Opinion: Biden has an admirable Hail Mary for Afghanistan. He also needs a Plan B.

Opinion by Editorial Board

March 10, 2021 at 2:00 p.m. EST
Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers remarks about the Biden administration’s priorities at the State Department in Washington on March 3.
PRESIDENT BIDEN inherited a particularly daunting challenge in Afghanistan, where a deal struck by the Trump administration committed the United States to withdraw its remaining troops by May 1 — barely 100 days after the new president’s inauguration. The deadline loomed even though the Taliban, which was the partner to the pact, had failed to meet commitments to break with al-Qaeda or reduce violence, and peace talks with the U.S.-backed Afghan government were stalled. A study group appointed by Congress reported last month that a pullout according to the timetable would escalate the civil war, endangering the hard-won gains of the past 20 years.

Mr. Biden has now responded with a diplomatic initiative whose admirable ambition also makes it a long shot. As outlined by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, which leaked last weekend, the plan calls for U.N.-sponsored talks among the United States, China, Russia, India, Pakistan and Iran about “a unified approach to supporting peace in Afghanistan”; new negotiations hosted by Turkey between the government and the Taliban to “finalize a peace agreement”; and a proposal for a 90-day reduction in violence, which “is intended to prevent a Spring Offensive by the Taliban.”

The U.S. envoy to the Afghan talks, Zalmay Khalilzad, has handed both sides a broad outline of a possible peace settlement. It calls for a new “peace government” in which the Kabul government and Taliban would share power while a new constitution is drawn up; there would then be elections for a new administration. Importantly, the U.S. outline calls for freedom of speech and women’s rights to be guaranteed in the new constitution, along with Afghans’ right to “choose their political leaders.” Taliban agreement to these terms, along with a cease-fire, would be an extraordinary breakthrough, so much so that few observers of the Islamist fundamentalist movement expect it to go along. In recent months, Taliban leaders have appeared to anticipate a swift victory over the government following the promised U.S. departure, and in areas they now control, political and women’s rights are all but nonexistent.

Remarkably, however, the Taliban has so far not responded to the U.S. proposal — it says it is studying it — while the reaction of the Ghani government has been decidedly negative. It insists it will not agree to a transfer of power that is not decided by an election — a fine principle at odds with the reality that the two presidential elections that empowered Mr. Ghani were badly flawed. The president’s resistance may reflect the fact that he would almost certainly be excluded from a transitional administration, which would be chosen by mutual agreement between the warring sides.

Mr. Ghani’s position prompted some tough language from Mr. Blinken, who warned that the United States could still choose to withdraw its 2,500 troops by May 1, triggering a pullout of the 8,000 other foreign forces. In that case, he pointed out, “the Taliban could make rapid territorial gains.” The Biden administration is right to pressure the Afghan leader to put his country’s interests over his own. But it must also be prepared for the all-too-likely possibility that the Taliban will reject the far-reaching compromises it is being asked to make, and instead seek a military victory. In that case, the United States must be prepared to leave its forces in place.

Opinion: Biden has an admirable Hail Mary for Afghanistan. He also needs a Plan B.