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Afghanistan Pinned Hopes For Change On Biden, But U.S. Likely To Stay Course Set By Trump

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (center) is applauded by House Speaker John Boehner (right) and Vice President Joe Biden (left) as he addresses a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington in March 2015.

Afghan officials have been angered and alienated by what they view as U.S. President Donald Trump’s push for a hasty military pullout from Afghanistan without a comprehensive peace settlement.

Many in Kabul put their hopes on his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, winning the November 3 presidential election and providing more flexibility for the Afghan government in its contentious negotiations with the Taliban in Doha.

Kabul wants a slower withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and the possibility of renegotiating the terms of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal that excluded the Afghan government and which is seen as skewed in favor of the militants.

But analysts say President-elect Biden will likely stay the course set by Trump to end America’s 19-year war in Afghanistan, although they say he is likely to take a harder line against the Taliban.

“Biden largely agrees with the current U.S. policy -- he supports the peace process and a U.S. withdrawal,” says Michael Kugelman, South Asia senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

“It’s largely the pacing of the withdrawal that Biden takes issue with,” adds Kugelman. “He favors a withdrawal, but a gradual and ‘responsible’ one.”

One-Sided Deal

For years, U.S. policy was to facilitate an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process between the Kabul government and the Taliban. But with the Taliban refusing to negotiate with government officials -- who they view as illegitimate -- the peace process was deadlocked.

Controversially, U.S. policy changed in 2018 when the Trump administration opened direct negotiations with the Taliban in Qatar without the presence of the Afghan government. Eighteen months later, the sides signed a bilateral deal aimed at ending the war.

The deal gave the Taliban what it has craved for years: international legitimacy and recognition. Conversely, the agreement undermined the internationally recognized government in Kabul, which was not a party to the accord.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (left) arrives at an Afghan National Army training center in Kabul in January 2011.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (left) arrives at an Afghan National Army training center in Kabul in January 2011.

Under the agreement, all foreign forces are to leave Afghanistan by May in return for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which has pledged to negotiate a permanent cease-fire and a power-sharing agreement with the Afghan government.

Critics say Washington made too many concessions to the Taliban without getting much in return.

The agreement fell short of a core U.S. demand for the Taliban to publicly cut its ties with the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. It also did not tie the military pullout to the success of intra-Afghan peace talks or lay out how the United States would monitor and verify if the Taliban is sticking to its commitments.

The text of the deal also made no mention of a Taliban commitment to reduce violence, although it is believed the militant group agreed to stop attacks on major highways and urban centers.

The agreement also committed the Afghan government to free some 5,000 Taliban fighters. Kabul initially balked at the mass release but grudgingly accepted, staggering the freeing of the inmates in a way that delayed the peace talks by months.

Observers at the time said Kabul was deliberately stalling the process in hopes that Washington’s policy on Afghanistan would shift if Biden won the election.

Violating The Deal

Trump sent alarm bells ringing in October when he tweeted that he wanted to pull all American troops out of Afghanistan by Christmas, although his national-security adviser, Robert O'Brien, later said the number of U.S. troops would shrink from around 4,500 to 2,500 early next year.

In response, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the military alliance would not leave Afghanistan until security conditions allow, highlighting divisions in the alliance over Trump’s rushed exit from the war-torn country.

The prospect of a premature U.S. withdrawal came despite the Taliban failing to fulfill its pledges under its deal with Washington.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with the Taliban delegation in Doha on September 12.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with the Taliban delegation in Doha on September 12.

The Taliban appears to have been upholding its commitment not to attack departing U.S. forces. But the militants have failed to fulfill a pledge to renounce the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, a longtime ally.

Meanwhile, the Taliban has intensified attacks on Afghan government forces and sought to seize more territory, despite U.S. officials saying the Taliban had agreed to reduce violence.

‘Bear No Responsibility’

Since Biden’s election victory, Afghan officials have demanded a review of the peace process.

“We hope that the process so far will be reviewed and reevaluated under the new government in the United States,” Afghan Second Vice President Sarwar Danish said on November 9.

He added: “As the government of Afghanistan, we didn’t sign this agreement. We were not a party to it. From a legal standpoint, we do not bear any responsibility about the details of this agreement.”

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said on November 8 that he expected ties between Kabul and Washington to deepen in areas of counterterrorism and building peace.

“There has been no articulation on the part of the government as to how it wants the process to be reviewed,” says Ali Adili, a researcher at the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank in Kabul.

“But it might want the new U.S. administration to support its call for a cease-fire, the talks to proceed on the government’s terms, and to come down hard on the Taliban in the face of its intensification of violence,” he adds.

The Taliban has said it expects Biden to abide by the agreement.

"We signed the agreement with the American government, not a person," Mohammad Naeem, a spokesman for the Taliban, told AFP on November 8. "We hope that the process that has started will not be weakened but rather strengthened."

‘Pay Closer Attention’

Analysts say Biden is likely to stick to the U.S.-Taliban deal, given his support for withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan.

“The current Trump strategy has two military components -- advising and supporting Afghan forces and counterterrorism -- and a diplomatic one which is peace talks,” says Jonathan Schroden, a security expert with the U.S.-based nonprofit research and analysis organization CNA.

“I don’t think that overall formula will change under Biden, but the trend of decreasing resources for the two military components is likely to continue,” he says.

Even if Biden wanted to renegotiate the deal, experts say the Taliban would refuse because the current deal is generous to the militants.

U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad (left) and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban group's top political leader, sign a peace agreement between Taliban and U.S. officials in Doha on February 29.
U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad (left) and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban group's top political leader, sign a peace agreement between Taliban and U.S. officials in Doha on February 29.

Biden is expected, however, to delay the military withdrawal considering his administration will conduct a policy review and peace talks that were planned in March only started in September due to delays and disputes between the Taliban and Afghan government.

Observers say Biden will also be stricter in enforcing the deal than Trump.

“Specifically, Biden will be paying more attention to the Taliban's commitment to end cooperation with Al-Qaeda,” says Kugelman.

“I could envision the Biden administration threatening to hold up the withdrawal of the remaining U.S. troops next spring if there's no indication, or insufficient evidence, that the Taliban has ended cooperation with Al-Qaeda.”

The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and ousted the Taliban after they refused to hand over Al-Qaeda leaders who were behind the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States that killed nearly 3,000 people.

The U.S.-Taliban agreement states that the Taliban “will not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including [Al-Qaeda], to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.”

But the deal does not include an explicit Taliban commitment to break off ties with Al-Qaeda.

If Biden’s concerns are not addressed, analysts say he is likely to push for a small, residual U.S. counterterrorism force in Afghanistan beyond the scheduled military withdrawal.

“This is what he's long envisioned as the ideal U.S. troop posture in Afghanistan, and it would address his counterterrorism focus,” he adds. “But it could risk triggering a major disagreement with the Taliban, which wants all U.S. troops out.”

‘Counterterrorism Lens’

Analysts say Biden has long seen the war in Afghanistan through a counterterrorism lens.

When he was vice president, Biden vehemently opposed President Barack Obama’s troop surge in 2009.

The surge was part of Obama’s ambitious counterinsurgency strategy in which tens of thousands of additional troops were deployed to defeat the Taliban and billions of dollars were spent on winning the heart and minds of Afghans by building up infrastructure and establishing a well-functioning government.

But the expensive strategy failed and forced the Obama administration to consider peace talks as an alternative to end the war.

“I was totally against the whole notion of nation building in Afghanistan,” Biden said during the election campaign in February. “The only thing we should be doing is dealing with terrorism in that region.”

In comments that provoked widespread anger among Afghans, Biden added that there was “no possibility of uniting that country, no possibility at all of making it a whole country.”

“Biden consistently took a very narrow view of U.S. interests in Afghanistan -- focused on defeating Al-Qaeda,” says Schroden. “I’d expect that narrow focus, [which is] now on Al-Qaeda and Islamic State, to continue.”

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is acting editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.