As the first foreign policy initiative, the Biden administration is set to review last year’s US-Taliban deal. National Security Advisor Jack Sullivan delivered the message to his Afghan counterpart, Hamdullah Mohib, on January 22 that the president will assess whether the Taliban honor their commitment under the deal. The deal called on the Taliban to sever ties with terrorist groups, reduce violence in the country, and engage in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government and other stakeholders.
Sullivan said the United States would support the peace process with a strong diplomatic effort aimed at achieving a “lasting and just political settlement and a permanent ceasefire.” The message also mentioned the United States’ support to protect the progress made on the rights of women and minorities as part of the peace process. Welcoming the message, the government in Kabul is relieved that there was uncertainty over the approach of the new administration.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken also said during his confirmation hearing this month: “We want to end this so-called eternal war.” But, he added, the United States wants to retain some capacity to deal with any resurgence of terrorism and, because it was unaware of last year’s peace deal, “We need to carefully consider what has actually been negotiated”.
Afghanistan has indeed violated the spirit of the agreement. The Taliban have not cut their ties with terrorists and they have not stopped violence against civilians. On the contrary, violence has increased in recent months, especially in Kabul. The brazen killings of journalists, human rights activists, politicians and Afghan officials continued in broad daylight and two female judges were recently murdered.
For Biden, this must be déjà vu. Ten years ago, as vice president, he participated in a similar review of Afghan politics. He would have liked to leave Afghanistan, invoking the lessons of the Vietnam War. But generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, backed by Obama’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates, won the argument for a push and a commitment to stay to contain the Taliban.
Everything indicates that Biden is seeking an orderly withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. Under the agreement, all U.S. and foreign troops are to withdraw by April 30, but the United States would certainly like to keep some U.S. forces in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future to continue its counterterrorism operations. What the “orderly” withdrawal means and how it is to be achieved will require difficult and skillful negotiations. The May deadline in the Doha Pact may need to be extended by at least six months, but the Taliban are insisting that the deadline be met.
The United States must be keenly interested in the outcome of the peace process. He wants Afghanistan not to become a safe haven again for al-Qaeda and other terrorists. But it also seeks to ensure the sustainability of the achievements of recent years and the preservation and strengthening of the democratic process which is slowly taking root in Afghanistan and is concerned with promoting regional stability.
This is where Pakistan becomes a key player, as the Taliban are its proxy force. During his confirmation hearings in the US Senate on January 22, Austin praised Pakistan for taking “constructive steps to respond to US demands for support for the peace process in Afghanistan.” He intends to seek further cooperation with Pakistan to reach a possible peace agreement. CNN reported that Zalmay Khalilzad, who has excellent relations with the Taliban as well as Pakistan, will retain his post as the United States’ special representative.
Effective pressure on Pakistan and the Taliban is the key to a stable Afghanistan. Biden and his national security team, Secretaries Blinken and Lloyd Austin and Sullivan, are all alumni who fully understand and appreciate the geopolitical complexities involved in the region. These include Pakistan’s harbor of terrorists, its military’s obsession with India and its goal of shaping Afghanistan through its proxy, the Taliban.
The call to bring the forces home has a strong appeal, but the Afghan forces, without the help of the United States, are no match for the onslaught of the Taliban. Therefore, the United States must remain in an advisory capacity and continue with the help of its partners to provide the economic assistance necessary for development.
There is no crystal ball to predict how the future will unfold in Afghanistan. But the United States must no longer abandon the country. Afghan partners must be supported to ensure that the Taliban do not prevail in ruling Afghanistan with an iron fist, oppressing women and minorities and becoming a haven for terrorists.
Ved Nanda is a Distinguished University Professor and Director of the Ved Nanda Center for International Law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. His column appears on the last Sunday of each month and he accepts comments at [email protected]
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