The Biden Presidency: What choices for Afghan policy remain?

Kate Clark

Afghanistan Analysts Network

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As of 20 January, the United States should have a new president, as Joe Biden takes over from Donald Trump. Decisions taken in Washington have, for the last 20 years, been fundamental to what happens in Afghanistan, and that is especially the case now. Biden takes power in the wake of President Trump’s decision to negotiate with the Taleban and agree to troop withdrawal. This has already transformed both the US-Afghan relationship and the relative power of the Taleban and the Afghan government. AAN’s Kate Clark (with input from Rachel Reid) assesses what policy paths will still be open to Biden when he takes office and explores what a Biden presidency might mean for Afghanistan.

US President-Elect makes headline news in Kabul on 8 November 2020. Photo: Wakil Khosar/AFP

For 20 years, US financial and military support has been the mainstay of post-Taleban governments in Afghanistan. For most of that period, the US was the implacable enemy of the Taleban, but, during the Trump administration, US policy changed radically. It has dealt unilaterally with the Taleban and come to a bilateral agreement with the movement which committed the US to troop withdrawal.

Since the signing of the US-Taleban agreement in Doha on 29 February 2020, the US has fulfilled its promise to bring troop numbers down from about 13,000 to 8,600 by June. Trump has since gone further, with an election campaign promise to reduce numbers further to 4,500 by November. According to the US-Taleban agreement, all foreign forces should have left Afghanistan by 30 April 2021, although this is conditional on the Taleban’s “commitment and action on the obligations” outlined in the agreement, specifically, not to threaten the US or its allies or allow other groups, including al-Qaeda, to use Afghan soil to do this. The Afghan government, which was not party to the agreement, has also abided by a US promise to the Taleban that it would release 5,000 Taleban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 government prisoners held by the Taleban. Intra-Afghan talks also began on 12 September, although with no progress so far on agreeing either an agenda or protocol.

The Doha agreement has resulted in major changes to the conflict. The US stopped attacking the Taleban, although it retains the right to defend the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), who have themselves moved to a largely defensive stance. The Taleban have ceased attacking foreign targets, but contest US claims that they agreed to an overall reduction in violence. They have launched more attacks against Afghans, both civilian and military than last year. Unclaimed insurgent attacks, especially in urban areas have also increased; these also look to be mostly Taleban-authored. The net result of the Doha agreement is thus the US largely leaving the battlefield, the Taleban emboldened and the ANSF demoralised and still looking to the US for support (as in Helmand last month in the face of a major Taleban offensive).

The support given by the US to the Afghan state since 2001 has not just been military. The government is highly dependent on international financial support, the bulk of it from the US. International assistance funds about 75 per cent of the government’s budget, as well as comprising a significant part of national income. That dependency has only increased this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The ensuing fall in government revenues has created a budget deficit of more than 800 million USD for 2020 (on top of the enormous existing structural budget deficit) and has worsened Afghanistan’s already high poverty rate, from just over half to an estimated two-thirds of the population now living below the poverty line. This, together with the possible complete withdrawal of and associated spending by foreign forces early next year, should have made the international conference on aid, due now to take place virtually on 23 and 24 November, even more important than usual. However, what it will actually be able to decide is debateable given the political turmoil in Washington caused by Trump’s refusal to accept he lost the election.

All of this means that Trump will leave the White House with American policy towards Afghanistan substantially changed, with the Kabul government still very dependent on foreign support and with the fate of the country very much in flux.

What has been Biden’s approach to Afghanistan?

Biden steps into the presidency with a long foreign policy track record as a senator who chaired the Committee on Foreign Relations and then Barack Obama’s Vice President.

While a gradual troop withdrawal from Afghanistan was always the longer-term aim of the Obama administration, for years, President Obama was persuaded into a more military interventionist approach of counter-insurgency twinned with record levels of foreign assistance. Lively debates about this approach raged for many years within the Obama administration, during which Biden was positioned as the “in-house pessimist.” He compared Afghanistan to the ‘quagmire’ of Vietnam and was a persistent critic of General Stanley McChrystal and General David Petraeus’ counter-insurgency approach, in particular the 100,000 strong US troop surge of 2009-12. Instead, he argued for a light footprint, counter-terrorism policy.

