Afghanistan is not high on President Joe Biden’s list of priorities, given the number of domestic and foreign crises. But the upcoming deadline for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops, part of an agreement reached last year between the Taliban and the Trump administration, will force a decision that could define his presidency – and the legacy of 20 years America at war .
Given Biden’s promise to end the so-called “forever wars”, the question is not whether he will withdraw troops. Rather, it is how he can do it in a way that preserves some of the gains made in Afghanistan and ensures that decades of American sacrifices have not been in vain. The problem is that Washington is stuck between two unpopular movements. The Taliban, who spent the past year on a rampage, are nationally despised, with approval ratings in the single-digit range. But the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is also extremely unpopular. Most Afghans and US officials agree that the Taliban’s ability to continue the insurgency is largely due to Ghani’s poor leadership – and he has shown little interest in a lasting peace deal that could put him out of power.
The biggest short-term obstacle for the Biden team could be the inheritance of the Doha Accords, the 2020 peace deal called for by former President Donald Trump and negotiated by the (then and still) US envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad. It was a well-intentioned but deeply flawed effort to end America’s two-decade presence in the country. Under pressure from Trump to withdraw US troops quickly, Khalilzad was unable to obtain guarantees of human rights, democracy or the protection of women’s rights. The agreement does not provide for a ceasefire or an express promise by the Taliban to end the violence. In their view, the Taliban are still at war in Afghanistan and have only committed themselves to negotiating both within the framework of an intra-Afghan peace agreement. The unilateral agreement was viewed as bad faith by the Afghan people and rightly convinced the Taliban that the United States was headed for an exit. This perceived victory over the US occupation has given them the confidence to stand firm in their negotiations with Afghan groups.
Biden’s national security team is particularly skeptical about the deal, and nobody is happier than Ghani. The US’s new National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, told his Afghan counterpart in one of his first appeals that the government is “taking a close look” at whether the Taliban are meeting their commitments under the agreement. The Taliban have (for the most part) stopped attacking US forces. However, the Inspector General of the Defense Ministry for Afghanistan noted this week that the levels of insurgent and extremist violence, including a spate of high-profile attacks on Afghan officials, have continued and that the Taliban have not yet severed ties with al-Qaeda as they had promised .
To get the Taliban to do their part of the business, Khalilzad must send the Taliban a clear message – at the negotiating table and on the battlefield – that US forces will not leave until the insurgents deliver. The message could be simple: the fastest way to get US forces out for good is to close the deal.
But this message shouldn’t be for the Taliban only. Washington must also warn Ghani, who fears that an intra-Afghan deal could mean the end of his presidency, that the destruction of the peace process will not be tolerated. Ghani’s fiddling goes beyond his efforts to obstruct the peace deal. In a 2016 profile, George Packer – a pensive chronicler of Afghanistan – described Ghani as a “visionary technocrat” who literally co-wrote the book Fixing Failed States, but whose elitism and lack of political skills prevented him from governing.
After alienating every possible constituency – parliament, the warlords and the country’s non-Pashtun political establishment – Ghani surrounds himself with a number of close advisers, including National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib and Vice President Amrullah Saleh. To escape his notorious temperament, they protect Ghani from the country’s violence. His trust in hand-picked community leaders, who paint a rosy picture of rural politics, ensures he has little idea of what is going on outside the palace gates in Afghanistan. Corruption in the executive branch is higher than ever, and the palace benefits from major military treaties. And the constant meddling of Ghani and his inner circle in the appointment of security personnel, replacing young, bright, US-trained commanders with incompetent loyalists with little military experience, has undermined the trust of the people and security forces.
So what can the United States do?
The Afghan army, particularly the US-trained elite special forces, has effectively driven out the Taliban and most other terrorist groups and is a respected institution among Afghans. Not only must Washington reaffirm its commitment to funding and logistical support, it must also seek to protect Afghan security personnel from corruption and political abuse.
And possibly a little more leverage than the $ 4 billion per year safety aids. Retired U.S. military commanders like Joseph Dunford, the former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff whose Afghanistan study group is due to make recommendations this week, believe the United States should remain with at least one remaining force until the Afghans reach a political settlement. Or, others have argued even longer: Most military experts agree that a small number of U.S. counter-terrorism forces will be required to maintain maximum pressure on the Taliban and other armed groups in Afghanistan and neighbors like Pakistan and Iran given the long-term situation Afghanistan’s control of strategic centrality for the United States.
In theory, Dunford’s idea makes sense, but it would likely deter both sides from closing a deal. Thanks to their victories in Doha and their dynamism on the battlefield, the Taliban remain confident that they can wait and see Washington and have little incentive to compromise. Ghani, who sees a peace deal as an existential threat to his rule, will continue to put up roadblocks – one reason why calls for a transfer of power to a transitional government or a government that can negotiate a peace deal are getting louder and louder than a new constitution being written.
Even if the Biden team works to reassure Ghani that the United States is a reliable partner again, it must convince him to expand his ruling coalition. Washington shouldn’t be forced to stay in Afghanistan to shore up its weak government. If Ghani gets in the way, the United States could consider another Bonn forum where the Afghan political establishment and the Taliban agree on a government structure for the country’s future and new leadership that is acceptable to all parties.
Afghanistan’s continued need for US aid, as well as for billions in military training and assistance, will continue to provide leverage for the Biden administration – and this can be used to at least try to maintain a limited number of US troops and to ensure that basic human rights standards will be protected in a future constitution. Obviously, if they take on more responsibility in government, the Taliban will have a say in the country’s governance, including the role of religion – and are already seeking a return to the strict interpretation of Islam they imposed on the country a quarter of a century ago . But the Biden government, with whatever Afghan government it works with, must also let the Taliban accept that Afghanistan cannot and will not go back to the 1990s in the future.