Biden’s Endgame Vis-à-Vis Afghanistan Quagmire

The protracted Afghanistan conflict remains a nightmare for the proponents of perpetual peace. Ever since the post 9/11 US invasion, the country is laden with intensifying violence, and clouds of embroiling turmoil keep hovering over it that continue to ensure mayhem repercussion over the regional security architecture. For two decades, the unresolved dispute has become one of the most hostile conflicts of contemporary times, wrecking unprecedented catastrophes at the state and regional levels. Notwithstanding the pessimistic assertions of the past, the Afghanistan peace process became a ray of hope for regional peace and stability. The historic “US- Taliban deal,” under the Trump administration in the year 2020, followed by the resumption of the “intra- Afghan peace process” apparently foreseen as a roadmap for conflict resolution. The deal with the Taliban has been one of the fewer accomplishments for President Trump. On the other hand, it also put the new Biden administrations in doldrums vis-à-vis execution of the policy- that seemingly opting divergent approach. The majority of the policy principles towards Afghanistan had been subtle. In hindsight, the year 2017, President Trump administration revamped Obama’s Af-Pak policy of Clear, Build, Hold, Transfer (CBHT) with new Regionalize, Realign, Reconcile, and Reinforce and Sustain policy (R4+S), prioritizing the notion of “winning war in Afghanistan and condition-based drawdown of troops rather aiming at the national building. Thus towards the Afghanistan crisis over the years the US by and large remained coercive and assertive in its rapprochement and reconciliation policies rip to shreds the influence of Taliban and prompting democratic governance architecture, now initiated “honey fugled approach through negotiations” to smoothen its path for pulling out from Afghanistan. Amid recent circumstances, the notion of victory understandably confined to its peaceful escape plan, irrespective of post-withdrawal constraints that may invoke catastrophes domestically in Afghanistan and the interweaving of the entire region.

Given the recent development vis-à-vis Afghanistan peace process, it is arguable what the US and Taliban want to make out of this deal? The riposte is simple, the Taliban wants to be dominant and exclusive whereas the US hopes for withdrawal through using peaceful means. Introspection of the [vary deal] suggests that the Taliban seemingly on the repossession path of their empire which they lost into the hands of the US since the instigation of Operation Enduring Freedom in the year 2001. The non-state entity desires an unimaginable power and legitimacy among the international community. Their persuasiveness of negotiations coupled with asymmetric coercion (maintaining pressure through violence) is reasonably bringing far-fetched outcomes. Emboldened by its religious ideological aspirations, the dual strategy not only warranted the departure of invasion troops without any success from their soil but also secured the release of their numerous battle-harden fighters at their stakes. On the negotiation table, the Taliban holds the inclusive leverage of “bargain” whereas the US seemingly in no position as it already decided to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

 Notwithstanding the idealist rhetoric, the entire political settlement brings substantial gains for the Taliban, marginal concessions for the US, and a sigh of relief for regional stakeholders whilst leaving the rest of Afghans reeling with an uncertain future. 

 As a case point, the US demanding the Taliban to disassociate from Al-Qaida and offshoot groups and refrain from attacking the US and West at large seems a wild goose chase in the dark. A dismaying fact, the Taliban have not even agreed to the “ceasefire” yet (largely the key demand by the US), as the entire country is still bedewed in a blood bath and embroiling turmoil. As a consequence, compliance with the peace agreement from the Taliban after regaining their power in foreseeable future could turn up wishful thinking for the US.

As far as the power-sharing arrangement is concerned, the Taliban reluctant to adhere to government based on the contours of a democratic regime. Nor, any partial representation in the current pro-US government setup is acceptable to them in Afghanistan. It follows that an Islamic ideological empire, fundamentally aligned with “Shariah principles” is their ultimate objective. Realistically, the US remains on the receiving end at the negotiation table with the Taliban. Irrespective of mayhem repercussions for the future of Afghanistan and regional geopolitics, its reductionist strategy would scarcely earn it an escape cover while trillion dollars investment on the US policies- Control, Build, Hold, Transfer (CBHT) and Regionalize, Realign, Reconcile, Reinforce and Sustain (R4+S) during Obama and Trump administration ever since invasion gone squandered.

Thus, the sequential failure of policies upraised apprehensions concerning the legitimating of war, and the US struggling to justify it over a period of time. Moreover, the sub-sequential transformation led a non-coherent and erratic strategic paradigm to bring perpetual peace through the process of regime change that further proved fatal for the stabilization of the country. Furthermore, the notion of winning war also became ambiguous, the way it was carried out by different administrations in their respective eras. The strategy towards Afghanistan predominantly loaded with pre-conceived policies of military practices with uncertain rotation of military troops, alliances, and manpower tactically and operationally more often, leading to intensifying violence and instigation of civil warfare. For instance, Obama’s strategy of CBHT was overlying on the US military practices, enacting strategic ploughs through Northern alliance, mercenary forces and its regional allies became ineffective due to uncertain imperatives that needed to be addressed at first hand by the US policy orientation goals.