So what can be expected from Biden as president? Afghanistan was barely mentioned in the election campaign by either side (this was also the case in 2016 – it is many years since Afghanistan was a US foreign policy priority). Even so, Biden has made some remarks which can give a flavour of what he may be contemplating on important decisions ahead concerning the final troop withdrawal and intra-Afghan talks.

In a long piece for Foreign Affairs, “Why America Must Lead Again: Rescuing U.S. Foreign Policy After Trump”, published in March/April 2020, Biden laid out his vision for foreign policy. He stressed an internationalist approach and working with other liberal democracies and allies in collective action. He mentioned Afghanistan just twice and both times it was bundled up with other countries. The first mention implied dissatisfaction with the lack of concessions won by the US in its deal with the Taleban:

[Trump] has emboldened our adversaries and squandered our leverage to contend with national security challenges from North Korea to Iran, from Syria to Afghanistan to Venezuela, with practically nothing to show for it.

The second reiterated his favoured doctrine of avoiding open-ended military engagement:

It is past time to end the forever wars, which have cost the United States untold blood and treasure. As I have long argued, we should bring the vast majority of our troops home from the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East and narrowly define our mission as defeating al Qaeda and the Islamic State (or ISIS)… We must maintain our focus on counterterrorism, around the world and at home, but staying entrenched in unwinnable conflicts drains our capacity to lead on other issues that require our attention, and it prevents us from rebuilding the other instruments of American power.

We can be strong and smart at the same time. There is a big difference between large-scale, open-ended deployments of tens of thousands of American combat troops, which must end, and using a few hundred Special Forces soldiers and intelligence assets to support local partners against a common enemy. Those smaller-scale missions are sustainable militarily, economically, and politically, and they advance the national interest.

An important additional detail is found in a recent Stars and Stripes interview, published on 10 September 2020, a day after Trump announced his decision to reduce troop numbers in Afghanistan and Iraq ahead of the election. Biden hinted at the desirability of leaving a small contingent of special forces in Afghanistan:

“These ‘forever wars’ have to end. I support drawing down the troops. But here’s the problem, we still have to worry about terrorism and [the Islamic State],” Biden told Stars and Stripes in a telephone interview.

Biden said conditions in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq are so complicated that he cannot promise full withdrawal of troops in the near future.

However, he supports a small U.S. military footprint whose primary mission would be to facilitate special operations against the Islamic State, or ISIS, and other terror organizations.

“I think we need special ops capacity to coordinate with our allies,” Biden said, adding there should be a maximum of “1,500 to 2,000” on the ground, a smaller force that what he would likely inherit from Trump.

However, Biden said the military should not meddle in the political dynamics of the countries where they operate. He said U.S. forces must be able to coordinate with allies to train and lead to “take out terrorist groups who are going to continue to emerge.”

Biden’s scepticism about foreign intervention is one which he came to, according to Greg Jaffe writing in The Washington Post, partly because of the “sobering experiences” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As senator he had, on occasion, taken a more interventionist approach, including in the Balkans in the 1990s. After 9/11, he became an important ally for the Bush administration’s ‘war on terror’, including its invasion of Iraq which he voted for. He also called on the Bush administration to devote more money and troops to Afghanistan. However, a trip to Kabul in February 2008 seems to have been the beginning of his disillusionment with US policy ­– not least because of a now infamous dinner with then President Hamed Karzai, which Biden stormed out of, infuriated by Karzai’s denials of corruption. By the time Obama took office in 2009 and Biden became vice president, he had become the primary opponent of deepening engagement, especially the surge. By that time, Jaffe reported, Biden did not believe the rosy assessments of the war by US generals and diplomats in Kabul. Rather, he viewed the Karzai administration and the ANSF as venal, corrupt, ineffective and unreliable and the war against the Taleban as unwinnable:

In the 1990s, Biden had made an impassioned argument that U.S. credibility and the country’s moral standing demanded that it use military force to stop a slaughter in the Balkans. In Afghanistan, Biden rejected the notion that America had any moral obligation to improve the lives of Afghans or prevent civil wars. “He had that empathy for the people in the Balkans. He even had it for people in Iraq,” said a senior Obama administration official who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “I never saw it in Afghanistan.”

