With Biden headed to White House, Afghan government hopes for tougher stance on Taliban

November 10, 2020
Abdullah Abdullah, center, chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, attends the opening session of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, in September.
KABUL — The stalled peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban could see slight changes with the new U.S. administration, Afghan officials say, with some expressing hope that President-elect Joe Biden will adopt a tougher approach to the militant group and be more willing to leave a small U.S. counterterrorism force in the country.

Such moves would mark only modest shifts from the Trump administration’s Afghanistan policy but could provide more leverage to Afghan government negotiators in Doha, Qatar, and move stalled peace talks forward.

The first peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government were the product of the Trump administration’s push to withdraw all U.S. forces from the country. But for weeks the two sides have been at a stalemate, each blaming the other for being unwilling to compromise as violence across Afghanistan has escalated.

Biden has said repeatedly that he plans to draw down U.S. troops to a relatively small number — “several thousand” — to ensure that neither al-Qaeda nor the Islamic State is in a position to launch attacks on the United States from Afghanistan.

That continued presence of a small number of U.S. counterterrorism troops — a provision not included in the public text of the U.S.-Taliban deal signed in February, which calls for a full withdrawal of U.S. forces — could hold the Taliban more accountable to the deal’s central condition: a call for the group to break ties with international terrorist groups, according to one Afghan official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.

Then-Vice President Joe Biden speaks with U.S. soldiers at a base in Wardak province in January  2011.

In a statement Monday, Afghanistan’s second vice president, Sarwar Danish, called for the incoming Biden administration to conduct a “full review” of the peace process and “apply more pressure on the Taliban to reduce their violence.”

Last week, negotiating teams at the luxurious Doha resort where talks are being held were glued to televisions and smartphones as election results rolled in. Both sides saw the future of peace efforts as closely tied to the outcome, even if many don’t anticipate a dramatic shift in U.S. policy with a Biden presidency.

“The biggest change we expect is in how policy is implemented,” said the Afghan official. “We expect more predictability, a more coordinated withdrawal.”

Initially a central Trump campaign promise, withdrawing all U.S. troops from Afghanistan became an early focus of his administration’s foreign policy. President Trump escalated the U.S. air war to push the Taliban to the negotiating table and secure a historic deal charting the course for the full withdrawal of U.S. troops by next spring.

The approach also brought the Taliban and Afghan government to the negotiating table for the first time in Doha. But critics said that the U.S.-Taliban deal demanded little from the militant group in return for the exit of U.S. forces and that the few conditions outlined in the public draft are vague.

A senior Taliban representative in the movement’s Qatar office said the group doesn’t expect the Biden administration to nullify the U.S.-Taliban deal or “reverse the peace process,” warning that such a move “would be adding fuel to the fire.”

“The peace deal in Doha is a valid document that was formally signed between the United States and the Islamic Emirate,” the Taliban representative said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. The Islamic Emirate is the group’s preferred name.

Members of the Taliban delegation attend the opening session of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha on Sept. 12.

In a recent interview, a senior Biden adviser recalled the former vice president’s opposition to the Obama administration’s troop increase and said that “events have borne out that he was right.”

The U.S.-Taliban deal called for a break with groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State before the United States began to reduce troop levels below the 8,600 reached in June. And while Trump administration officials have said the Taliban has not yet fulfilled that condition, the Pentagon has continued to draw down its forces.

The Pentagon declined to give a precise number for the current U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but it is expected to hit 4,500 this month, down from between 13,000 and 12,000 a year ago.

The Taliban enjoyed a significant boost in international standing during the Trump presidency. Trump spoke to the group’s leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar, by phone — the first U.S. president to do so — following the signing of the February deal. And during a news conference in September, he said the United States is “dealing very well with the Taliban” and praised the group, saying that “they’re very tough, they’re very smart, they’re very sharp.”

In Qatar, negotiating teams are expected to carry on meeting throughout the lame-duck period, with U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad continuing to shuttle between Doha and Washington.

The two sides remain stuck on the procedural issues that quickly stalled talks just days after they began in September. And significant progress is unlikely soon, as neither side has an incentive to compromise before the incoming Biden administration lays out its policy.

DeYoung reported from Washington. Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, and Sharif Hassan in Kabul contributed to this report.

Susannah George is The Washington Post’s Afghanistan and Pakistan bureau chief. She previously headed the Associated Press’s Baghdad bureau and covered national security and intelligence from the AP’s Washington bureau. Follow

Karen DeYoung is associate editor and senior national security correspondent for The Post. In more than three decades at the paper, she has served as bureau chief in Latin America and in London and as correspondent covering the White House, U.S. foreign policy and the intelligence community. 

With Biden headed to White House, Afghan government hopes for tougher stance on Taliban