This article is part of MEI's series on the Biden Transition
Though the war in Afghanistan largely went unmentioned in the U.S. presidential race, the incoming Joe Biden administration must make a major decision in the coming weeks and months on whether to follow through on the U.S. commitment to withdraw all troops from the country by the end of April 2021.
Discerning Biden’s views and their implications
During the campaign candidate Biden offered little detail about his administration’s Afghanistan policy. He supported the idea of a negotiated settlement with the Taliban and pledged to end the “forever wars,” but he has also said that he favors a light counterterrorism-focused mission in Afghanistan. Such a presence, however, would violate the deal with the Taliban signed in February in Doha, which exchanges a complete U.S. military withdrawal for Taliban counterterrorism commitments.
A failure to meet the withdrawal deadline could abrogate the deal with the Taliban. The unraveling of the deal would lead to an even greater surge in violence in Afghanistan and draw the U.S. deeper into a war that successive administrations have sought to extricate themselves from — a war that President-Elect Biden soured on more than a decade ago.
While violence in Afghanistan has shot up in recent months, the situation could be far worse without the Taliban deal. The secret annex of the U.S.-Taliban agreement reportedly restrains the insurgent group in meaningful ways, barring it from waging full-scale attacks on provincial capitals and attacking U.S. troops.
With the effective cancellation of the Doha accord, the Taliban would likely resume attacks on provincial capitals, triggering a surge in U.S. airstrikes to push them back, and resulting in a rise in U.S. inflicted civilian deaths and Taliban reprisal attacks on U.S. personnel.
A full U.S. withdrawal absent a truce among Afghans may also have deadly consequences as well, however. The intra-Afghan talks, delayed and obstructed by President Ashraf Ghani and stifled by Taliban obstinance, have achieved little progress. Should the status quo continue, a full U.S. withdrawal might lead to state collapse or, as a senior Afghan official has warned, civil war.
Still, the American presence in Afghanistan cannot be tied to the goal of preserving the Afghan state. Regardless of whether the United States chooses to stay or leave, Afghanistan may invariably be headed toward civil war.
A Biden administration Afghanistan policy must put America’s counterterrorism priorities first. The Biden administration should preserve the deal with the Taliban, primarily as a means of preventing al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State-Khorasan Province from using Afghanistan as a base to target the U.S. homeland, and if possible, to reduce the risk of an all-out civil war.
In the coming weeks, the Biden transition team should publicly declare its intent to abide by the terms of the U.S.-Taliban deal as long as the Taliban fulfill their counterterrorism commitments outlined in the agreement.
At this point, there is little public evidence that the Taliban are in compliance. The deal requires the Taliban to “prevent any group or individual in Afghanistan from threatening the security of the United States and its allies.” It specifies that these groups are to be barred “from recruiting, training, and fundraising” in Afghanistan and that the Taliban “will not host them.”
Upon coming into power, the Biden administration should ask the intelligence community to make a finding as to whether the Taliban have abided by their counterterrorism commitments. If the Taliban are not in compliance, rather than abrogating the deal, the Biden administration should publicly reassert the conditions-based elements of the agreement and a willingness to negotiate a standstill agreement that maintains the status quo and allows for a completion of the withdrawal once the Taliban fulfill their end of the bargain.
Preserving the unfulfilled deal past the withdrawal deadline through a standstill agreement would give the Taliban an incentive to restrain their violence in ways that keep the Afghan state alive and offer Afghans additional time to negotiate an interim government arrangement. For the U.S., maintaining the basic principles of the deal provides an alternative to a precipitous withdrawal and an indefinite military commitment to Afghanistan.
The risks of abandoning the deal
In contrast, unilaterally abandoning the deal would make a negotiated settlement to the war even more unlikely and embolden Ghani, who will seize the opportunity to sideline his political rivals in Kabul and avoid meaningful reconciliation talks with the Taliban. He would see himself as indispensable to a new American government keen on avoiding a spectacle akin to the fall of Saigon.
As the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and former vice president of the United States, President-Elect Biden knows that entanglement in Afghan politics is a black hole for the United States. America must give Afghans a chance to find peace. While the Trump administration did just that for more than a year, Ghani has used that window to weaken his non-Taliban opponents, tamper with the elections, and stifle talks with the Taliban.
The Taliban’s hardline vision of an “Islamic” government is also a major obstacle to peace. While it is not Washington’s place to tell Afghans what kind of government they should have, the United States is not obligated to fund a government totally at odds with American values. That is something the Biden administration should make clear. It can work with allies in the Muslim world, including Pakistan and Qatar, to support an all-Afghan consensus on a broader, more inclusive, and progressive concept of an Islamic government. And it can make it clear that should the Taliban and other Afghans come to agreement on the way forward and should the Taliban abide by their counterterrorism commitments, the U.S. will commit to withdrawing troops and focus on supporting economic and social development in Afghanistan. This includes U.S. and multilateral support for infrastructure development in Afghanistan, the building of schools, and potentially even free trade access.
If the Taliban and other Afghans fail to seize this moment of a U.S. change in power, then their country will remain Asia’s poorest. Afghanistan has a choice between being the “heart of Asia” — the circulatory center of a rising continent — or the clot of Asia. Their opportunity for a break with the past is slipping away. America is in the process of moving on from Afghanistan. The Biden administration will have limited bandwidth to deal with the Afghan war and reconsider a resolute disposition to extricate itself from Afghanistan’s zero-sum power politics.
America has far greater policy challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic has not abated. The economy is reeling. The nation is divided along partisan, geographic, and racial lines not seen in recent times. And the rise of China is now the paramount national security challenge of this era.
With these policy priorities in mind, the Biden administration should see the Trump administration’s Taliban deal as its least bad option. It should not hesitate to fully withdraw from Afghanistan if the Taliban hold up their end of the bargain.
Arif Rafiq is the president of Vizier Consulting LLC, a political risk advisory company focused on the Middle East and South Asia, and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
Photo by Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images