Conversely, President Trump’s NSS desires for inclusive and meaningful victory by revamping the prior policy have added fuel to the fire. The policy of troop’s withdrawal in Afghanistan, and strategically applying pressure on the Taliban’s seemingly become a redundant practice. The shift from the idea of nation-building to victory in Afghanistan without implying the state and nation-building process in the true sense, raised serious apprehensions because the notion of victory in Afghanistan for the US has already become obsolete.

Without any doubt, the Afghanistan conflict remains one of the key challenges for the Biden administration. In the account of this, the new administration sought to find a plausible solution to the decade’s long crisis. Ever since Biden took the US presidential charge, all eyes on him for his manoeuvring strategies towards the Afghanistan Peace Process. So far it remains subtle and inconclusive as the current peace process draws ambiguous configurations. The very first formal strategy of President Biden came in the form of a written letter to his Afghan President. Secretary of State Antony Blinken mentioned the number of measures the US deliberates to take to “move matters more profoundly and rapidly” toward a political settlement with the Taliban and a cease-fire, giving the first tangible indication into President Joe Biden’s strategy to disengage the US from one of the longest war in history. With reference to a letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, the US proposed shifting the primary venue for the Afghan consultations from Qatar to Turkey and prioritizing efforts there to form a provisional government bringing in the Taliban as an equal partner.

Biden administration tends to revamp the deal of the US withdrawal of all remaining 2,500 troops from the country by May 1, 2021, and it has singled delay of the US presence on the Afghan Soil. To start with, the US has expanded the sphere of the Afghan peace process through the inclusion of various other regional actors. Washington intended to ask Turkey to host peace negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban “in the coming weeks” that appeared to be the first strategy, not defined in the previously negotiated settlements under the Trump era. Likewise, the Biden administration vows the UN to convoke consultations with a half-dozen countries—including Washington’s top geopolitical rivals Iran, China, and Russia—to coordinate an “integrated” approach to peace in Afghanistan. Herein, the US new policy is deflected again from the previous reductionist policy of Trump. Sensing the linkages of the archrivals- Iran, China, and Russia, Joe Biden overtly ought to seek mileage against the Taliban by portraying the widespread bloc coupled with allies and contending actors.

In addition to that the US envoy for Afghan peace talks, Zalmay Khalilzad, Pitched a US plan for the formation of a provisional partaking Afghan government that would take account of the Taliban in meetings with both Afghan and US leaders—including key stakeholders such as Ghani, Abdullah, and former President Hamid Karzai.

The Biden government seems determined to secure a final peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban after more than two decades of conflict. This is again a different approach, from Obama and Trump administrations that vowed to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, only to see their plans break down in the face of protracted conflict and systemic volatility as efforts to fully defeat the Taliban and other militant groups recurrently unsuccessful.

 

In order to address such dissimilarities, the US has planned that the two sides agree on a set of principles under which the provisional government would proceed. The draft set of principles circulated by the US comes down on the side of modernity and democracy – that has been the clashing with Taliban.

This American swift effort to drive the two Afghan parties into a coalition government seems Unlikely to produce results fast enough to facilitate a withdrawal of remaining American and NATO forces by May 1. The initiative could prove beneficial, nevertheless, if it impels the two Afghan sides to at least begin engaging on the principles upon which any such expanded government should operate.

 

In addition to the points offered by the Biden administration, such conversations could usefully seek more specificity regarding modifications to the current constitutional order, arrangements to monitor and enforce a permanent ceasefire, procedures to amalgamate the two opposing armies, and provisions to reintegrate former fighters back into civilian life.

 

Intra-Afghan Political Fissures

Divergent interests of the Afghanistan political leadership and key stakeholders in one of the key aspect of the fragmentation of the Afghanistan peace process and it seems one of the most ignored fact too because largely it never coincides with the interest of the actors that desires to bring the with the US withdrawal in compliance to the protocols of the US, Taliban deal. One of the key assertions for this impediment is the perceptions of power-sharing after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. As the US withdrawal would open a new window for the regional actors to pursue their respective interests.

