Joe Biden Will Have to Address the War in Afghanistan—Again

By Steve Coll

The New Yorker

January 20, 2021

This time around, for President Biden, the war in Afghanistan is not as consequential for the U.S., yet American troops remain in the country as the fight grinds on. 

When Joe Biden became Vice-President, in 2009, tens of thousands of American troops were fighting a spreading Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, and the war loomed as one of the most pressing problems in U.S. foreign policy. American soldiers had been suffering casualties in Afghanistan since just a couple of months after the 9/11 attacks, and the numbers were rising; Al Qaeda was plotting large-scale offensives against U.S. targets along the Afghan-Pakistan border; and the Pentagon was clamoring for more troops. That February, I attended a dinner at Biden’s Washington residence, along with half a dozen Afghanistan specialists. Biden was adamant about one thing: the public would not long sustain its support for the war. “This is not the beginning,” he noted, and he talked about the pressure that Obama faced from generals who sought an escalation of U.S. involvement—which Biden opposed. He described Obama as determined to think things through for himself.

This time around, for President-elect Biden, the Afghan war is nowhere near as consequential for the United States, yet American troops remain there as it grinds on. When Biden takes office, he will confront early decisions that will define the contours of the war’s next chapter and determine the legacy of the American-led invasion, an enterprise that, based on official data, has cost the nation more than eight hundred billion dollars so far, and for which more than twenty-four hundred Americans have given their lives.

There are just twenty-five hundred American troops left in Afghanistan, and they largely eschew combat these days, under an agreement struck last February in Doha, Qatar, between the Trump Administration and the Taliban. The agreement’s goals are to withdraw all U.S. troops; promote a ceasefire and a political settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government, led by President Ashraf Ghani; and prevent Al Qaeda or the Islamic State from threatening the United States. Those goals are not far from ones that Biden has previously stated. Last spring, in Foreign Affairs, he wrote that the U.S. should withdraw the “vast majority” of its troops from Afghanistan and “narrowly define” its interests around counterterrorism.

Yet Biden will inherit a fragile mess, one that comes with an important deadline in May. That is when, according to the agreement, all American troops are supposed to have departed, in exchange for Taliban guarantees to prevent Al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups from operating in Afghanistan. But the conditions that some had hoped might prevail in the country by now—greatly reduced violence, progress in establishing a new political order—have not materialized. Last September, talks began in Doha to allow the Taliban and the Afghan government to define a “road map” to a peaceful political future, but the negotiations have barely progressed, and the civil war remains violent, with no ceasefire in sight. Biden will nevertheless have to decide whether to pull all American soldiers out by May. If he decides to leave troops in place for a time, he will have to figure out how to do so without blowing up the Doha talks or catalyzing yet more violence.

So far, Trump’s peace deal has mainly advantaged the Taliban. The deal was engineered by Zalmay Khalilzad, a high-octane, Afghan-born American diplomat who negotiated with the Taliban while burdened by the ignorant whims of President Trump, who repeatedly undermined U.S. negotiating positions by threatening to withdraw all troops—the Taliban’s primary goal in the talks with Washington—no matter what. Since the agreement took force, Khalilzad and other Trump Administration officials have repeatedly asked the Taliban to substantially reduce violence. Yet the Taliban have continued unrelenting assaults against the security forces of the Kabul government; the insurgents are able to amass troops and consolidate their control of some major roads and around urban centers in ways they could not when they risked heavy U.S. bombing. The Taliban are also widely seen by many Afghan officials as bearing heavy responsibility for a fresh wave of assassinations last year that targeted journalists, human-rights activists, and civil servants.

Since last February, it has become evident how the U.S.-Taliban deal “has tipped the balance of power in the conflict in the Taliban’s favor,” Kate Clark, a former BBC journalist who co-directs the independent Afghan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based research organization, wrote late last year. By removing U.S. troops from the battlefield and providing for the release of five thousand Taliban prisoners, among other things, Clark noted, the deal has “sharpened the Taliban’s military edge and heightened their confidence.” She added, “There is little sign that this particular peace process has blunted the Taliban’s eagerness, in any way, to pursue war.”

