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Biden Presidency Expected To Hone, Not Radically Alter, Washington’s Approach To Afghanistan and Pakistan

Joe Biden speaks to supporters after the media announced that he had won the U.S. presidential election over Donald Trump, in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 7.

As a former chairman of the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee and vice president, Joe Biden has been closely involved in Washington’s war in Afghanistan and its complex relations with neighboring Pakistan for decades.

As Washington seeks to end the longest war in its history, Biden’s presidency is poised to tweak but not completely change the U.S. course in Afghanistan while also adjusting relations with neighboring Pakistan.

“We are likely to see more continuity than divergence from the Trump to the Biden administration in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” said Elizabeth Threlkeld, deputy director for South Asia at the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank. “In general, any changes will be more in tone and process than on substance.”

Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States, says the Biden administration will go ahead with a military withdrawal from Afghanistan -- albeit with a caveat. “Biden will not withdraw by ceding ground to the Taliban and will definitely be more mindful of the Taliban’s continued ties to Al-Qaeda,” he told RFE/RL’s Gandhara.

Under a landmark U.S. agreement with the Taliban in February, Washington agreed to a “conditions-based” withdrawal of all U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan by May 2021 in return for the Taliban’s counterterrorism guarantees, peace talks with the Afghan government aimed at finding a lasting political solution, and a permanent cease-fire.

While the number of U.S. troops has already been reduced to 4,500 from 13,000 in February, the peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban appear stalled in Doha. Amid escalating attacks, a cease-fire is nowhere in sight. More crucially, the UN still sees Al-Qaeda as “heavily embedded” with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Peace In Afghanistan

Haqqani, now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington, says Biden and his advisers understand the importance of a stable and peaceful Afghanistan.

“They may prefer to stretch out the military withdrawal, making it truly conditional to end Taliban violence and use the extra time to apply more pressure on the Taliban and Pakistan to ensure an agreement that is a peace deal, not just a withdrawal deal,” he said.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a parliament session in Kabul on October 21.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a parliament session in Kabul on October 21.

In recent years, Islamabad has somewhat repaired its strained ties with Washington after supporting negotiations with the Taliban. Pakistan reportedly exerted pressure on Taliban leaders, some of whom are seen as dependent on sanctuaries in the country’s vast western borderlands with Afghanistan.

Haqqani says he expects the Biden administration to adopt a nuanced approach to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan by prioritizing an economically and politically stable Afghanistan.

“A better policy toward Afghanistan would be to talk more to America’s allies there: the Kabul government,” he said. “And not keep giving in to the Taliban.”

In Kabul and Doha, the Afghan government and the Taliban are closely watching developments in Washington.

“It [the agreement] serves the interest of the Afghan nation and the interest of the American nation,” Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem told VOA. “It should not be subject to any significant change and should be implemented in the form in which it is agreed upon.”

In Kabul, senior Afghan officials are already calling on the incoming U.S. administration to review the agreement with the Taliban and reevaluate the peace process.

“As the government of Afghanistan, we didn’t sign this agreement. We were not a party to it,” Sarwar Danish, Afghanistan’s second vice president, said on November 9. “From a legal standpoint, we do not bear any responsibility about the details of this agreement.”

U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. (file photo)
U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. (file photo)

A former official involved in President Barack Obama's foreign policy team in South Asia, however, does not see Washington granting all of Kabul’s wishes. Requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the ongoing talks, he says there is talk that Biden might ask the current U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad to continue his efforts.

“Khalilzad has bipartisan support,” the former official said. “Troop withdrawal may be slightly delayed if talks don’t progress. It’s under discussion,” he added. “He won’t treat Doha like Trump treated JCPOA,” he noted, alluding to President Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from a nuclear deal with Iran.

In a September interview with Stars and Stripes, the U.S. military newspaper, Biden said he supported keeping a small counterterrorism force in Afghanistan. "I think we need special ops capacity to coordinate with our allies," he said, adding he envisioned keeping 1,500 to 2,000 troops in the country.

“Biden will not destroy the agreement for the sake of a counterterrorism force,” the former official said. “If the Taliban don’t move in talks or in Al-Qaeda, the option will be on the table.”

Rethinking Pakistan

Haqqani also anticipates that Biden’s administration will prioritize counterterrorism and extend support for Afghan peace by adopting a pragmatic approach toward neighboring Pakistan.

“It will continue to engage with Pakistan, asking Islamabad to act on terrorism-related issues, including at the FATF, and support U.S. endeavors for peace in Afghanistan,” he said. Pakistan is currently on the ‘gray’ list of the Financial Action Task Force, a global financial watchdog.

However, unlike its dealings with the Trump administration, Islamabad might find dealing with the Biden administration difficult amid its track record of declining human rights and press freedoms in the country.

“I look forward to President Elect Biden's Global Summit on Democracy and working with him to end illegal tax havens and stealth of nation's wealth by corrupt leaders,” Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted on November 7, alluding to a global summit Biden’s campaign had mentioned for his first year in office. “We will also continue to work with U.S. for peace in Afghanistan and in the region.”

But Haqqani, who worked closely with Biden after he became vice president in 2009, sees Washington paying close attention to the state of democracy and human rights in Pakistan. “Pakistan’s close ties with China and its lack of democracy and disregard for human rights will not be overlooked,” he noted.

Haqqani recalled that as the Chairman of the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee Biden initially pushed for a multibillion-dollar aid package that ultimately resulted in the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act of 2009, which provided more than $1 billion in development aid to Islamabad for many years.

“President-elect Biden experienced how billions of dollars in civilian assistance did not change Pakistan’s strategic calculus about Afghanistan,” he recalled. “He is now unlikely to restore massive amounts of security or economic assistance for Pakistan.”

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan during a bilateral meeting at the 50th World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, in January. (file photo)
U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan during a bilateral meeting at the 50th World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, in January. (file photo)

He emphasized that while Washington might resume a limited strategic dialogue with Islamabad, Biden is unlikely to resume military largesse, which has historically shaped relations between the two countries.

“It is unlikely that a Biden administration will resume payments of security assistance or Coalition Support funds,” he said. Islamabad received tens of billions of dollars in military assistance after siding with Washington in its global war on terrorism after 9/11.

Threlkeld, a former American diplomat in Pakistan, however, says there are new opportunities for cooperation on cross-cutting issues such as public health and climate as Washington’s heightened competition with Beijing becomes a determining factor in its overall policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“Washington’s approach is likely to be more measured and multilateral,” she said.

But in a region shaped by great power competition and rivalries between neighbors, seeking multilateral solutions to festering conflicts will be no easy task for an administration facing multiple domestic crises.