Flashpoints | Diplomacy | Security | South Asia

President Biden’s Afghanistan Challenge

The fate of the U.S.-Taliban deal hangs in the balance, while the peace process stalls. What will the Biden administration ultimately do about Afghanistan?

Daud Khattak
President Biden’s Afghanistan Challenge
Credit: Official White House Photo by Carlos Fyfe

President Joe Biden is the fourth American president to oversee the modern Afghan conflict. While his presidency has a long list of internal and external challenges and priorities, Biden’s Afghanistan challenge seems to be one of the most complex tasks given the fatigue surrounding the “endless” war, the treacherous nature of the insurgency, the divided and ineffective Afghan government, and the clash of interests with the United States’ allies in the region, Afghanistan’s neighbors. 

Under the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban deal, the U.S. forces should withdraw from Afghanistan by May 2021, while the Taliban have to provide security guarantees, cease support of al-Qaida, and deny safe haven to foreign terrorists. The deal also aimed to pave the way for a permanent ceasefire and direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan leadership.

The fate of the so-called peace deal, however, hangs in balance given the increasing number of attacks in and around the Afghan capital over the past year; doubts about the Taliban’s intentions and the peace deal among the Afghan leadership; and disturbing reports about the Taliban’s failure to sever ties with al-Qaida and other foreign terrorist groups. 

All this contributed to mixed signals from Washington. Biden was once among the most vocal proponents of a U.S. withdrawal from the “endless” Afghan conflict. The above has muddied the environment for the new administration, which seems to be in a quandary on how to approach the Afghanistan problem, where to pick disconnects, and how to reenergize the Afghan peace process.  Hence, the challenges in bringing an end to 40 years of violent conflict in Afghanistan have been multiplied for Biden, whose administration is aiming for “responsible” withdrawal. Of those, four areas need to be kept in mind before proceeding toward a durable peace process. 

The Vicious Pakistan-Afghanistan-India Triangle

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From threats about sending Pakistan to the “stone age” to raising it to the status of “non-NATO ally,” a partner in the global war against terrorism, to accusing its prime intelligence agency of keeping the Haqqani terrorist network as its “veritable arm,” U.S.-Pakistan relations have long been bedeviled by understandable misunderstandings, the pitfalls of transactional relations, and divergent interests. 

From the age of SEATO and CENTO to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the emergence of the Taliban, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, all the way to the 2020 Taliban-U.S. pact, U.S.-Pakistan relations have taken many twists and turns in response to domestic and international happenings. But the core object of the complex relationship has stayed the same. 

Pakistan expects the United States to arm-twist India on the issue of Kashmir and force Afghanistan to accept the British-era Durand Line as a permanent border. Islamabad also wants U.S. help in reducing the Indian role in Afghanistan and continued flows of money and hardware for the Pakistani military. The United States wants Pakistan to safeguard its strategic interests in the region, where the lingering Afghan conflict and an emerging China occupy the top of the list. While the U.S. continued to assist the Pakistani military, it never came forward to resolve the Kashmir dispute (and arguably never will). Pakistan, for its part, is helping the U.S. in Afghanistan as long as its own interests are not at stake. On the China front, Pakistan has not restricted its expanding strategic relations with Beijing (and arguably never will). Both the United States and Pakistan have more suspicions than trust regarding the other. 

More than half a century down the road, U.S.-Pakistan relations have yet to evolve beyond a transactional nature that depends on give and take. And given their defined national and geostrategic interests, it is not going to be any different in the near future. 

For 20 years, Pakistan is believed to have provided sanctuary to the very same Taliban that targeted the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The United States’ most-wanted man, Osama bin Laden, was knocked out by U.S. forces in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad in an overnight operation, details of which, apparently, were not shared with the Pakistani government, the military, or the country’s intelligence agencies.  

As the United States is preparing to leave Afghanistan by coming to terms with the Taliban, Pakistan’s core interests in Afghanistan, from the point of view of its military leadership, stand exactly where they were 20 years ago: An Afghanistan that serves, or at least does not pose challenge to, Pakistan’s strategic interests in the wider region as well as keeping India from encircling Pakistan from the west. 

The Taliban were, in a way, a product of that same set of strategic interests. Although the past 20 years of engagement with the group has also exposed the weaknesses and fissures in Pakistan-Taliban relations, the two are still closely interdependent and will likely continue to stay so until the Afghan leadership and the international community find a way to bring about a peaceful end to the Afghan conflict. 

President George W. Bush’s billions of dollars in military assistance, President Barack Obama’s drone war and cold-shouldering Pakistani leadership, and President Donald Trump’s pressure tactics, cutting all military assistance, did not force Pakistan to sever ties with the Taliban. Being vice president under Obama for eight years, Biden is well aware of this tricky past. 

Applying the already exhausted means of military and financial assistance, as carrots, or the cold-shouldering and the cutting of aid, as sticks, may likely prove fruitless once again. But there nevertheless may be something new in the new administration’s strategy, expected to be unveiled in the next few weeks.

As recommended by the congressionally mandated Afghanistan Study Group in its February 2021 report, a regional diplomatic strategy would focus on getting Afghanistan’s neighbors to use their influence to persuade the warring sides toward a peace process. More important is a hands-off approach by the regional powers toward the Taliban, with a broader aim of regional peace, stability, and economic development. This may also help persuade China to come forward and play a proactive role for the sake of its huge investment plans in the region. 

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Although it is easier said than done, once the United States manages to launch a debate among Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India about the wider regional peace vis-à-vis peace in Afghanistan, finding common ground such as on economic activity may not be that elusive. After all, which among the regional countries needs a boost to its economy more than Pakistan? Certain assurances vis-à-vis its perceived or true concerns about Afghanistan, India, or the India-Afghanistan nexus may attract the Pakistani leadership to become a somehow responsible partner in the Afghan peace process. 

Russia, Iran, and Central Asia

Since their emergence from isolation and opening up shop in the Qatari capital of Doha, Taliban leaders have cleverly extended their outreach to neighboring countries including Iran, Russia, and the Central Asia states, apart from their already closer ties with Pakistan and China. 

In January, a Taliban delegation visited Iran and Turkmenistan where, in addition to getting a kind of diplomatic recognition from the host countries, the Taliban also announced their “support” for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline. Earlier, Russia hosted Taliban delegations more than once discussing the peace and stability in Afghanistan; Uzbekistan has also hosted Taliban delegations in recent years. 

Once wary of the Taliban presence in their neighborhood, Russia, Iran, and the Central Asian states are now extending support, though tacitly, for the Taliban. China hosted the Taliban before the launch of the peace efforts in Doha. 

Although Russia, Iran, and China may not agree to the U.S.-led peace process unless assured of their own interests along with stopping their adversary, the United States in this case, from going out heralding a victory, they are also well aware of the adverse effects if the conflict continues with or without the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. The three regional powers are likely playing a game of wait and see. Bringing them on board, though not an easy task given their troubled relations with the United States, may help in finding a responsible way out for the United States. 

The Taliban, al-Qaida, and Foreign Terrorist Groups

After signing the deal with the United States in February 2020, the Taliban intensified their attacks against the Afghan security forces and the civilians. The uptick in Taliban attacks is considered by many to be a clear violation of the agreement with the United States, which Washington says included a promised reduction in violence. 

Afghan officials have long complained about what they call the Taliban’s rigid attitude. Meanwhile, in July 2020, the Pentagon reported that al-Qaida maintains “close ties” to the Taliban, further increasing doubts regarding the possibility of positive change in the Taliban’s behavior once international forces leave Afghanistan. Just a month before the Pentagon report, a United Nations report suggested continued close contacts between the Taliban and al-Qaida. The report said the Taliban “regularly consulted” the terrorist network and offered guarantees of honoring their ties. 

Although a majority of the analysts keeping a close eye on the Afghan situation believe that Biden is as much in favor of withdrawal from Afghanistan as his predecessor was, recent reports suggest a different path may be taken with regard to the planned May 2021 withdrawal agreement.

To address concerns about the Taliban’s behavior, the congressionally-mandated Study Group report suggested a “significant revision” of U.S. policy, saying “the most important revision is to ensure that a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops is based not on an inflexible timeline but on all parties fulfilling their commitments, including the Taliban making good on its promises to contain terrorist groups and reduce violence against the Afghan people, and making compromises to achieve a political settlement.”

As the Biden administration is expected to come out with a clear policy about the Taliban peace deal in the weeks ahead, one of the foremost requirements for resuming dialogue may likely be the Taliban proving a break of ties with al-Qaida and other foreign terrorist groups. Failing that, the United States may delay the withdrawal and even increase its troop levels or air support to help secure what has been achieved over the past 20 years with U.S. blood and money.

Afghan Government and Afghan Leadership

President Ashraf Ghani and his team, who have criticized U.S. Afghan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad for a “bad deal” with the Taliban, believe that the existing deal needs to be reviewed. While Ghani supports the peace process, he also believes that if “the objective of the Taliban is to dominate and give us the peace of the graveyard, then that will have very negative consequences.”

Afghanistan’s ambassador to Washington, Roya Rahimi, went a step ahead by warning in a recent Washington Post article that “the consequences of a false peace deal are as dire as no deal at all.” 

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The Ghani government’s key demand is an immediate ceasefire, but the Taliban are more interested in forming an interim government. Divisions within the Afghan government have become ever more apparent as several key opposition leaders are not averse to the idea of an interim government. 

While the congressionally mandated  Afghanistan Study Group report recommends “all possible” support for the Afghan government, it also suggests that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan should not be held “hostage to the divisions, ineffectiveness, corruption and shortsightedness that the Afghan government has too often displayed.” Divisions in Kabul may add to the widespread frustration in Washington about the Afghan leadership that may likely result in unilateral measures in the upcoming U.S. strategy. A balanced approach, however, would be to alleviate the Afghan government’s genuine concerns and take the Afghan leadership onboard before inching toward a final deal with the Taliban.