Biden aims for the impossible in Afghanistan
A cursory examination of the emerging US policy on Afghanistan would probably conclude that the strategy to end a two decade-old, mostly fruitless, military intervention is ill-conceived and mistimed. That view has substantial support even among the ranks of Washington's dovish cohort, which is not keen on striking a deal with the Taliban given its track record as a fundamentalist, autocratic Islamist movement with no inclinations toward democracy, human rights or personal liberty — along with its support for Al-Qaeda and ties to 9/11.
However, the overall aim of the Biden plan is to attempt the unprecedented, ending the US-led coalition’s Afghanistan mission by trying to establish a democratic, stable and self-sustaining long-term settlement. Its current iteration involves reviving a stalled peace process using a multilateral approach via forceful regional diplomacy, as well as pressuring the Kabul government led by President Ashraf Ghani to support the process and the Taliban to de-escalate its attacks.
Attempts at establishing a centralized, democratic-leaning government have failed just as much as the Taliban’s unfettered illiberalism. By making a play for a decentralized government, the White House is investing diplomatic and political capital in a shaky power-sharing arrangement between two entities that deny each other's legitimacy.
An abrupt departure risks new instability and conflict, endangering the strategic or security interests of neighboring states such as Pakistan, India and even China. Afghanistan's proximity to the Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang, for example, makes for an exceedingly wary Beijing, concerned that Taliban supremacy will give aid or comfort to the separatist ideals of Uighur militants
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s alleged ties to the Taliban have continuously benefited the latter in the form of havens in the former’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, financial and material support, and training camps — the perfect mix of conditions to sustain a long-term insurgency movement. In fact, the Quetta Shoura, the military arm that works closely with the Taliban’s leadership council, was for a time located in Pakistan’s Balochistan province.
Pakistan is now rumored to be urging what remains of the Quetta Shura to relocate to Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, as the Taliban consolidates and reorganizes itself ahead of intra-Afghan talks reignited by the White House peace initiative and the UN-led peace process to come out of it. Whether the peace process succeeds or not, Islamabad will not risk losing its leverage with a stronger Taliban, especially when it become embedded in the proposed power-sharing government, since it will be a highly effective proxy for Pakistan to continue exerting undue influence in Afghan affairs.
The conflict of interests among regional players — and there are many — is not the only worry for what the White House plans to achieve in the run-up to the May deadline for coalition troops to withdraw from Afghanistan. Even in Washington, the administration appears divided between political appointees, wary of the American public's exhaustion with “forever wars” ahead of 2022 legislative elections, and careerists in the military, intelligence and national security who fear the inevitable consequences of a premature departure. However, going from the current stand-off and, for now, stalled talks between the Ghani government and the Taliban to a complete withdrawal of the US-led coalition after a successful handover will be impossible to achieve before May 1.
The conflict of interests among regional players — and there are many — is not the only worry for what the White House plans to achieve in the run-up to the May deadline for coalition troops to withdraw from Afghanistan.
It is not just the logistics of withdrawal that will result in a missed deadline, there is a laundry list of determinations to be made, ranging from state security to divvying up legislative, budgetary and political power. After all, once negotiations are complete and signatories put pen to paper, the final terms will have to ensure the Taliban is not simply handed power, as in the original 50-50 power-sharing deal, but is forced to compete for it politically at local, regional and national levels. However, this will have to come after the White House addresses numerous concerns raised after details of its proposed peace initiative were leaked — probably a deliberate move to gauge stakeholder attitudes ahead of the intra-Afghan meeting in Turkey this month.
For instance, while the NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels last month focused on revitalizing the alliance and establishing a “unity of purpose” against Russia on the Eurasian continent and China in the Indo-Pacific region, European members are still not sold on the Biden plan. Additionally, the EU worries that if the May 1 deadline is not met, Washington has still not indicated fully what the conditions for a future withdrawal will look like.
However, America’s transatlantic partners all agree the White House’s Afghanistan proposals provide much-needed momentum in a stalled process despite progress from a fairly well-established Doha process and planned talks in Istanbul offer a venue for coalition partners to collaborate and sync postures, increasing pressure on detractors to accede.
For now, the White House must concentrate its efforts on ensuring the Istanbul talks succeed, unlike the parallel meeting held in Moscow in March, without risking the Doha process or recreating the largely failed 2001 Bonn Agreement. With better planning and clear communication on the agenda and attendees, Washington can avoid a catastrophic setback in its grand ambitions, which may prove challenging to recover from given the already tight window to lay the foundations for its proposed initiatives.
Fortunately, the Afghan public has mostly welcomed the Biden initiative, if only to spark more dialogue on key issues, such as whether decisions by the Islamic Council will supersede those of the judiciary. Overall, the positive sentiments also stem from the fact that the Biden White House has not shied from a central role in securing a permanent settlement in Afghanistan, as opposed to the previous administration's "settlement at any cost" strategy.
Unfortunately, a palpable sense of insecurity remains despite a decrease in targeted violence against civilians. And,while it is increasingly likely no coalition troops will exit by May 1, Afghans feel excluded from intensifying diplomatic efforts, while political elites continue to reject compromises. Kabul has also communicated its displeasure with the Biden plan, which could complicate the adoption of multilaterally negotiated terms by both the government and the Taliban. Already, the government is refusing to release more Taliban prisoners — claiming former detainees are returning to the battlefield, while the Taliban may escalate attacks to force the coalition's exit and scuttle the US peace initiative.
For now, the ball remains in the Biden administration's court. Feedback from the leaked proposals will probably factor into the planning of the Istanbul meeting and crafting more palatable terms to transform a draft proposal into a formal strategy to corral stakeholders and elicit their cooperation toward the formation of what appears to be a consociational democracy in Afghanistan.
Ultimately, there is no easy formula to comprehensively transform Afghanistan when armed interventions are tantamount to political suicide, while a premature departure will only endanger the Afghani, threaten regional stability and risk new conflicts. Fortunately, the Afghan public, the region and international community support a stable, peaceful Afghanistan. The trouble, however, lies with the Kabul political elite not keen on sharing power with an equally uncompromising Taliban leadership, and it can only be hoped the flurry of diplomatic activity and intensifying pressure will achieve the impossible as envisioned by the Biden peace initiative.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell