The longest conflict in the United States’ military history, in Afghanistan, is in its 20th year with no end in sight. Joe Biden’s administration promises an institutional approach towards this decades-old US military involvement. As cited previously, the president-elect has supported and opposed US foreign military interventions. While supporting overseas employment of forces, he favours a lighter footprint and narrow objectives disliking nation-building. Opposed to unilateralism, Biden has preferred working through diplomacy, alliances and international institutions. He is an advocate of the “counterterrorism plus” strategy; using small Special Forces teams under an agile air cover to fight terrorists abroad.
It would be interesting to see how the above operative framework resolves the Afghan conundrum especially in the backdrop of US domestic politics, the US-Taliban peace deal, the shenanigans of Ashraf Ghani and his cabal and the interests of regional players.
Firstly, the US domestic politics. On August 21, 2017, President Trump outlined his Afghanistan policy. He promised an open-ended military commitment shifting to a ‘conditions-based’ withdrawal rather than a ‘time-based’ approach to prevent recurrence of “a vacuum for terrorists”. He promised to loosen rules of engagement that subsequently caused civilian casualties. He invited India for a greater role in Afghanistan rebuilding and rebuked Pakistan for harbouring militants. Ironically, after rejecting a political settlement with the Taliban initially, he eventually signed the truce deal with them this February.
Afghan officials remain apprehensive that Americans are tired of the war as the issue never surfaced during presidential debates. Biden is on record to profess ending “forever wars” as he wrote in Foreign Affairs earlier this year. As vice-president, Mr Biden opposed the Obama era ‘surge’ (2009), citing the political unsustainability of the Afghan conflict. He may, therefore, keep a truncated counterterrorism contingent of around 2,000 troops (NATO has some 7,000 troops); the much touted ‘orderly and condition-based withdrawal’ notwithstanding. President Trump has already ordered to halve the current 4,500 US force levels by end of January 2021, fulfilling his campaign promise and in keeping with the aspirations of his base that comprises a sizeable number of veterans.
Secondly, the US-Taliban peace deal. This agreement is under stress not because of the Taliban but because too many in the US-Afghan camp want it to fail. There is no agreement on the mechanism and agenda of the intra-Afghan dialogue in Doha that was to decide power-sharing and lead towards a durable ceasefire after an initial reduction in violence. The Taliban, contrary to Western/Afghan government iterations, would not concede a ceasefire without a clear, irreversible and pragmatic power-sharing arrangement that reflects realities on the battlefield. Issues like the Afghan Constitution, women/minority rights, etc. for them are ignorable niceties for another time.
Thirdly, Ghani officials want Mr Biden to pressure the Taliban to proffer protection guarantees to them, as articulated by Afghanistan’s Second Vice President Sarwar Danesh. In collaboration with some US officials and the Washington Beltway community of defence contractors, they argue that a near complete withdrawal of US forces would precipitate NATO forces to also leave, besides sharp reduction in the US/other international civilian presence drying up external economic and security assistance to Afghanistan.
They contend; the Kabul regime will lose influence and legitimacy and power would move from the Centre to the periphery causing re-emergence of regional militias and local warlords. This — they think — may result in regional players supporting rival claimants to power; and the Taliban would lose interest in negotiating peace. Afghanistan — they argue — may likely descend into a wider civil war, if the Taliban take over and control over territory is contested. In this scenario, civilian deaths and refugee flows would sharply rise. This line of thinking suggests, groups including Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) would be the ultimate beneficiaries… in a full turn of events.
All these fears, including the drying up of international assistance, are ill-founded as the Taliban, even now, control most of the rural territory, run a shadow government, collect taxes, dominate the night and are a bulwark against the IS; as demonstrated by their successful operations in March 2020 to dislodge the IS from Kunar and surrounding areas. And if over 150,000 troops from some 50 most powerful countries (2011) for over two decades could not stabilise Afghanistan; a handful of around 2,000 troops can hardly make an impression. And the regime in Kabul stands on artificial and temporary moorings as president-elect is in no mood to extend a blank cheque and blanket cover towards it any more.
Mr Biden knows Afghanistan, visiting it numerous times as senator nurturing friendships and chasms. He and President Ghani have long been friendly, but Biden has a history of tension with other important Afghan leaders like former president Hamid Karzai.
Lastly, the Afghan neighbourhood. Afghanistan is poor and weak, with rather richer and more powerful neighbours, affected by civil strife in Afghanistan. However, the US is at loggerheads with most-important Afghan neighbours and other regional powers, once supportive of the American-led intervention and consequent political dispensation in Kabul. Almost all US aid to Pakistan has dried up; Iran is heavily sanctioned and in a state of a quasi-war after the brazen killing of its nuclear scientist; Russia is under mounting American sanctions; and America is in a trade war with China.
In the foreseeable scenario, Pakistan would and should hedge its bets by becoming more open in backing the Taliban… the apparent successors to power. PM Imran Khan’s recent journey to Kabul is considered ill-advised and ill-timed. Ghani stands on foreign legs and would be swept away by Taliban tidal waves in a matter of time. Secondly, even if the trip was to be taken, the PM should have waited for the new US administration to take over and enunciate its position.
Since 2001, Russia and Iran have generally remained supportive of the Kabul government, however, in recent years, they too have provided limited aid to the Taliban as a hedge. Both these countries along with India and Uzbekistan have a history of supporting Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara warlords. China is also maintaining robust links with the Taliban. Even Afghan politicians seek Taliban patronage as a hedge.
So president-elect Biden will deal with a knotty Afghanistan. US domestic compulsions, Covid-ravaged economy, peace with the Taliban, an irate Ghani and curtailed leverages with regional players will throw seemingly intractable challenges at him. In all this, Zalmay Khalilzad may keep his job.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 3rd, 2020.