(The Economist – W/C February 2021)
In brief Joe Biden has two months to decide what to do about Afghanistan
When he came to office last month President Joe Biden inherited, in Afghanistan, America’s longest war. He also inherited a deal that his predecessor struck a year ago with the Taliban, who have fought a bloody insurgency ever since American-led forces ousted them from power in late 2001. Under the accord, Donald Trump agreed to withdraw all American forces by May 1st 2021—so supposedly ending this “forever war”.
The Taliban leadership promised, in return, not to allow Afghanistan to be used as a base by terrorist groups planning attacks against America, as it was by al-Qaeda. It also committed itself to talks with the debilitated, American-backed government in Kabul, whose writ covers a diminishing portion of the country. As part of those talks, it specifically promised to negotiate a “permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”.
The United States has kept its side of the bargain. In recent months Mr. Trump cut the American presence, which once numbered over 100,000 servicemen, to just 2,500 troops. That is a fraction of what American generals consider a minimum, for both counter-terrorism efforts and for helping the despondent Afghan armed forces prepare for life without American support. Yet apart from a (delayed) exchange of prisoners, very little else has moved forward. The Taliban still appear close to al-Qaeda. Talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government started six months late, in September, and have got nowhere. The gulf at times appears unbridgeable, including whether Afghanistan should be a theocracy or a republic.
Worst of all, the violence—the Taliban’s biggest bargaining chip—continues. Scores are killed or injured each week in gun and bomb attacks. Recent assassinations in Kabul and elsewhere, widely assumed to be the work of the Taliban, have targeted not just police and soldiers but civil-society activists, journalists and, last month, two female judges. On February 9th five government employees were killed in two separate attacks in the capital.
Laurel Miller, a former American official at the International Crisis Group, a think-tank, points out that neither the Taliban nor the government believes they have exhausted their military options, so are half-hearted about talking. As May approaches, Mr. Biden faces a pressing decision. Should the United States, having expended 2,300 American lives and nearly $1trn, cut and run, leaving the country to its fate? Or should it declare the peace deal dead and accept that the war, if not endless, is not over yet?
Mr. Biden’s gut surely favours the first option. When he was vice-president to Barack Obama, he argued against redoubled attempts at nation-building in Afghanistan. But his reappointment of Mr. Trump’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, who negotiated last year’s deal, suggests indecision. So does the administration’s talk of a “review”.
With the clock running down, Ms Miller and others argue that Mr. Biden should seek a six-month extension of the deadline. The intention would be to keep the peace process alive, while buying the Biden administration time to work out what it wants. A delay would reassure the Afghan government, which felt sidelined by the Trump deal and dreads American abandonment. Officials in Kabul hope to be treated as American partners again. Their message to the Biden administration, says a negotiator, Nader Nadery, is that a lasting peace deal must not be rushed, especially when the Taliban are not keeping to their side of the bargain.
But America has few ways to force the Taliban to behave better. The insurgents’ leaders, former international pariahs, may be reluctant to give up the boost in standing that the peace process has given them. And the Taliban’s friends in the region, in places like Pakistan, might conceivably be persuaded to press the insurgents to curb their attacks.
To some in both Afghanistan and America that seems like fantasy. They fear the Taliban will seize on any American foot-dragging to abandon the peace process altogether. Even if the Taliban do acquiesce to a delay, that may only be because they believe time works in their
favour. Popular anger at the corruption and ineptitude of the Afghan government is high. Taliban commanders, meanwhile, are buoyed by their creeping conquest of the country. They talk not of power-sharing but of a coming takeover. Meanwhile, even if Mr. Biden secures an extension, the same dilemma is likely to loom for him six months later: should I stay or should I go?