Afghanistan may not rank in the top tier of U.S. President Joe Biden’s policy priorities, given the host of pressing crises in the United States. But Afghanistan’s fate hinges in large part on how the Biden team decides to approach the country’s conflict and its tenuous, still-nascent peace process. Biden will be compelled to make critical decisions on Afghanistan during his first months in office that will affect the country’s conflict—and relationship with the U.S.—for years to come.
Over the past year, the outgoing U.S. administration attempted to set a peace process in motion by signing a political agreement with the Taliban in February 2020, exchanging a commitment to withdraw international military forces for assurances the insurgent group would address transnational terrorism concerns, enter peace talks with the Afghan government, and work toward a cease-fire and political roadmap to end the war, among other things. That agreement triggered a range of initial responses ranging from early expressions of hope among Afghans to revulsion among many who read its terms as overly concessionary to the insurgents. That skepticism soon became a growing chorus of pessimism, as the Taliban re-intensified violence across the country and the Afghan government resisted meeting obligations the U.S. had unilaterally committed it to.
Negotiations between the two sides eventually began in September, six months behind the schedule American diplomats had anticipated. From the outset, the pending U.S. presidential election in November loomed over the process, and it continued to exercise an intangible yet palpable influence over the pace of talks long after votes were tallied, due to the most disorderly transition of power in Washington in over a century. It took three months for the two Afghan sides to settle on procedures and points of protocol meant to govern the talks, after which they broke for nearly a month. This pause allowed negotiators to consult with their respective leadership, but it also seemed to be an acknowledgement of how much the process might change, depending on the United States’ new political leadership.
While his team’s attention may be focused elsewhere, Biden faces a concrete challenge in Afghanistan: the impending deadline to complete an international troop withdrawal, outlined in last year’s agreement with the Taliban. The deal specified that all foreign military forces would exit the country by April 30, 2021, including those of the U.S. and its NATO partners, as well as foreign contractors, who are crucial for maintaining the government’s strategically vital air force. The agreement’s terms were based on the expectation that peace talks would begin days after it was signed, not six months later. But at the time, Kabul had not yet appointed an inclusive negotiation team, a process that was delayed by political paralysis following Afghanistan’s own disputed election. It didn’t help that Afghan president Ashraf Ghani rejected the deal’s terms the day after it was signed. Moreover, the agreement’s architects, at least on the American side, had publicly raised expectations that talks among Afghans would take place under a climate of dramatically reduced violence, akin to the significant decrease in fighting to which all sides agreed for the week before the agreement was signed.
But the conflict did not remain at the low intensity that briefly inspired hope across the country in late February 2020. As the Afghan government offered various rationales for its unhurried preparation for talks and halting implementation of the agreement’s terms, most notably a controversial release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners, acts of violence attributed to the Taliban continued, followed by government reprisals. Now cloaked in deniability and carried out less sensationally than the large-scale attacks of years past, a wave of killings has increasingly targeted journalists, activists and members of civil society. On Jan. 1, yet another journalist was killed, followed later this month by a pair of female judges, who were among only 250 serving across the country.
Biden will be compelled to make decisions on Afghanistan during his first months in office that will affect the country’s conflict—and relationship with the U.S.—for years to come.
The pessimism felt by many Afghans has given way to alarm that the Taliban’s return to power—by negotiations or otherwise—could usher in a wave of social restrictions and suppression akin to the group’s rule in the 1990s. Taliban messaging has publicly celebrated the countdown to the foreign troops’ withdrawal, hailing the U.S.-Taliban agreement as confirmation of their movement’s victory over the United States. Some senior Afghan officials, scrambling to curb a deteriorating security environment, have proposed draconian measures. One recent call for the execution of Taliban prisoners seemed to embody sentiments of hostility and desperation shared by government supporters. These sentiments are intertwined with expressions of abandonment. Afghans have voiced shock, confusion and despair that the social and political order erected mainly by the U.S. and its allies might be dismantled in a process that has thus far lent the Taliban legitimacy on the international stage.
This corrosive atmosphere hangs over the peace process Biden has inherited—and over the first big decision on Afghanistan his team will need to make. The Taliban have clearly and publicly insisted that they expect the U.S. to carry out the withdrawal as specified in the agreement: The group has promised to resume attacks against foreign forces if they remain even a day past April 30. Many critics of the U.S.-led process, and even some of its advocates, have suggested that ideally Biden would keep American forces based in the country until peace talks reach a comprehensive settlement to end the war, a change in approach that would provide much-needed leverage to the beleaguered Afghan government. But most peace processes stretch on for years, a timeline for continued foreign military presence that the Taliban would in all likelihood strongly reject.
If Biden wants to continue pursuing a negotiated settlement, the existing framework, anchored in the February 2020 deal, will not survive an indefinite delay in the departure of foreign troops. Nor are the Taliban likely to accept a reset or renegotiation from scratch after having already secured a promise that delivers their insurgency’s primary aim.
But if negotiations are to move past the current acrimony and mistrust, U.S. pressure will be required to nudge both sides forward into hard discussions on power-sharing. A short-term, one-time extension of the U.S. military presence—for six months, say, to cover the delay in the talks’ agreed start date—would add weight to diplomatic efforts to shepherd negotiations beyond their still-early stages. A withdrawal extension would also buy the new U.S. administration enough time to buttress the talks with revamped coordination among NATO allies and other partners, to engage the Afghan government and its forces with concrete preparations for a post-American future, and to establish a formal regional dialogue that might sustain the peace process even beyond any withdrawal.
Getting the Taliban to accept such a delay will not prove an easy sell; the group has already interpreted their agreement with the U.S. quite narrowly and literally, and any adjustment to their approach may only come after some tense negotiation. How the Taliban react to such a proposal by the Biden administration may be an indication of how seriously the group regards a negotiated path to ending the conflict. If the insurgents reject any delay out of hand, Biden will be faced with hard choices, but also clarity on the costs of continued disengagement from Afghanistan.
For Afghanistan’s conflict to be resolved in a political settlement, the parties to the conflict will need to embrace difficult compromises. Under the current circumstances, that is only likely to happen with firm continued engagement from Washington. But peace will also require swift decisions from the Biden team, the energetic expansion of diplomatic efforts and the U.S. military’s departure from the region, likely well before negotiations reach any sort of conclusion.