Biden also famously resisted efforts to tie US engagement to any duty to protect Afghan women. In 2010, when Biden was vice-president and with a son in the military, he met then US Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, who recorded this choice quote: “I am not sending my boy back there to risk his life on behalf of women’s rights, it just won’t work, that’s not what they’re there for.”

Smoke rises from an American airstrike against a presumed ISKP fighting position, seen from US Combat Outpost Blackfish in Mamand Valley, Nangrahar. Such scenes could soon be a thing of the past, if US troop withdrawal goes ahead in 2021.
Photo: Andrew QuiltyApril 2018

A Biden policy on Afghanistan?

Drawing together what Biden has said about Afghanistan in particular and his foreign policy approach in general, a couple of conclusions can be drawn. First, in terms of style, he will be steadier and more predictable than Trump. US staffers and the military will no longer fear policy on Afghanistan being turned on its head by an early morning presidential tweet. There will be an end to what Biden described, in his Foreign Affairs article, to Trump’s “turn[ing] on our own intelligence professionals, diplomats, and troops.” Instead, from 20 January, there should be more consultation between the White House and senior civilian aides and the military.

Secondly, Biden, who also condemned Trump for how he “belittled, undermined, and in some cases abandoned U.S. allies and partners,” will be more multilateralist. The US will remain the prime decision-maker among countries supporting Kabul – and there is no reason to think other countries will not continue to follow its lead, whatever that is – but there should now be more discussion with allies, or at least warnings of imminent policy changes.

As to how Biden will approach the Doha agreement and US military deployment, as it became clear Biden had won the US election, messages from President Ashraf Ghani and the Taleban hinted at what each party hoped and feared. Ghani, congratulating the new US president and vice president on 8 November, appeared to hope for continuing US support and perhaps a counter-terrorism force to be left behind:

Afghanistan looks forward to deepening our multilayered strategic partnership with the United States, our foundational partner, including in counterterrorism and bringing peace to Afghanistan.

A day later, Vice-President Sarwar Danesh called for the incoming administration to conduct a “full review” of the peace process and “apply more pressure on the Taliban to reduce their violence.”

Meanwhile, the Taleban, who had been reported as hoping Trump would win the election, though spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed later said his words had been misrepresented, gave a statement on 10 November. Describing the US election and transition to the new administration as an “internal issue” and without ever naming Biden, the statement said the Doha agreement must be implemented. The statement sought to portray the Taleban as peace-loving, giving assurances that they would not allow Afghanistan “to threaten America,” that they sought “positive relations with all countries of the world including America in the future” and that their “preference” was “to solv[e] our internal problems through dialogue and negotiations.” They warned the “future American president” to be vigilant against “war-mongering circles, individuals and groups that seek to perpetuate the war and to keep America mired in conflict in order to pursue their own personal interests and hold over power.”

Such conciliatory sentiments were wholly at odds with those voiced by spokesman Mujahed just two weeks previously, on 24 October, when he said that, after US forces had been forced to leave, the ‘jihad’ would continue. In fact it would be mandatory, he said “until the rule of Islam takes hold in our homeland.” He promised that the Taleban would continue to kill “all troops and workers serving in the Kabul administration” as long as they “do not repent and accept an Islamic system.” The Taleban’s assurances that they want to solve Afghanistan’s problems through dialogue, or that they even have a preference to negotiate a political end to the war cannot be relied upon.

It is possible that a change in leadership in Washington could result in more engagement by US negotiators in the intra-Afghan talks to try to push the two parties towards a peace settlement, although the question would also be whether either side actually wants to compromise. The delays over even settling an agenda and protocol are not promising. There is also discussion in policy circles over whether Biden will replace chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad, a neo-conservative and long-term Republican who has remained close to and trusted by both Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. However, his fate seems less relevant than the circumstances either he or his successor would now face. Biden, for one, seems fully aware of how much has already been given away by the United States when he wrote in Foreign Affairs that Trump has “emboldened our adversaries and squandered our leverage to contend with national security challenges… with practically nothing to show for it.” Khalilzad has indeed given away most of the US and by extension the Afghan government’s bargaining chips just to get the Taleban to the table. The Taleban have already been rewarded with prisoner releases, partial US troop withdrawal and international legitimacy, in return for giving up almost nothing.

