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Biden’s Afghan policy


March 16, 2021

US President Joe Biden has yet to come out with a comprehensive future policy regarding Afghanistan – how to handle the post-deal situation.

Based on Biden’s past speeches and approach towards Afghanistan, one can say that under his leadership, the US is not going to abandon Afghanistan all out. The Biden Administration will review the US–Taliban withdrawal deal. Nato in its meeting on Afghanistan has also postponed the decision on withdrawal. It is hard to predict a government’s policy and strategy, but it can be deducted from various readings that the Biden Administration may support the Doha peace deal but may postpone the troops’ withdrawal if the parties do not reach an agreement. A review of the deal/withdrawal will include consultations with the European Union and Nato allies and will have repercussions if the Taliban are not taken on board.

Biden desires a safe and secure exit of the US and the resolution of the Afghan imbroglio through a negotiated settlement including all parties. Therefore, it seems unlikely that his administration will entirely reverse the commitment to withdrawal of US forces unilaterally. It has been suggested by some US analysts that America and its allies must also pressurize the incumbent Kabul regime to reach a settlement. So the Kabul regime and the Taliban will and must face some pressure to make compromises.

The Trump administration’s peace deal has been criticized for the unilateral concessions to the Taliban. And Trump’s tweets of troops’ withdrawal by the end of 2020 weakened the Afghanistan government's position and emboldened the Taliban. The difficulty with the US-Afghan government stance is the reduction in violence/war from the Taliban, no progress on new political setup, removing sanctions from the Taliban and release of remaining Taliban prisoners linked with the start of intra-Afghan negotiations as per the deal. The Taliban have been joined by 5000 released prisoners and the emboldened Taliban may topple the Afghan government. Reconciling Afghans factions is further complicated by internal and external dynamics.

Any unilateral decision regarding the agreement without the consent of the Taliban may further weaken the US/Nato’s already weakened position in Afghanistan. The complexity comes in if troops withdraw without reaching any consensus on political settlement and Afghanistan moves towards a civil war like situation. This ultimately takes the shape of a war between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns. The Afghanistan Study Group has also painted a bleak picture of Afghanistan if the remaining US troops withdraw without a negotiated political settlement.

The Congressional mandate Afghan Study Group proposed support to the Afghan government but also pointed out that US forces can’t be held hostage to the ineffective, corrupt and divided Afghan government. There will be pressure on the Afghan government to make compromises. There will at the same time be pressure on the Taliban to make compromises.

It seems that the US has limited options other than working on and keeping alive the current peace process to culminate in a logical conclusion. It is most probable that the US new administration talks to the Taliban reviewing the deal, particularly withdrawal, seeks a six-month extension for sorting out the political roadmap/interim setup including the Taliban representatives and negotiating other modalities. If such negotiations on extended withdrawal succeed, all the parties will have more time to conclude the peace process. This may lead to an inclusive broad-based government of all ethnic/political groups.

In this case, pressure will be mounted on the Afghan government and the Taliban for making compromises, provided that all other peace processes such as the Moscow Format and Quad remain supportive of the current peace process and the US withdraws within the renegotiated timeline. Pakistan will have to play a constructive role in this. Afghanistan’s neighbors will still need to be on board. It will elevate Pakistan’s stature regionally and globally and will also pave the way for Pakistan’s integration with Central Asia and enhanced regional connectivity. International donors will also have to support Afghanistan financially for many years to come.

An ideal scenario is still possible: both the parties are pressurized to make compromises; the negotiations accelerate with all the parties fulfilling their obligations according to the deal signed. The Afghan government agrees to a new political roadmap/setup and releases Taliban prisoners while the Taliban agree to reduction/end of violence and become part of the new setup. In this case, the US will have to withdraw by May 2021 according to the deal. The immediate neighbors of Afghanistan will have to support the new setup with increased interaction and financial, trade facilitation as per their capacities. This will lead to a win-win situation for all the regional states including Pakistan.

If the negotiations break down, the following scenarios may emerge. First, the US withdraws unilaterally, and Afghanistan sinks into chaos because the Taliban alone cannot control the whole of Afghanistan. Different regional states will support different groups based on ethnicity or political interests. The instability will have cross-border negative consequences for Pakistan. Pakistan can do little in this case as huge financial resources will be required to sustain any support for any political group in Afghanistan. This may lead to lack of confidence and suspicions among neighbors of Afghanistan also which will be detrimental for national and regional inclusive growth.

The second scenario can be that the US stays militarily with renewed Taliban opposition and the status quo remains for the unseeable future. In either case, instability will prevail. So the Afghan endgame will be protracted; however, the peace process must be alive because the only way forward for sustainable peace in Afghanistan is through a negotiated political settlement.

Pakistan has been playing a constructive role but it must be realized that Pakistan also has limitations which must be clarified to the US and other regional and non-regional states. That will be helpful in removing doubts regarding Pakistan and its role. It is up to the Afghans to decide the kind of future political setup, and Pakistan cannot take any position on this.

The writer is director of the Area Study Centre (Russia, China & Central Asia) at the University of Peshawar.