The year 2021 is the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of the US war in Afghanistan and marks a critical juncture for the country. President Joe Biden entered the Oval Office on January 20, and less than 100 days remain before May 1, 2021, the deadline for the US troops’ withdrawal according to the Doha agreement signed in February 2020 between the US and the Taliban. The Biden/Harris administration has a short time to decide whether to adhere to, revoke or renegotiate the terms of that deal. Its options, however, are deeply shaped by their predecessor’s legacy.
Trump’s Bequest to US Afghan Policy
Prior to and during the 2020 US presidential campaign, Donald Trump had been able to rightfully claim notable diplomatic achievements in Afghanistan. The ”multi-faceted” 2017 ”Strategy for South Asia” negotiated by the president’s advisers – and, above all, by former Defence Secretary James Mattis – had borne the desired results.
First, within two years, the ‘”US-Taliban negotiations” led to the above-mentioned agreement, which includes four main points: US troop withdrawal, Taliban counter-terrorist guarantees, a comprehensive ceasefire, and a political roadmap. Second, two rounds of ”Intra-Afghan talks” were held in Qatar in September 2020 and at the beginning of January 2021. So far, the two warring sides – the Taliban and the “negotiating team of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” (IRoA team) – have agreed on a three-page set of procedures for the talks, but they have yet to settle on an agenda for them.
However, Trump’s policy on Afghanistan – based on the concession to sit bilaterally with the Taliban without the Afghan government present, to push the latter to abandon the principle of ”reciprocal concessions” and release Taliban prisoners – shifted the balance of leverage of the Intra-Afghan talks. As Thomas Ruttig and Ali Yawar Adili note in one of our contributions, the Doha agreement “does not provide for any direct role of the Afghan government in future intra-Afghan talks to end the war”. Fragile and deeply divided, the “republican front” has come to the peace negotiations in relative weakness, while the Taliban – as Antonio Giustozzi writes – “were successful in kickstarting intra-Afghan talks on their terms”.
Furthermore, Donald Trump’s order on 17 November 2020 to cut by January 2021 the number of US troops from 4,500 to 2,500 – part of his effort to increase his political capital with American voters – has undermined a crucial node of the Doha Agreement: the withdrawal linkage to the Taliban’s fulfilment of their Doha commitments. Thus, Trump’s manoeuvrings and “electoral hunger” make the US path forward in Afghanistan particularly narrow. The Biden/Harris administration has little latitude and a limited spectrum of options available.
Biden’s emphasis on Asian security has been well-exemplified by the nomination of Jacob Sullivan as his National Security Adviser. When working with then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from 2013 to 2014, in fact, Sullivan was among the proponents of the well-known ”Pivot to Asia”’, together with Kurt Campbell, who will also join Biden’s team as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
The crucial issue for Biden and his advisers will certainly be to pick up from where the Afghanistan’s peace process had been left off and try to ensure that a gradual end of the hostilities is achieved, despite the numerous issues raised by Trump’s “electoral frenzy”. The stakes are high, the challenges huge.
The Biden administration is unlikely to reverse the withdrawal of US forces or depart radically from the Trump administration’s plan, but it’s “expected to re-emphasise the need for a ‘responsible withdrawal’”.
On January, 22, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan “made clear the United States’ intention to review the February 2020 US-Taliban agreement, including to assess whether the Taliban was living up to its commitments to cut ties with terrorist groups, to reduce violence in Afghanistan, and to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government and other stakeholders”.
The Biden administration might attempt to buy some time, revisiting the withdrawal timeline with the Taliban. In yet another contribution to the dossier, Barnett Rubin recommends a specific option: postponing the deadline while keeping the peace process alive. “A six-month postponement of the withdrawal deadline could resynchronize the timeline without giving the impression that the US will renege on the agreement to withdraw all troops”. A crucial component of this option would be a renewed emphasis on the regional context.
The regional context
Biden should now build on the foundations laid by US envoy Zhalmay Khalilzad, especially by advancing the dialogue with Pakistan, the Taliban’s most active regional supporter. In light of the ”special relation” between China and Pakistan, moreover, taking steps towards some normalization of relations with China could eventually be beneficial to Afghanistan and South Asia as a whole.
The role of the region in the intra-Afghan dialogue is considerable, but “the influences of regional states should not be overstated”, Michael Kugelman warns: “No regional player —not even Pakistan — can wield the type of leverage over the Taliban that the Taliban wields over the peace process”. And no regional player may convince the Taliban to renounce using violence to obtain favourable political outcomes. This is why, from a domestic perspective, the near future appears alarming.
The domestic outlook
According to the quick overview of the situation since February 2020 provided by Orzala Nemat, “the Afghan peace process so far did not result in a tangible way with outcomes that serve the average Afghan in terms of better security”. “The human toll exacted by the war in Afghanistan since 2001 has been terrible”, Astri Suhrke writes in her contribution, and continues to be so, according to the latest releases of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. The country’s humanitarian needs are growing, while the economy is shrinking, together with donors’ financial help, as shown during the recent Geneva conference.
Civil society groups are advocating transparency, accountability and the inclusion of “war victims and also women as peace builders, mediators and members of the negotiating team” (Nemat), but the “wheels of justice have been grinding at a slow pace” in the past (Suhrke) and it will continue to be so in the foreseeable future: “Pursuing perpetrators of war crimes allegedly committed by the negotiating parties will at best complicate already difficult talks”, Suhkre states.
However, if the claims for justice are going to be left completely unaddressed, this will create a substantial weakness to any hypothetical political settlement between the current Afghan “republicans” and the Taliban, jeopardising its durability.