The role of the United States in Afghanistan has seen major vicissitudes starting from the US military launching its Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001 to the Donald Trump administration signing a peace agreement with the Taliban in 2020. Towards the last days of the Trump administration, an urgency was witnessed on the part of the United States to withdraw forces from Afghanistan. However, with the onset of the Joe Biden administration, Afghan government representatives, including President Ashraf Ghani, have been urging the US government to revisit the terms of the US-Taliban deal and rethink any plans to withdraw its forces hastily. Biden’s preference for a leaner counter-terror force presence in Afghanistan and a route to reconciliation with the Taliban is well known, something he made clear while serving as Vice President to President Barack Obama.
Therefore, the question is no longer about whether he will withdraw American troops or not. The question is how he will do so, while protecting American interest and preserving whatever little positive legacy is left of the US presence in Afghanistan for the last two decades or so. Even President Obama’s drawdown strategy had no relevance because the complete withdrawal of US forces would require a conducive environment in Afghanistan. If it will be possible for the local populace in Afghanistan to take care of their security, remains a part of the discourse. The Afghan National Army (ANA) does not seem to be confident and trained enough to provide security.
America’s call for an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan controlled” peace process in Afghanistan has come up for much criticism in the midst of its peace agreement with the Taliban, excluding the Afghan government. That agreement paved the way for the much treacherous intra-Afghan talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which is mired in its own quagmire. Recent events in Afghanistan have proved that the United States, after years of involvement, militarily and non-militarily, has come to the point of war fatigue.
This has led to the US searching for a face-saving exit from Afghanistan and letting the Taliban negotiate from a position of strength. It also has led the Taliban to emerge as a force to reckon with. The US style of negotiation with the Taliban has also created various factions within the Taliban. Such a process has increased the trust deficit between the US and Taliban.
The Afghan government seems to be expecting Biden’s national security team to revisit the terms of the US-Taliban peace agreement, and recalibrate any undue concessions offered to the Taliban. It remains to be seen how the Biden administration, in reality, goes about overseeing the peace process in Afghanistan, which has entered a critical juncture that will decide the future of a power sharing arrangement in Afghanistan, and the role of the Taliban.
For the time being, pertaining to the incidence of growing violence, high profile assassinations and Taliban’s ties with terror groups like Al-Qaeda, there seems to be an overriding sense that the Biden administration is seriously reconsidering the early May deadline for the complete withdrawal of forces.
The US-Taliban peace agreement signed on 29 February 2020 said, “The United States is committed to withdraw from Afghanistan all military forces of the United States, its allies, and Coalition partners, including all non-diplomatic civilian personnel, private security contractors, trainers, advisors, and supporting services personnel within fourteen (14) months following announcement of this agreement.”
At around 2,500 troops, US military presence in Afghanistan is at its lowest, and any plans to withdraw fully without judging conditions on the ground and how the Taliban have adhered to their commitments, is being questioned not only by Afghan government officials but also by the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg. Moreover, with such reduced numbers, US military commanders on the ground have been reported to be complaining about difficulty in carrying out their responsibility of counter-terrorism and of training, advising and assisting the Afghan forces.
The latest Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report also points to a substantial rise in extremist violence even in the winter months when it is usually expected to subside. Moreover, a recently released report by the Afghanistan Study Group, a bipartisan panel at the US Congress, concluded that any hasty withdrawal of US forces, without the Taliban adhering to agreed commitments on the ground, will be detrimental to the prospects of peace and stability in Afghanistan.
There are broad indications that the Biden administration has been considering all ways of carrying forward the US-Taliban peace deal, while manoeuvring to put the Taliban’s feet on fire, to create conditions for a peaceful political negotiation with the Afghan government. However, it remains to be seen how a conditions-based strategy for the US and NATO presence in Afghanistan is executed, while overseeing the troubled intra-Afghan talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
Moreover, there seems to be overwhelming perception across the spectrum that the US conceded too much to the Taliban in the peace agreement. How the Biden administration manages to deal with this overriding perception, while planning and executing a new strategy in Afghanistan will remain a formidable challenge. In this context, it will be equally important to see how the Biden administration perceives and foresees the role of other major players in Afghanistan including India, Pakistan, Russia, China and Iran.
India will be confronting strategic risks more if Taliban issues are not handled properly. The United States during the Biden administration should involve both India and Afghanistan formally while negotiating with the Taliban in the peace building process. How to contain the growing partnership between Pakistan and the Taliban should feature prominently in the US strategy. The evolving equation between Pakistan and the Taliban has made the whole peace building process more complicated.