When President-Elect Biden entered the Oval Office, only 100 days remained before May 1, 2021, which the Doha Agreement with the Taliban sets as the deadline for the U.S. to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan.
President Biden has said he prefers to withdraw all combat forces and leave only a small counter-terrorism force, but the Taliban will not agree to such a force, especially with the freedom of action and “Status of Forces Agreement” that the U.S. would seek. The Taliban would consider that as abrogating the Doha agreement. They would stop the peace talks with the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and go back to war against U.S. forces. An eventual political agreement between the Taliban and the Islamic Republic could provide for foreign advisers to the country’s future security forces, but a unilateral decision to retain troops in Afghanistan would end those negotiations.
The Taliban would then enjoy more international support than before. Russia, China and Pakistan support the Doha process, and Iran has not obstructed it, because the agreement commits the U.S. to withdrawing all troops. If the US unilaterally abrogates the agreement, these countries may support the Taliban’s fight for U.S. troop withdrawal. Russia would probably restart the Moscow Process that it launched in December 2016. In February 2019 Russia convened an intra-Afghan dialogue in Moscow including the Taliban and a broad group of Afghan powerholders, but in March Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov announced support for the U.S. effort. During a December 2019 visit to Moscow, however, I learned that Russia prepared to reconvene the Moscow Process. The Taliban and most Afghan political leaders would be likely to participate, along with the neighbors, further weakening the U.S. position.
The notional timeline in the agreement illustrates how the six-month delay could recalibrate the process. The agreement currently provides that:
- The U.S. troop withdrawal, accompanied by a U.S.-Taliban truce, must be completed by May 1, 2021.
- Taliban will not allow al-Qa’ida or others to use Afghan territory to attack the U.S. and allies but contains no timeline. Taliban say they will comply fully only when the U.S. fulfills its obligations, including the troop withdrawal.
- Intra-Afghan talks on a “future political roadmap for Afghanistan” were to start on March 10, 2020 but instead began on September 12, 2020.
- A ceasefire will be “announced along with the completion and agreement over the future political roadmap of Afghanistan,” for which there is no timeline.
- The above items are deemed “interrelated” and supposedly “each will be implemented in accordance with its own agreed timeline and agreed terms.” But those timelines either do not exist or are out of synchrony. The administration claims this provision supports its contention that the withdrawal is “conditions based,” but President Trump has disregarded that position, and the Taliban reject it.
- 5,000 Taliban prisoners of the Afghan government and up to 1,000 prisoners held by Taliban were to be released by March 10, 2020. The release of those prisoners was completed on September 3, 2020.
- When Intra-Afghan Negotiations (IAN) started, the US was to review Taliban names on the Rewards for Justice list with the goal of removing them by August 27, 2020.
- Upon the start of the IAN, the U.S. would start diplomatic engagement with the aim of lifting UN Security Council sanctions against Taliban by May 29, 2020.
A six-month postponement of the withdrawal deadline could resynchronize the timeline without giving the impression that the U.S. will renege on the agreement to withdraw all troops. For the Taliban and most of Afghanistan’s neighbors a unilaterally established residual force would be a deal breaker. It would also remove pressure on the Afghan government to negotiate.
Success in postponing the deadline while maintaining the peace process will require the support rather than opposition of China, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan. The Taliban will respond differently if the region is with rather than against the U.S.
The first step could be to win the support of U.S. allies at the NATO ministerial scheduled for February 12, 2021. Next the U.S. could convene the “troika plus,” a grouping including the U.S., Russia, and China plus Pakistan. Iran, while invited, has declined to join. The troika plus could issue a communique supporting the U.S. proposal while reaffirming the commitment to withdraw all troops. Iran’s position might change after the U.S. re-enters the JCPOA.
Such a postponement would increase chances of a settlement. The U.S. could use both the leverage of its remaining troops and revived diplomacy to build the regional consensus needed to either implement an agreement or manage its failure.