Joe Biden’s victory against Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election will usher in an era of less turbulent American foreign policy coupled with more certainty. However, the Afghan people are more uncertain about their future than ever as fears of a policy change toward Afghanistan can potentially set off a fully-fledged civil war and push the Taliban back out of the already fragile peace talks in Doha. The Trump administration’s tactics created an environment to prolong the already protracted conflict to justify a complete disengagement. These efforts will leave the Biden administration little room to adjust strategy.
Biden previously stated that his administration’s goal in Afghanistan would be to withdraw the majority of forces but keep a presence of 1,500 to 2,000 troops to combat transnational terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State. Biden held the same sentiment when he was Barack Obama’s vice president, arguing against a troop surge in 2009 and advocating for Afghan policy to primarily focus on counterterrorism. This is a massive deviation from the Trump administration’s approach to withdrawing troops as soon as May 2021.
In recent days, Trump ousted his secretary of defense and various advisors, reportedly for going against the withdrawal, and placed loyalists in high-ranking positions to pursue a speedy evacuation. The main pillars of a responsible conditions-based withdrawal are based on the United States’ ability to coercively apply pressure on the Taliban to reduce attacks, genuinely engage in peace talks, and eliminate cooperation with groups like al-Qaida. None of these conditions for a responsible withdrawal have been met so far.
First, since the beginning of September and the start of intra-Afghan peace talks, more than 800 pro-government forces and 300 civilians have been killed in ambushes at security checkpoints, suicide bombings, and mine explosions. In one week alone in October, the Taliban staged over 350 attacks, covering nearly every province of the country, leading to 200 civilian casualties. While the Taliban leadership is in Doha, attacks have spiked in Afghanistan, including an attempted siege in Helmand’s capital that has led to thousands of families being displaced.
Second, peace talks in Doha are still in the preliminary stages as the Taliban insist that the Hanafi school of thought must be adopted as the framework – eliminating religious guarantees for minorities – and engage in dialogue with the government’s team using the U.S.-Taliban agreement as an outline. The Taliban’s inability to compromise on either displays their desire to promote an extremist, exclusionary perception of Islamic law and ensure that their agreement with the U.S. is not forgotten during the talks with the Afghan government.
Lastly, the U.N. and the Pentagon reported that the Taliban have frequently met with al-Qaida during their negotiations with the U.S. to reaffirm the group that their relationship will continue, indicating how embedded the terrorist networks are within each other. The Taliban’s commitment to sever ties with terrorist organizations is a condition that must be met for U.S. withdrawal, per the February 2020 agreement. Trump’s lack of strategic shift based on his own Pentagon’s reports exposes his narrow focus on withdrawal no matter what.
The Taliban have already called on Biden to not stray from the Trump administration’s agreement, arguing that it serves as the only pathway for peace. If Biden’s position entails keeping a small presence, it will most likely provoke the Taliban to claim betrayal and state that the Doha agreement no longer stands. This would prompt an increase in violence toward Afghan forces, potentially fuel conflict in urban areas and further reveal the Taliban’s relationship with other terror groups.
Even when the Americans provided air support to Afghan forces during the Helmand siege, the Taliban claimed that the U.S. violated their agreement. This suggests just how sensitive the Taliban are to any American involvement in the war going forward.
Trump’s reckless strategy has set up a dangerous situation. The administration has not applied effective pressure on the Taliban, as evidenced by the continued attacks, which also serve to shed light on just how vulnerable Afghan forces are without on-the-ground support from the Americans.
Dr. Nishank Motwani, the deputy director for the Afghanistan Research Evaluation Unit, told The Diplomat, “There is a negligible expectation that sustaining military operations or expanding them are viable options, which is why the focus is on a responsible drawdown.”
However, the Trump administration has reduced troops based on political objectives and not in accordance with the reality on the ground. To Motwani, “the hope is that the U.S. would not abandon Afghanistan and would maintain a residual force together with air and intelligence assets that are capable of identifying, monitoring and eliminating threats.” But that, in the Taliban’s eyes, would be a violation of their agreement with the Trump administration.
The recent gruesome bombing at an educational center and attack on Kabul University – claimed by the Islamic State – that killed dozens of students showcase a gap in the capabilities of Afghan forces to prevent solo and coordinated terrorist attacks. Afghan forces require assistance to target terrorist cells operating in urban cities, but keeping an American presence to enhance intelligence gathering and raids is likely to escalate the war with the Taliban.
In essence, a Biden administration plan to keep a couple thousand troops in the country will take Afghanistan back in the direction of the Obama era. At its height during the Obama administration, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan consisted of more than 100,000 coalition personnel. Even then, the war was not decisive and Biden is unlikely to increase the U.S troop presence when he takes office. America’s main form of leverage – its military – will shrink and pressure against the Taliban will be limited. Meanwhile, the militant group will perceive the U.S. as a dishonest partner and utilize a continued presence as justification for the intensity of their attacks.
Even if Biden suddenly decides to fully disengage troops from Afghanistan, that would most likely prove to be more damaging as peace talks have not progressed at all and fighting continues to escalate in nearly every province.
“The level of violence by the Taliban is already significantly high. Their commitment to peace and to end the war is in question. Further increase in violence will diminish their chance of political participation in a post-deal environment,” said Belquis Ahmadi, a senior program officer at the United States Institute of Peace.
The abrupt exit of the Americans fits the Taliban’s narrative perfectly and gives them no reason not to attack Kabul, leaving no room for a joint government.
One of the few viable solutions left is for the U.S. and NATO to jointly pressure the Taliban to sever their ties with al-Qaida, a grueling task but one that will be easier once Trump is out of office in January. However, even if the Taliban reassess their relationship with other terror groups, there is no mechanism in place to effectively measure ties between the two groups. It would be naïve to trust the words of a terrorist organization that has continued to deceive Afghans with the illusion of pursuing peace. The Biden administration will be caught between a rock and a hard place, with few options left.
The Taliban have utilized the negotiations with the U.S. and the talks in Doha as a theatrical statement to the rest of the world. They have gained the recognition of international powers and displayed their military and diplomatic might to show how they ousted the Americans and brought a U.S.-backed government to the table in a weak position.
If the Biden administration keeps a small presence of troops and the Taliban decide to back out of peace talks, then a diplomatic solution is nearly impossible. If Biden decides to fully withdraw, then a decisive military victory for the Afghan government is nearly impossible.
For the Taliban, they have the resources and infrastructure to continue the war. For the Americans, the spread of COVID-19 at home and rebuilding global alliances will soon become their primary focus. For Afghans, this is a lose-lose situation.
Sohrab Azad is a freelance journalist covering Afghanistan and the founder of Advocates for a Prosperous Afghanistan, an advocacy group in Washington, DC. He is currently based in Erbil, Iraq. Follow him on Twitter @azadsohrab.