WASHINGTON — As President Biden signaled this week that he would let a May 1 deadline pass without withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan, some officials are using an intelligence assessment to argue for prolonging the military mission there.
American intelligence agencies have told the Biden administration that if U.S. troops leave before a power-sharing settlement is reached between the Taliban and the Afghan government, the country could fall largely under the control of the Taliban within two or three years after the withdrawal of international forces. That could potentially open the door for Al Qaeda to rebuild its strength within the country, according to American officials.
The classified assessment, first prepared last year for the Trump administration but not previously disclosed, is the latest in a series of grim predictions of Afghanistan’s future that intelligence analysts have delivered throughout the two-decade-long war.
But the intelligence has landed in a changed political environment. While President Donald J. Trump pushed for a withdrawal of all forces even before the terms of the peace deal required it, Mr. Biden has been more cautious, saying Thursday that he does not view May 1 as a deadline he must meet, although he also said he “could not picture” troops being in the country next year.
has been said to have privately described as haunting the possibility of allowing the country to descend into collapse.
Some senior Biden administration officials have expressed skepticism of any intelligence prediction of a resurgence of a weakened Al Qaeda or of the Islamic State. Taliban commanders remain opposed to the Islamic State in Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda, which has little current presence in the country, could regroup instead in any number of other lawless regions around the world.
Also left unanswered by the intelligence warning is the question of whether Afghanistan could really prosper if American troops remain indefinitely. Their presence would most likely prevent a collapse of the nation’s own security forces and allow the government in Kabul, the Afghan capital, to retain control of its major cities, but the Taliban are still likely to gradually expand their power in other parts of the country, including curbing the rights of women.
A Taliban spokesman said on Friday that the group was committed to last year’s peace agreement “and wants the American side to also remain firmly committed.” If troops are not withdrawn by May 1, the spokesman promised, the Taliban would “continue its jihad and armed struggle against foreign forces.”
Biden administration officials insisted no final decision had been made. Nevertheless, with the deadline looming, administration officials are jockeying to influence Mr. Biden and his top national security officials. While Lloyd J. Austin III, the secretary of defense, has not signaled what course of action he prefers, some Pentagon officials who believe American forces should stay longer have pointed to the intelligence assessment predicting a Taliban takeover of the country.
approximately 3,500 American troops who remain, whether it is May 1 or at the end of the year, will doom the mission. The only way to preserve hard-fought gains in Afghanistan, they said, is to keep the small American presence there long enough to force a lasting deal between the Taliban and Afghan government.
These officials have used the intelligence assessment to make the point that a withdrawal this year will lead to a fall of the current government, a sharp erosion of women’s rights and the return of international terrorist groups. A rush to the exit, some officials said, will only drag the United States back into Afghanistan soon after leaving — much as was the case in Iraq in 2014, three years after the Obama administration pulled troops out of that conflict.
The White House has held a series of meetings on Afghanistan, and more are to come. On Thursday, the president said he was waiting for briefings from Mr. Austin, who met recently with Afghan officials, and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, who conferred this week with NATO allies, for their bottom-line advice on what he should do.
For many Biden administration officials, the issue that has resonated the most clearly is the threat that a Taliban takeover could pose to Afghan women. While some former intelligence officials predict the Taliban will initially take care not to roll back women’s rights altogether — at least in major cities — if they take over the entire country, it will be difficult to guarantee protections for women, such as education for girls and access to health care.
“Any agreement must preserve their gains if Afghanistan wants to ensure the international community’s continued political and financial support,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the Security Council this week. “We will not give an inch on this point.”