Joe Biden confronts a huge challenge in Afghanistan
The new US administration has many complex internal issues to address and resolve, ranging from handling the pandemic to reinvigorating the economy to uniting a divided nation. There are issues of foreign policy that would require urgent focus-- from North Korea’s nuclear development program to resetting relations with China and normalizing ties with Russia etc.
But one of Biden’s most formidable foreign policy challenges will be navigating the difficult path to executing the February agreement with the Taliban. The only tangible achievement so far has been the release of 5,000 Taliban and about a thousand Afghan government prisoners by both sides. But there is a stalemate in negotiations currently underway in Doha.
Ending a long war was a principal policy objective of the outgoing Trump administration. Perhaps Trump was keen on bringing the long conflict to an end and marketing this as a great success. But that was not to be.
The situation is dismal and complicated. Taliban would like all remaining US forces-- about 2,500 to leave the country by May this year as laid down in the US-Taliban deal. There are an undisclosed contractor’s security forces operating under the leadership of the CIA. The deal envisages the exit of all foreign forces.
The Kabul government on the other hand will not align itself with a policy of complete exit of all foreign forces because that will mean the Taliban advancing on Kabul, given the low morale and training of the Afghan National Army who would be called upon to face the Taliban juggernaut.
President Biden should also realize that the only government that can dismantle Daesh or other militant outfits currently active in the country will be the one headed by Taliban, but including other ethnic and political parties and groups.
Rustam Shah Mohmand
The regime in Kabul will therefore not be party to any complete withdrawal of all foreign forces. Ashraf Ghani’s government has employed all tricks of the trade to obstruct the implementation of the accord that could cost them their positions. The Afghan government is the main obstacle to any resolution of the conflict that is not compatible with their ambitions. They would like to prolong the status quo.
But the war landscape is fast changing. Attacks by Taliban have spiked in recent months. Casualties on both sides are increasing at an alarming rate. Taking advantage of a worsening security environment, the brutal militant outfit Daesh has also increased its attacks targeting mostly innocent civilians. A wave of fear and uncertainty is sweeping the country.
The insider attacks have reappeared causing huge casualties. Attacks on journalists, politicians and minorities have become more commonplace. Recently, two women judges of the Supreme court were killed in an ambush in Kabul. Deadly attacks in the northern provinces have caused a large number of fatalities.
As insecurity overwhelms the country, poverty has affected millions of people. About 10 million children are currently not getting adequate food-- and 20 million are estimated to live far below the poverty line. Livelihoods have been adversely affected across the country.
No breakthrough appears to be in sight. What can President Biden do to end the war and help the country return to normalcy?
The best option for Biden is to make it unequivocally clear to the government in Kabul that he is determined to bring about a change in policy. He must forcefully convey to the rulers in Kabul that they should not bank on external financial assistance while refusing to become part of a settlement that may cost them their positions in government. The Afghan government should not block any move that seeks to bring peace to a war ravaged country.
Biden would be well advised to promote the idea of a multi-ethnic, broad-based government. The Taliban will be a dominant partner in any interim government that is established by invoking the mechanism of a ‘Loya Jirga’ or Grand Assembly-- the traditional institution that can take decisions overriding the Constitution.
Short of such an unequivocal, categorical stance, the situation will continue to worsen. President Biden should also realize that the only government that can dismantle Daesh or other militant outfits currently active in the country will be the one headed by Taliban, but including other ethnic and political parties and groups.
President Biden will certainly be conscious of the grave dangers of the country descending into chaos and civil war if a pragmatic alternative is not worked out and enforced before the departure of all foreign forces. There could be the possibility of some foreign forces being retained for some time until an agreement is reached on an interim set up before the May deadline for troop withdrawal.
Time is running out. A quick reappraisal of policy is needed and one that is compatible with ground realities, which meets the aspirations of the people and delivers peace after four decades of war. It is an opportunity for Biden to create a place for himself in the annals of history.
*Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade.