The war in Afghanistan -- the world’s deadliest ongoing conflict -- enters a crucial phase in 2021.
The United States is set to withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by May as part of a deal with the Taliban aimed at ending the 19-year war.
But that decision rests with U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, who will take office on January 20. It is unclear whether the former vice president will honor the U.S.-Taliban deal made under the Trump administration and the withdrawal timetable.
Complicating Biden's decision is the Taliban’s failure to meet several key conditions in the agreement. That includes pledges to reduce violence and prevent the Al-Qaeda terrorist network from operating on Afghan soil.
Peace talks between Afghan government representatives and the Taliban in the Gulf state of Qatar -- another crucial part of the U.S.-Taliban deal -- have also been fraught with problems and moved at a glacial pace.
The likelihood of Afghan and Taliban negotiators striking a political settlement in 2021 appears to be slim, considering the huge gulf between the sides on key issues and the lack of compromise shown by both parties.
No ‘Lull’ In Taliban Attacks
Since signing a deal with the United States in February, the Taliban has intensified attacks against Afghan security forces, hoping to gain leverage in talks by producing gains on the battlefield.
But in attacking major cities and highways, the militants have violated an agreement with Washington to reduce violence. U.S. forces have retaliated by increasing air strikes against the Taliban.
The deadly aerial attacks have provoked a war of words between the U.S. military and the Taliban, which alleges the strikes are a violation of the U.S.-Taliban deal. The U.S. military has said it reserves the right under the deal to defend Afghan security forces who come under Taliban attack.
A study by a U.S. university researcher published on December 7 said there has been a sharp increase in air strikes conducted by Afghan government forces from July to September this year, attacks that have led to a dramatic rise in civilian casualties.
The study, conducted as part of the Cost of War project at Brown University and Boston University, said that 70 Afghan civilians have been killed in the third quarter of this year, compared to 86 killed in the first six months of 2020.
The report said the increased number of air strikes by the Afghan Air Force would be part of a “broader offensive, perhaps aimed at increasing Afghan government leverage in the talks.”
Observers say the high level of violence will continue in 2021 as the Taliban pursues a fight-and-talk strategy.
“There’s the imperative for the Taliban to prevent any sort of lull in attacks so as to maintain the appearance in Qatar that they have the battlefield initiative,” says Ted Callahan, a security expert on Afghanistan.
Callahan expects to see a “combination of high-profile, mass-casualty attacks against military targets, targeted assassinations in urban areas, and attempts to overrun various Afghan security outposts, especially isolated ones that are difficult to quickly reinforce.”
If those trends continue through the winter, he says, then in the spring there would be large-scale coordinated attacks against vulnerable provincial capitals.
That, he says, is assuming that there is not substantial progress with talks in Qatar or that U.S. forces do not adopt a more forward-leaning, zero-tolerance posture regarding Taliban attacks against Afghan forces.
The Taliban is expected to be further emboldened on the battlefield following the Pentagon’s announcement in November of a sharp cut in U.S. troop levels.
The current deployment of around 5,000 American troops will be halved by mid-January, the lowest level since the beginning of the war in 2001. The bulk of those troops will be part of a U.S. counterterrorism force combating Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS). The rest will be part of a trimmed down, NATO-led Resolute Support mission training, advising, and assisting Afghan security forces battling the Taliban.
Observers say the troop reductions will limit the scope of U.S. operations in Afghanistan, handing the militants a battlefield advantage and weakening Afghan forces, who rely heavily on U.S. air support, intelligence, and logistics to keep the Taliban at bay.
Fight And Talk
The Taliban’s relentless attacks have sapped the already low level of trust between the Afghan government and the militants at the negotiating table.
Fragile and deeply divided, the Afghan government has come to the peace negotiations in relative weakness. With roughly half of the country controlled or contested by the Taliban, Kabul lacks the military advantage needed to drive a hard bargain.
Afghan and Taliban negotiators had been deadlocked since peace talks started in September. But in a small breakthrough, the sides reached agreement on the rules and procedures for the talks on December 2.
The sides have yet to agree on an agenda for the negotiations. Talks on the substantive issues -- including a permanent cease-fire and a power-sharing arrangement -- appear to be a long way off.
Roland Kobia, the European Union’s special envoy to Afghanistan, said in a tweet on November 30 that “nauseous violence” by the Taliban was not the only factor in “stalling and spoiling” the talks.
He also referred to the “obstinate refusal to compromise” and the “systematic maximalist positions” held by the Afghan government and the Taliban.
The Taliban had stalled the process by refusing to budge on its demands on technical issues, including on which school of Islamic jurisprudence should be used to resolve disputes.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has also been accused by his critics of trying to stall the talks in hopes the incoming Biden administration would reverse the withdrawal of U.S. forces or even renegotiate the terms of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal. That agreement excluded the Afghan government and is seen as skewed in favor of the militants.
Analysts say both of those scenarios are unlikely given Biden’s support for withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan.
Torek Farhadi, an analyst and former Afghan presidential adviser, says the recent breakthrough in talks was driven by the Afghan government’s fear of a “speedy withdrawal of U.S. troops to a threshold of no return,” in reference to the U.S. military dismantling many of its bases in the country.
Farhadi says Ghani's fear for his own future could compel him to make further compromises in 2021.
If and when the peace talks turn to substantive issues, the Taliban is likely to demand the formation of a neutral interim government that they would join. There is support among Afghan opposition figures for such an arrangement, but Ghani has strongly rejected it.
“The Taliban will now try to create divisions within the Kabul camp and attempt to make a co-governance deal with traditional political parties and personalities, leaving the government in an increasingly shrinking position of representation,” says Farhadi.
“Ghani is feeling increasing heat to make a deal toward an interim administration before losing everything,” he adds.
Analysts also say the Taliban’s own worries about future U.S. policy could compel it to compromise.
The Taliban fear that the incoming Biden administration could reverse course and keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan if progress is not made in the peace talks.
Will U.S. Stick Or Twist?
Analysts expect Biden to largely stick to the U.S.-Taliban deal.
It is also largely believed, however, that Biden will delay the full 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 the Afghan government.
Observers say Biden will also be stricter in enforcing the deal than the Trump administration has been, specifically when it comes to the Taliban's commitment to end cooperation with Al-Qaeda, a core U.S. demand that the militants have yet to fulfill.
Biden has long seen the war in Afghanistan through a counterterrorism lens and said Washington should pull out of the country, save for a relatively small number of troops -- “several thousand” -- to ensure foreign terrorist groups cannot launch attacks on the United States from Afghanistan.
The Pentagon said in a July report that Al-Qaeda maintains “close ties” to the Taliban and has an "enduring interest" in attacking U.S. troops.
A United Nations report released in June said Al-Qaeda and the Taliban "remain close” and the militant group "regularly consulted" with the terrorist network during negotiations with the United States and "offered guarantees that it would honor their historical ties."
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.
Analysts say Biden could threaten to hold up the withdrawal of the remaining U.S. troops if there is no indication, or insufficient evidence, that the Taliban has ended cooperation with Al-Qaeda.
If Biden’s concerns are not addressed, analysts say he is likely to retain a small counterterrorism force that would remain in Afghanistan beyond a military pullout, although the existing U.S.-Taliban deal does not allow for a continued American military presence.
“Biden will favor a withdrawal sooner rather than later, while also retaining a counterterrorism capacity once most U.S. troops have left,” says Michael Kugelman, South Asia senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
“A key priority for the Biden administration will be how to ensure that counterterrorism capacity: if it can be retained without U.S. troops on the ground and if it requires troops to stay, how the Taliban can be brought on board with the idea."