 

Intra-Afghan political cohesion concerning the Afghanistan peace process is one of the key impediments that hamper the prospects of peaceful political stalemate at the state level. The drive for perpetual peace in Afghanistan has brought Kabul’s political leadership at odds and subverted the US.-backed government, which has deemed the chances of inclusive consensus-building among the key stakeholders. As matter of fact, all the entities have separate proposed plans that are aligned to their personal choices and interests, rather than for the state. Taliban’s at Centre stage, Warlords as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Abdur Rashid Dostum, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has his own multiphase plan. The apparitions are riotously dissimilar in magnitude and depth. Nevertheless, there is one converging aspect of the establishment of a transitional government in Kabul, with many of Ghani’s political adversaries aiming to gain more power for themselves amid such strategies. With exception of the Taliban, the central government in Kabul, however, seems confident to overcome the widening divisions and vows to foster uniformity among intra-state key stakeholders. However, the current lack of consensus, just weeks away from a May 1 deadline set by the US, could place the Taliban at a further advantage in negotiations over who controls post-settlement Afghanistan. With the US withdrawal as per the US-Taliban deal likely to delay and a new peace proposal on the table, the Taliban faces foreseeable crossroads. It is pertinent to mention that Official and unofficial power brokers in Kabul have been deeply divided for years,  with Ghani and Abdullah maintaining one of the ferocious contentions. Both leaders were the front-runners in the country’s most recent election that was decided by a slim margin for Ghani amid allegations of fraud. The election before that, also between Abdullah and Ghani saw a similar result that was determined with an imprecise power-sharing settlement that in many ways flagged both political leaders’ variances. Contrary to that, Dostum’s peace plan calls for the rights of different ethnic minorities and the decentralization of political and military control. While on the other hand, Hekmatyar desires a “non-coalition” government based on “non-controversial individuals. Although that seems a wild goose chase in dark but because Hekmatyar’s holds a representation of ethnic identity and their interests. Key steps in the draft of the US proposed plan already appear to have sprawled. The document called for a meeting between the two negotiating teams in Turkey to jump-start talks in Doha, Qatar. Initially, the conference in Turkey was planned for early April, but the date has repeatedly slid back, and now concerns surrounding the start of Ramadan in mid-April have some worried it won’t convene until May.

Devoid of an inclusive peace deal, the pulling out of the US forces from Afghanistan could permit the Taliban to attain considerable territory under their power jurisdictions. Although the political leadership of the Taliban claims violence reduction, however, its fighters have launched operations mounting prowess and recapturing territory around major Afghan cities and towns in recent months.

The extended US diplomatic push for a peace deal is envisioned to avoid an unsystematic withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. That close-fitting deadline is being overtly pronounced by US officials as an opportunity for progress, but Afghan stakeholders have expressed grave concerns. Conceivably the more notable political fissure aggravated by increased US diplomatic pressure is that between Abdullah and Ghani. While Hamid Karzai opinioned the US approach has “not necessarily” brought the Afghan president and Abdullah closer together, but he said he is also confident divergent ideas will sooner or later weave. Karzai’s public statements in the face of increased US pressure have been undemonstrative. During his last years in office, he was a fierce critic of the US, predominantly on civilian casualties, and has often blasted Ghani’s more measured stand on the issue. He’s also been at odds with Abdullah and out of office remains one of the country’s most powerful political players.

 As far as President Ghani is concerned, he tends to opt for a different proposal reaching an end state that will include, in the first phase, a consensus on a political settlement and an internationally monitored ceasefire. The second phase will be holding a presidential election and the establishment of a “government of peace” and implementation arrangements for moving towards the new political system. The third phase will involve building a “constitutional framework, reintegration of refugees and development” for Afghanistan moving forward.

Above all the Taliban one of the key stakeholders in the Afghanistan crisis vows to follow the manual book of a deal carried out under the Trump administration. The Taliban warned Washington against defying a May 1 deadline for the withdrawal of American and NATO troops from Afghanistan.

The Taliban issued their warning at a press conference in Moscow, the day after meeting senior Afghan government negotiators and international observers to try to jumpstart a stalled peace process to end Afghanistan’s decades of war.

As far as Pakistan is concerned, it has emerged as one of the key actors in the Afghanistan Peace Process. Pakistan facilitated the landmark first round of direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Islamabad in July 2015. The process broke down after the Taliban announced the death of their long-time leader Mullah Omar, triggering a bitter internal power struggle. In December 2018, Pakistan had also arranged rare direct talks between Washington and the Taliban, paving the way for the Doha peace deal between the two sides. It has committed One billion US dollars for Afghanistan’s development and reconstruction out of which nearly $500 million have already been spent on infrastructure and capacity building projects. Pakistan has long voiced concern over India’s influence in Afghanistan and Biden’s intent of including Delhi would create resentments towards Islamabad.

To conclude, war-torn Afghanistan deserves enduring peace and stability as its generations remained under the clout of violence, bloodshed, and gun smoke for decades. Therefore, all the stakeholders must put a collective effort for the perpetual peace, stability of the country that will ultimately generate prospects of positive-sum gains.

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About Mushahid Hussain Naqvi 10 Articles
Mushahid Hussain Naqvi is the Assistant Editor at TAT and Sub-Editor at Melange International Magazine