The November 2020 U.S. presidential Election and the return of a Democrat President to the white House, as expected, put on pause some already decided major foreign policy conducts of the United States. On January 23rd and in an apparent hint to a possible policy shift on Afghanistan, Biden’s National Security Adviser announced that Washington will review last year’s peace agreement with Taliban, "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". While Kabul Government hailed the review prospect, Taliban expressed its disappointment over the move and demanded Washington’s commitment to the signed peace deal.
The U.S-Taliban Peace Making Accord committed the insurgent group to reducing violence and to engage in a meaningful Intra-Afghan Talks aimed at deciding the future of the war-ravaged country. The U.S. has been the primary mover of progress in peace talks, pushing two mistrustful parties forward. Though Peace in Afghanistan shall ultimately depend on the warring side’s willingness to compromise, Washington’s initiatives are also of undeniable effects on the success or failure of the process.
Ever since the conclusion of the peace deal, level of violence in Afghanistan has been on steady rise and the slow-paced Afghan peace talks also stalled as both sides preferred to wait for the Biden administration to reveal what changes it might make to its Afghanistan policy, particularly on the peace process as a whole, and also the key issue of U.S. military presence in the country. Taliban clearly views itself as the country’s dominant force and the only legitimate authority with the least real acknowledgment of the need for a compromise. However, the resumption of violence does not necessarily correspond to Taliban’s denial of negotiations as a potential route to securing its final goals. The group has carefully coordinated its moves so as to keep its fighting force as active as possible without jeopardizing the Doha peace agreement.
Meanwhile, a campaign of unclaimed killings targeting government officials, judges, social activists, clerics and journalists has rocked Afghan urban centers in recent months. Kabul Government holds Taliban responsible for the killings, whereas Taliban, in return, blames Afghan intelligence services for the same. It is strongly feared that this wave of assassination stems from a combination of calculated insurgent activity to gradually pacify and subdue the civil society figures, and the opportunism of ISIL elements seeking recognition and status amid the fog of asymmetric war.
Against the backdrop of Biden’s review order of the Doha Agreement and faced with an imminent impasse in realization of the peace deal, Taliban dispatched its high level delegations to the neighboring Pakistan, Iran and Turkmenistan to discuss Afghanistan's political future and also to reiterate their demand for a timely U.S. military exit. Pakistani Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, whose country is a key player in facilitating diplomacy with Taliban, urged the Biden administration to commit to the existing peace agreement . In Tehran and during a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Dr. Zarif the Taliban delegation was told of the need for the “formation of an all-inclusive government in a participatory process and by taking into account fundamental structures, institutions and laws, such as the Constitution of Afghanistan”. And according to the cautious official statement issued by the Turkmen Foreign Ministry, “ Taliban came to talk about construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural gas pipeline, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) power line, and further connecting Afghanistan to Turkmenistan by rail”.
Looking at the other side of the equation, the U.S.-led peace process has placed the Kabul Government at a severe disadvantage. There is a strong belief at the official level shared by much of Afghan civil society that a political settlement under the present circumstances could wipe the constitutional order created over the span of two decades and may offer Taliban an open route to impose their official rule in Kabul. There is also a sense of disappointment over international backer’s retraction of the vital financial and military support. Financially, the country’s international supporters have already signaled wariness of making long-term commitments, confirmed by the apparent decline in the amount and duration of aid pledged at a major donor conference in Geneva in November last year.
In general, Biden is seen to favor a foreign policy approach that would engage more U.S. allies and partners around the globe. Biden has consistently advocated the lightest possible military presence in Afghanistan solely focused on counter-terrorism efforts, and has suggested that concern for the fate of the Afghan government or people should not determine U.S. policy in the region. He also has to give serious thought to rekindling U.S. links with close allies, including the NATO which has already expressed concern about the aftermath of the hasty U.S. departure from Afghanistan. Currently close to 11,000 NATO personnel from several member countries including the U.S. contingent are stationed in Afghanistan. With the number of U.S. service members reduced to 2500 as of January 2021, for the first time the combined NATO force on the ground now outnumbers the U.S. contingent. Under the flag of “Resolute Support" Mission that replaced ISAF in 2015, most NATO contingents are engaged in non-combat missions to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces and institutions, and thus are totally reliant on U.S. military support umbrella. These advisory and training missions shall dictate the continued presence of a considerable U.S. combat capability in total contradiction with the essence of the agreed peace deal.
Adding to the complexity of redrawing the Afghan peace roadmap is the military muscle required for counter-terrorism framework which was long Biden’s preferred approach to Afghanistan. An indefinite presence of even a small number of U.S. counter-terrorism forces shall prompt strong opposition from Taliban and may doom the peace process. In the event of an enduring American military presence in the country, Taliban may shy away from the negotiating table entirely, and revert back to an all-out campaign of unrestricted warfare.
Unlike the past, Taliban’s policy making process is no longer a one-man show. It is now based on a collective leadership of influential figures that have mastered the art of political and military maneuvering. They have better understanding of international relations and are also mindful of the vitality of the continued flow of outside aid and assistances for the country to survive. These realities, though in sharp contrast with Taliban’s orthodox and less resilient interpretation of Islamic governance, might push the insurgent group to keep open some windows of interaction with the international community without abandoning its core goal of total domination of the country.
Doha Agreement offers no solid guarantee for peace with the power sharing issue left to be formulated by Taliban and President Ghani. A serious issue that the new U.S. administration has to prioritize, is how to handle the May 2021 deadline for total troop withdrawal, as Senior U.S. military figures and some members of Congress are openly opposed to a full withdrawal along the timeline specified in the Doha Agreement. Since the United States is eagerly inclined to end its Afghan military involvement, only minor changes in its Afghan policy reassessment may be in the offing.
Hossein Ebrahim Khani, Asian and the Pacific Studies
(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)