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Friday November 26, 2021

Biden’s straight talk to Afghan leaders

July 11, 2021

President Joe Biden’s speech on July 8 drew some clear lines. This sounded like a “denounce, dump and departure declaration'' at best. The usual media fodder centered on ending America’s longest war, the need to stop sending yet another generation to war in a country that has never been united, and the like. But crucially, the hard-hitting speech, that might have come as a thunderbolt to many Afghans, carried some key takeaways.

Biden denounced the idea of nation-building in Afghanistan, a notion that had accompanied the war for its entire length since October 2001.

“We achieved those objectives, that’s why we went. We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build. And it’s the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country,” he said.

Biden also emphatically refused to accept responsibility for the looming civil war resulting from the withdrawal.

“No, no, no. It’s up to the people of Afghanistan to decide on what government they want, not us to impose the government on them. No country has ever been able to do that. Keep in mind, as a student of history, as I’m sure you are, never has Afghanistan been a united country, not in all of its history. Not in all of its history.”

Biden made it clear that bringing peace to Afghanistan is the sole responsibility of the Afghans, the government shall have to find a way as to how to deal with the Taliban.

“The only way there’s going to be peace and security in Afghanistan is if they work out a modus vivendi with the Taliban...And the likelihood there’s going to be one unified government in Afghanistan controlling the whole country is highly unlikely.”

As Biden conceded, the Taliban are at their strongest, reflected in (and a result of) the ground realities. In the past quarter, they have made considerable gains, securing areas close to borders with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, as well as capturing key outposts, districts, caches of weapons and vehicles, and forced the surrender of thousands of Afghan military personnel.

In fact, during their visit to Moscow on July 9, Taliban went to the extent of claiming they control almost 80 per cent of the Afghan territory.

The trigger for the Taliban advances is the simple fact that the Trump administration entered into a peace agreement with the militia in February 2020 at Doha thereby legitimizing the Taliban, and the Biden administration embraced that deal in the name of national security imperatives.

Do Biden’s words imply an indirect endorsement of Taliban victories in various parts of Afghanistan, and a message to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that his dream of consolidated absolute power is in vain? What of the $3.3 billion promised to Kabul, which may inevitably be used to fuel anti-Taliban militias, and artificially drag out the conflict? To add to the growing influence of the Taliban, regional actors such as Russia, China, and Iran are also welcoming Taliban delegations into their capitals.

Speaking of the peace agreement, the US had to honor the Doha deal with the Taliban. The Taliban stopped attacking US interests after the deal, and had the troops not been pulled out, the attacks would have restarted, Biden said, implying the national interest demanded to honour the commitments with Taliban.

“The status quo was not an option. Staying would have meant US troops taking casualties; American men and women back in the middle of a civil war. And we would have run the risk of having to send more troops back into Afghanistan to defend our remaining troops,” the president said, adding I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome.”

Biden’s most important message to the context of terrorism must have been frustrating for all those war lobbyists who favored continued presence of US troops.

“Today, the terrorist threat has metastasized beyond Afghanistan. So, we are repositioning our resources and adapting our counterterrorism posture to meet the threats where they are now significantly higher: in South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.”

Biden thus left no doubt whatsoever that he no longer sees Afghanistan as a hub of Al-Qaeda-centered terrorism - taking a lot of currency away from the proponents of “stay on”. Their argument: at least 20 Al-Qaeda/ ISIS-aligned terror groups are still operating in Afghanistan. But Biden cared less, it seems, and threw the ball in the court of Ghani, urging him to find an inclusive political solution for his country, instead of dragging heels.

“The Afghan government and leadership have to come together. They clearly have the capacity to sustain the government in place. The question is: Will they generate the kind of cohesion to do it? I believe the only way there’s going to be - this is now Joe Biden, not the intelligence community - the only way there’s ultimately going to be peace and security in Afghanistan is that they work out a modus vivendi with the Taliban and they make a judgment as to how they can make peace.”

Will the Afghan security forces implode in the face of mounting Taliban pressure? Or stay united and resilient? If they do, this would probably herald a new wave of hostilities, a new protracted civil war born out of geo-politics.

This is because the only regional exclusion to the peace process is India. It has been openly opposed to the Taliban (often referred to as terrorists) and a big supporter of the Kabul government. Of late, foreign minister Jayshankar reportedly reached out to various Afghan and Kabul stakeholders but that hardly changes the geo-political nature of the Indian intervention. And If the Indo-Afghan cooperation intensifies after the US pullout, Afghanistan is likely to plunge in a new civil war, with more bloodshed and instability.

The onus for preventing this clearly rests on all Afghan leaders, as President Biden underscored. And it makes sense if we keep Biden’s China-focus as well as the G-7 response to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), i.e., Build Back Better World (B3W). Both Pakistan and Iran are likely to soon feel the heat of the new cold war, it seems.