It seems highly unlikely that the US would, at this point, abandon or try to re-negotiate the Doha agreement, even though the Kabul administration might hope for this. It does still have some leverage left – the threat of not going through with the full withdrawal and the promise of financial support if the Taleban reach a settlement – but its clout is much reduced compared to its position before Khalilzad started negotiations. Even if Biden and his administration make no public comments about US troop levels, which would be more helpful than Trump tweeting about bringing troops home by Christmas, [1] the Taleban may still feel they only have to push at an open door.

America does not need the Taleban’s permission to stay in Afghanistan, the author has been told several times by US officials in relation to the 30 April 2021 deadline. Full withdrawal is anyway contingent on the US deciding the Taleban have upheld their side of the agreement. Biden’s assertion in his recent Stars and Stripes interview that conditions in Afghanistan, as in Syria and Iraq, were so complicated he could not promise the full withdrawal of troops in the near future suggests the April deadline could slip. Or he may be considering leaving a residual counter-terrorism (CT) force in Afghanistan. This is not allowed for under the Doha agreement and would either have to be negotiated with the Taleban or established despite their objections. That would carry the risk of the Taleban renewing their attacks on urban centres and foreign targets and their abandoning the intra-Afghan talks. Would the US risk unravelling its agreement with the Taleban for the sake of having a CT force on the ground? And given that a CT force would need a relatively stable Afghanistan to operate in and effective local partners to work with, if talks did break down and a full-blown war did resume, unless US forces were weighing in on the side of the ANSF, the prospects of that necessary stability would look much less assured. Yet resuming US offensive support to the ANSF would mean a return to the pre-Doha status quo and with no greater likelihood of the ANSF or the Kabul government becoming any less dependent or there being an better time to leave. It is difficult to see this prospect as in any way enticing to the incoming president.

If there is a complete US withdrawal and the Taleban never actually had any real desire to negotiate with Kabul and are actually intent on pushing for military victory, the US would be seen as having failed in Afghanistan. It would risk al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups taking encouragement from the superpower’s ‘defeat’ and gaining practical benefits from the re-establishment of a safe haven. For Afghans, the prospect of reinvigorated civil war is horrible to contemplate.

There are two other issues related to Afghanistan, both more positive, that should also be mentioned. On Iran, Biden has signalled that the US will rejoin the Iran nuclear deal reached during the Obama presidency, which Trump pulled out of in 2018. [2] Trump may try to add new sanctions on Iran before leaving office to try to foil any such rapprochement, but if Biden can manage to establish a less antagonistic US-Iran relationship, that would help ease Kabul’s position, caught as it has been in the hostility between its important neighbour and prime ally. Other US bilateral relationships important to Afghanistan, with Russia, China and Pakistan, might be just as tricky under Biden as under Trump, but Biden would at least deal with these countries in a more orthodox and less haphazard way. That could just conceivably help Afghanistan live more in its region, less dependent on relationships with faraway countries, but it is a scenario that relies on imagining a country more at peace; in the 1990s, the neighbours helped fuel civil war.

Secondly, those in US human rights circles expect Biden to drop sanctions against senior staff at the International Criminal Court, which were imposed by Trump on 2 September 2020. They were aimed at stopping the court “targeting Americans,” as Secretary of State Pompeo put it, and were brought in after the court decided to investigate potential war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan since 2003. These include the use of torture by the CIA and US military, including in relation to the CIA’s rendition programme (see this AAN backgrounder).

Afghan Border Forces fighting in Maidanshah district against Taleban fighters just 200 metres away in September 2019. Photo: Andrew Quilty.

Conclusion

Before the extent of Trump’s ‘America First’ policies were made clear, many Afghans who feared the prospect of a US withdrawal were optimistic that a return to a Republican administration might make the US a more steadfast ally for Afghanistan. Trump’s populist isolationism and haphazard approach to decision-making eventually disabused them of that hope. While Obama’s drive to take American out of an ‘endless war’ footing was more principled, he and Trump broadly converged on the goal of troop withdrawal. Biden has long advocated a light footprint, which seems to be where he remains today. What has changed are the conditions of the Doha agreement that may prevent even the lightest CT footprint.