The deal that Khalilzad struck with the Taliban, notwithstanding its flaws, reflects essentially the same framework for pursuing an American troop withdrawal and an Afghan political settlement that the Obama Administration attempted, without success. Biden, his incoming national-security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, are all bruised veterans of Obama’s Afghan policy debates. I asked several policy specialists who served in the Obama Administration what they would advise. They favored backing the Kabul government and supporting the Doha talks, despite the difficulties, and some recommended delaying a final troop withdrawal. James Dobbins, who held Khalilzad’s during Obama’s second term, noted that Biden has argued that the U.S. should retain “a small counterinsurgency force for as long as the threat of a resurgent Al Qaeda and Islamic State remains.” He added that U.S. force levels—which then numbered forty-five hundred—“are now at that point and should not be reduced further until that threat has been removed.”

“The Trump Administration has given far too much away unilaterally, without exacting meaningful concessions from the Taliban,” Rina Amiri, who worked on Afghan policy at the State Department and has served as a political officer and mediation adviser at the United Nations, told me. “By putting further troop withdrawal on hold, until the Taliban engage in the negotiations in good faith,” she said, Biden could “give the peace negotiations a meaningful chance to succeed.”

Vali Nasr, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, who worked on Afghanistan and Pakistan during Obama’s first term, is skeptical that the talks will deliver stability. “The Taliban have not relented on their political demands and are not likely to do so,” he told me. They see the U.S. as “facing too many challenges and eager to wash its hands of Afghanistan.” If the talks fail and international troops withdraw, Nasr added, it could be “back to the future,” meaning a return to the multi-sided civil war, anarchy, and humanitarian crises that fuelled the Taliban’s rise during the nineteen-nineties.

At that time, Pakistan’s drive to influence Afghanistan through the Taliban provided the group with a vital ally; since then, Pakistan has been victimized by jihadist violence, yet its military-dominated government continues to seek influence in Afghanistan, to protect its long border with the country, and to thwart India. Pakistan supported the deal reached last February, but it continues to protect the Taliban militarily, through its Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (I.S.I.), as well as diplomatically, by arguing, for example, during a recent visit of Taliban leaders to the country, that the problem of continuing violence in Afghanistan is not only the fault of the Islamist insurgents but a matter involving “all sides” in the war.

Biden has long experience with Pakistan, and he knows the country well enough to have acquired a realistic skepticism of the I.S.I. and its military commanders. Obama’s Afghan war foundered, in part, on a contradiction in which Pakistan figured: the President believed that prosecuting the war was a vital U.S. interest, in part because of the ongoing threat from Al Qaeda, but Al Qaeda’s leaders and operatives resided in Pakistan, while U.S. troops fought a bloody stalemate next door in Afghanistan against the Taliban, whom Obama did not regard as the same kind of threat as Al Qaeda.

Biden risks stepping into a similar trap, in that he has defined a narrow goal, counterterrorism, even while it is evident that containing Al Qaeda and the Islamic State depends in large part on whether the Kabul government survives and seeks to help the U.S. and Europe against its enemies. And Kabul’s fortunes are tied to the Doha talks and the sustainability of international support for Afghanistan—both immensely complicated projects.

A second Taliban revolution would crush Afghanistan’s working women, globalized urbanites, and assorted democracy dreamers. These Afghans grew up mainly in cell-phone-networked cities enlivened by revived culture and sports, bankrolled by international aid, and ringed by nato forces; they are, in some important sense, our moral and political allies in the Doha negotiations. Biden’s dilemma is that he has no easy way to protect them but, presumably, no desire to abandon them. The problem of the Afghan war hasn’t gotten any easier since Biden left it four years ago, even if the American investment in it has continued to decline. Now, as then, there are no good or easy options—only less bad ones. 

Steve Coll, a staff writer, is the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. His latest book is “Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

Joe Biden Will Have to Address the War in Afghanistan—Again