Intl Crisis Group Outlines Challenges for Biden in Afghan Efforts

The watchdog says that it is “inarguable that the insurgency remains operational, even aggressive, across the country.”

The International Crisis Group, in a briefing titled “What Future for Afghan Peace Talks under a Biden Administration?”, analyses various aspects of Biden administration’s role in Afghanistan’s peace efforts and says he might have both options to pursue political settlement or opt for an enduring counter-terrorism mission in the war-ravaged country. 

“As president, Biden can continue to pursue a political settlement to end the war in Afghanistan, or he can opt for an enduring counter-terrorism mission. But absent what would be a highly unlikely about-face by the Taliban he cannot have both,” the watchdog report says.

President-elect Joe Biden has a longer, more detailed history of opinion and advice on Afghanistan than any previous incoming US president – a record that hints at the policy directions he may take, the Crisis Group writes. That said, Biden will be stepping into a new role as president and it is not certain that he will adhere to views he espoused as a senator or vice president.

“The Biden White House will need to develop an approach that reconciles these considerations, including its possible desire to maintain counter-terrorism-focused forces, with the US withdrawal commitments in the February 2020 agreement. The process of policy review should be able to move relatively swiftly given that already announced members of and nominees for the new national security team have experience on Afghanistan, but it will still take some time,” says the report.

The watchdog says that assuming that the Biden team holds off on major policy shifts before it completes this process, which would be prudent, big announcements may not occur prior to March or April.

One issue the new team will have to prioritize is how to handle the May 2021 deadline for troop withdrawal set out in the February 2020 agreement.

“Given the late start of Afghan talks, the multiple deadlines that have already been missed in the February deal, and reports that senior US military officers and some members of Congress are staunchly opposed to a full withdrawal along the timeline specified in the Doha agreement, it is hard to imagine a Biden administration pulling out all US troops by that date,” says the report.

Taliban Actions and Aims 

A central question from the conclusion of the February 2020 agreement onward has been “whether the Taliban would meaningfully reduce their use of violence and, if not, what that might mean for sustaining the peace process.”

The watchdog says that it is “inarguable that the insurgency remains operational, even aggressive, across the country.”

The analysis says that “the Taliban has adapted its behavior in notable ways, in what appears to be an attempt to keep its fighting force as active as possible without jeopardizing its deal with the US (the text of which was conspicuously silent on the issue of intra-Afghan violence).”

“That calculus seems to have led the Taliban to test the limits of US acceptance, by gradually resuming tactics and campaigns it had curbed in the run-up to February 29. By October, Taliban fighters threatened the outskirts of Helmand’s capital in a largescale assault, stepping beyond one of the key restrictions – no sustained assaults on provincial capitals – the group had imposed on its own forces earlier in 2020,” the watchdog says.

The Taliban repeated similar behavior in neighboring Kandahar weeks later and also targeted a number of strategic district centers, the analysis says.

Kabul’s Challenges 

The Afghan government was critical of US-led efforts to negotiate a political settlement from the start and it has been something of a “reluctant partner” in the effort ever since, the watchdog says.

It adds that the core concession made by Washington that kickstarted the process, to sit bilaterally with the Taliban without the Afghan government present, was described in 2018 by Afghan officials as a betrayal that de-legitimized the authorities in Kabul.

The analysis argues that in view of these misgivings, Kabul’s approach has been to cooperate with US requests, but also to slow the process as much, and as creatively, as possible.

For the Trump administration, the timeline for deal-making has run out, but that should not prompt further last-minute unilateral action, the watchdog says.

According to the analysis, though the prospect of full withdrawal appears to have lessened under military and congressional pressure, “any sudden drawdown below the planned level of 2,500 troops could have severe negative effects well beyond the strictly military impact.”

The analysis suggests that the best course of action in the remaining days of Trump’s term is to “nudge both sides to continue discussions until Biden is sworn in and as his team settles in.”

Even if the discussions show a lack of measurable progress, the upshot will be positive, as the potential for the process to stall rises during breaks between rounds of talks.

The watchdog concludes that “dialogue can and should also continue with regional actors and donors to the Afghan government – all efforts that the incoming administration should intensify.”

Intl Crisis Group Outlines Challenges for Biden in Afghan Efforts