There are no easy options on the table for Afghanistan. The entry of the Taliban into the Afghan political system poses an existential challenge for the Afghan government, in that it would fundamentally and irreversibly alter the nature of the state, entrench the Taliban in Afghanistan, and cement Pakistan’s influence over its neighbour, a sovereign state.

The current peace process is skewed in favour of the Taliban, and it is in their interest to remain engaged until April 2021 to ensure the US meets the withdrawal obligations outlined in the Doha agreement. President Ghani’s negotiating team would want the Taliban to recognise the administration, accept the 2004 constitution, uphold the social, political and economic gains of the past two decades, protect women’s rights, declare a ceasefire, and participate in government through national elections – all of which is wishful thinking.

In the end, the intra-Afghan talks will become less relevant as events on the ground overtake the negotiating positions of either party. By that time, it will be too late to rescue an overwhelmed partner.

So what can allies do as a “Plan B” to safeguard Afghanistan?

Contingency planning needs to focus on reassuring Kabul that it is worth protecting, which should involve certain steps. First, freeze the implementation of the US-Taliban peace deal, because the Taliban have proved unwilling to meet their sole obligation – namely, to sever ties with terrorist organisations.

A serious breakdown of the state could result in a protracted civil war that would nullify all the gains of the past two decades, which cost tens of thousands of military and civilian lives and hundreds of billions of dollars to achieve.

As I have written elsewhere, suspending talks has precedent, including by President Trump when he refused to sign a bad deal and walked out of talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un; and more recently in September 2019, when he aborted an earlier phase of negotiation with the Taliban. The Taliban also previously suspended talks with the US in 2012 over the issue of prisoner releases.

Second, revisit the Doha agreement after the US elections in November, because a peace deal that was rushed into place for electoral advantage is doomed to fail. Whoever wins the US presidential election will have a fresh mandate to redraw it, should they see value in Afghanistan beyond their personal electoral benefits.

Third, sustain international military pressure on the Taliban and maintain a residual force that can impose significant costs, because the Taliban have only ratcheted up their attacks. A peace agreement lacking the means to impose costs on the Taliban for noncompliance is meaningless and only serves to embolden them.

What are the likely strategic costs if the US exits Afghanistan, as per the Doha deal?

First, the flow-on effect of an American withdrawal will likely energise radical Islamist terrorist groups in Afghanistan, the region and more broadly around the globe. Such terrorist organisations would view the US exit as another defeat of a superpower in Afghanistan, convinced it was their strident ideology and brand of religion that delivered the capitulation.

The consequences of this lesson for violent terrorist groups could play out with disastrous consequences for generations, including fuelling far-right groups.

Second, an American exit is highly likely to trigger a mass refugee exodus, wherein millions of Afghans, fearful for their safety, will flee – not to Central Asia or Iran, but to Europe.

Third, a serious breakdown of the state could result in a protracted civil war that would nullify all the gains of the past two decades, which cost tens of thousands of military and civilian lives and hundreds of billions of dollars to achieve.

If the US exits and removes its political, military and financial support, Afghanistan will remain, but its 40-year war will continue until the Taliban have taken over completely or have been defeated. No external power is likely to intervene in Afghanistan unless they are compelled by major events to do so. It is not worth losing everything that has been won to a terrorist organisation that is likely to strike back one day in the name of self-defence.