Much has been made of Foreign Policy’s reporting on the team of 2,000 foreign policy and national security advisors amassed by Joe Biden. They will be receiving suggestions and recommendations from many corners of Washington and the world on Afghanistan, advising Biden what he ought to do, or reminding him of the obligations some feel he should have for a country whose government the US toppled and whose fate it then got tangled up in. However, Biden will have strong ideas of his own on Afghanistan policy, as will some of the familiar names being touted for top cabinet posts.

Moreover, times are very different from when he and Barack Obama took power over a decade ago. In their first year in office, when Obama announced the surge it was because he was persuaded that what happened in Afghanistan and Pakistan had a fundamental impact on the security of the United States. It is worth giving a long quote from his speech delivered on 1 December 2009 as it underlies just how much has changed in US views of Afghanistan:

I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak. This is no idle danger; no hypothetical threat. In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror. And this danger will only grow if the region slides backwards, and al Qaeda can operate with impunity. We must keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and to do that, we must increase the stability and capacity of our partners in the region.

As for the Taleban, Obama said the movement had maintained “common cause with al-Qaeda, as they both seek an overthrow of the Afghan government.” The US had to “reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government.”

The prospect of al-Qaeda re-establishing itself and the Taleban again ruling Afghanistan has not gone away. Yet in Biden’s Foreign Policy article and Stars and Stripes interview, he made no mention of the Taleban and referred to al-Qaeda just once. Afghanistan will not be a priority for Joe Biden when he takes power. Other policy decisions – the Covid-19 pandemic and the domestic economy as well as a whole host of other foreign policy issues – are far more pressing. Afghanistan is simply not that important to America any more.

Washington’s decisions still remain fundamental to what happens in Afghanistan and for many Afghans, the need for action from the US may feel urgent, given the 30 April deadline and the intensification of the conflict. Yet, what room Biden has to re-set US policy on Afghanistan will be limited, not only by his inheritance of the US-Taleban deal but also his own inclinations.

Edited by Rachel Reid


References

Trump’s pre-election 8 October tweet had promised that “our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan” should be “home by Christmas!” Officials were quick to point out at the time that they had received no orders in this regard. The suggestion of a possible quick troop withdrawal before Trump leaves office in January – which would cement his legacy as the president who brought the troops home – resurfaced with the appointment of a pro-quick withdrawal retired army colonel, Douglas Macgregor, as senior advisor to the newly-appointed Acting Secretary of Defense, Christopher Miller, on 11 November. 

Military experts consulted by the author thought the timeline impossible: it would mean withdrawing not only US, but also NATO troops, and contractors, and the evacuation of embassy staff, who would be left without military protection. The military would also have to deal with their weaponry, vehicles, ammunition etc, their ‘stuff’ in the words of military analyst, Jonathan Schroden, much of which, with not enough time for an orderly removal, would have to be destroyed to prevent it falling into enemy hands.

Biden wrote this in Foreign Affairs about Iran: On nonproliferation and nuclear security, the United States cannot be a credible voice while it is abandoning the deals it negotiated. From Iran to North Korea, Russia to Saudi Arabia, Trump has made the prospect of nuclear proliferation, a new nuclear arms race, and even the use of nuclear weapons more likely. As president, I will renew our commitment to arms control for a new era. The historic Iran nuclear deal that the Obama-Biden administration negotiated blocked Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Yet Trump rashly cast the deal aside, prompting Iran to restart its nuclear program and become more provocative, raising the risk of another disastrous war in the region. I’m under no illusions about the Iranian regime, which has engaged in destabilizing behavior across the Middle East, brutally cracked down on protesters at home, and unjustly detained Americans. But there is a smart way to counter the threat that Iran poses to our interests and a self-defeating way—and Trump has chosen the latter. The recent killing of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, removed a dangerous actor but also raised the prospect of an ever-escalating cycle of violence in the region, and it has prompted Tehran to jettison the nuclear limits established under the nuclear deal. Tehran must return to strict compliance with the deal. If it does so, I would rejoin the agreement and use our renewed commitment to diplomacy to work with our allies to strengthen and extend it, while more effectively pushing back against Iran’s other destabilizing activities.

The Biden Presidency: What choices for Afghan policy remain?