and there will be more to come. On Thursday, the president said he was looking forward to briefings from Mr. Austin, who recently met with Afghan officials, and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, who met this week with NATO allies, for their advice. basics of what you should do. do.
For many officials in the Biden administration, the theme that has resonated most clearly is the threat that a Taliban takeover could pose to Afghan women. While some former intelligence officials predict that the Taliban will initially be careful not to completely reverse women’s rights, at least in major cities, if they take over the entire country, it will be difficult to secure protections for women, such as the education for girls and women. access to healthcare.
“Any agreement must preserve its achievements if Afghanistan is to secure the continued political and financial support of the international community,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US ambassador to the United Nations, told the Security Council this week. “We won’t give an inch at this point.”
The Biden administration is making a final effort before May 1 to show progress in the slow negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Doha, Qatar. The Taliban, according to US officials, are stagnating.
The administration is pressuring the two sides to participate in a peace conference in Turkey to demonstrate progress. Simultaneously, US and Taliban negotiators continue to try to cement a 90-day reduction in violence, but so far, both sides have been hesitant to agree.
The classified intelligence assessment that the Taliban take control largely assumes that the Afghan government and the Taliban failed to reach a political agreement and that a civil war would break out after the American exit.
Administration officials cautioned that making any intelligence estimate is challenging, that predictions about the future are always imprecise, and that several factors influence the analysis.
For example, intelligence estimates depend on whether international funding for the Afghan government is maintained. The more money the United States and its allies provide to Afghanistan, the longer the Kabul government can retain control of part of the country. But some officials said history shows that once US troops are withdrawn, Congress moves quickly to cut financial support for partner forces.
There is also a debate in Washington about the seriousness of the threat of the return of terrorist groups. For now, the number of Qaeda and Islamic State militants in Afghanistan is very small, a senior US official said.
Some high-level lawmakers with access to classified assessments said it was not certain that if the United States withdrew, Al Qaeda would be able to rebuild a base in Afghanistan from which to carry out terrorist attacks against the United States.
“What will that threat really be?” Representative Adam Smith, a Washington State Democrat and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said this week during a virtual conference call on Afghanistan. “We are not in the 1990s, when Al Qaeda set up camps, they had the Taliban and nobody was paying attention to them.”
Smith said keeping American troops in Afghanistan actually increased the risk to Americans there, incurred higher financial costs, and delivered a propaganda victory and recruiting tool to America’s enemies.
Some counterterrorism officials believe that al Qaeda would prefer to reestablish its headquarters in Afghanistan, should US troops withdraw. But other officials said al Qaeda’s leadership is likely to look to Africa or the Middle East.
While US intelligence officials have focused primarily on the al Qaeda threat, senior military officials have also raised the possibility of a rise in power by the Afghan arm of the Islamic State.
But in recent years, the Taliban have been at odds with the Islamic State. The two groups have fought and, for the most part, the Taliban have pushed back Islamic State forces.
“I cannot imagine a scenario in which ISIS and the Taliban would cooperate or collaborate strategically in Afghanistan,” said Lisa Maddox, a former CIA analyst. “The Taliban are an ideological organization, and that ideology is centered on Afghanistan and not aligned with the overall goals of ISIS.”
The intelligence estimate predicted that the Taliban would expand their control over Afghanistan relatively quickly, suggesting that the Afghan security forces remain fragile despite years of training by the US military and billions of dollars in US funding.
Last year’s offensives in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, two areas in the south of the country where the Taliban have long dominated, demonstrated that the police and local forces are unable to hold their ground, prompting commando forces elite and regular army troops will take their place: a tactic that is likely to be unsustainable in the long run.
Afghan security forces still rely heavily on US air support to hold territory, which US military leaders acknowledged this week. It is unclear whether that US air power would continue if US forces left Afghanistan, perhaps launched from bases in the Persian Gulf, although the Pentagon has worked out such options for the White House.
“The capabilities that the United States offers for Afghans to combat the Taliban and other threats residing in Afghanistan are critical to its success,” Gen. Richard D. Clarke, head of the Special Operations Command, told the Senate on Thursday. .
Julian E. Barnes and Eric schmitt reported from Washington, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Kabul, Afghanistan. Najim Rahim contributed reporting from Kabul.