Afghanistan: Biden has had his way

US President inherited some difficult positions his country had adopted during ex-president Trump’s four years

Shahid Javed Burki April 19, 2021
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

President Joseph Biden inherited some difficult positions his country had adopted during president Donald Trump’s four years. Two of the steps taken by the previous administration would affect Afghanistan’s future one way or the other. The first one was on February 29, 2020, when Washington signed a deal with the Taliban. The deal was the culmination of months of negotiations conducted in Doha, the capital of Qatar, where the Taliban had set up an office. According to the agreement, the United States had committed itself to pulling out all American and allied troops from the country by May 1, 2021, provided the Taliban significantly scaled back their operations that were being carried out against both the Afghan security forces as well as foreign troops. The US also promised to persuade the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners it had kept in jail for years. The second move was to have the government headed by President Ashraf Ghani to sit down with the Talban and write a new constitution, replacing the one adopted in 2004. As a part of the second move, the Americans pushed for the establishment of an interim government that would include representatives of the Taliban.

In the meantime, there was agreement among most analysts who were watching the country that the president and the type of governance he was providing were being weakened. According to Adam Nossiter, writing for The New York Times, “from most vantage points, Mr Ghani — well-qualified for his job and deeply credentialed, with Johns Hopkins, Berkley, Columbia, the World Bank, and the United Nations in his background — is thoroughly isolated. A serious author with a first-class intellect, he is dependent on the counsel of a handful, unwilling even to watch television, those who know him say, and losing allies fast.” Not mentioned was the fact that he knows Pakistan well, having spent a year in Lahore, writing his PhD thesis on the madrassas. While at the World Bank, he worked with me, at one point helping me to resolve the differences among three Latin American presidents on border issues.

Some of those who were close to him worry about him and the country he leads. “He’s in a desperate situation,” Rahmatullah Nabil, a former head of the country’s intelligence forces said to Nossiter. “We’re getting weaker. Security is weak, everything is getting weaker and the Taliban is taking advantage.” Nabil was not the only prominent Afghan who spoke poorly of the President. “As an Afghan, a sense of humiliation comes over you,” said Hekmat Khalil Karzai, the head of an Afghan think tank and a cousin of the former president, Hamid Karzai. “But I also feel he deserves it. He’s dealing with a kiss of death from his closest partner.” Karzai was referring to the very condescending tone adopted in a three-page letter the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, sent to Ghani in which the phrase “I urge you,” was used three times. “I must also make clear to you, Mr President,” Blinken had continued, “that as our policy process continues in Washington, the United Sates has not ruled out any option.”

The options the Biden administration had in mind was the total withdrawal of American troops from Ghani’s country and doing a governance deal with the Taliban with the help of the country’s neighbours in a meeting that was scheduled to be held in Turkey in late April. The Americans were in close contact with Pakistan, India and China. They had also approached Tehran and Moscow to develop an agreed view of Afghanistan’s future and how the country should be governed once peace returned after more than four decades of domestic conflict.

President Ghani had a plan of his own. He called for a ceasefire, a temporary “government of peace” and early elections in which he promised not to run. The Taliban, having rejected the idea of elections, were unlikely to accept the President’s proposal. “From what we’re seeing, they want absolute power, and they are aiming to take power by force,” said national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib who had served as the Afghan ambassador to the US before being called back by Ghani to work for him in Kabul. I twice lunched with Mohib while he was representing his country in Washington. He said that President Ghani had asked him to get me to stay involved in mediating between Kabul and Islamabad. In the second lunch, I asked Jalil Khalil, Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, to join us. We suggested to him the best way to go about taking this kind of initiative was to set up a “Track-Two” type of operation involving a few people from both sides in whom the two governments had confidence. He did not get back to me after we made that suggestion.

According to Nossiter of the Times, “while Mr Ghani is steadily losing political capital in Kabul and with the country’s international partners, the country’s military position is deteriorating. Each day brings news of security force members blown up or gunned down. Visions of September 1966 when the Talban rolled into Kabul unopposed and proceeded to establish their harsh regime, haunt the capital.”

The Taliban may once again roll back into Kabul in September 2021 when the US has finally pulled out of the country. Washington then would have completed 20 years in the country during which it had lost 2,400 soldiers and spent a total of $2 trillion on military operations and various kinds of development efforts. Its mission kept on changing, depending on who was resident in the White House. In an address delivered on April 14, President Biden spelt out what he said would be the final approach adopted by his country in Afghanistan. The President said that the US had given up the hope to politically and socially modernise the Afghan society. That mission had to be taken by the Afghans themselves. This move was against the advice given by the Pentagon. Now that he was in the White House, he was able to turn his long-held views into policy. After years of arguing against an extended stay in Afghanistan — something he had done when he served president Barack Obama as his deputy for eight years — he was going to have his own way with the US withdrawal set for the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

The President was of the view that a “conditions based” approach would never free his country of Afghanistan. What president George W Bush had set out to achieve — a short war that would remove the Taliban from Kabul — had stretched into an involvement with no end in sight. The Americans had seen history repeating itself. It had become the same long and bloody slog that forced the British to withdraw from the country in the 19th century and the Russians to leave in the 20th. Both imperial powers left legacies that had enormous consequences for what is now Pakistan. The Durand Line in the case of the British; the Taliban in the case of the Soviets.


Published in The Express Tribune, April 19th, 2021.

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