America’s Gamble in Afghanistan: Is peace possible?
Last Sunday, a terse letter written by US Secretary of State, Mr Anthony Blinken, and addressed to Afghan President, Mr Ashraf Ghani, was obtained by an Afghan press agency and made public. In this letter Secretary Blinken asked President Ghani to, basically, work with the Taliban to share power in Afghanistan. While much of the discourse in the aftermath of this letter, has focused on America’s rebuke to the Afghan president, yet, this letter is far more than just that. This letter is the formal inauguration of newly-elected US President Joe Biden’s effort to forge an Afghan peace.
You see, this letter lays out the broad contours of the Biden administration’s approach to the Afghan situation. These ‘contours’ are, in effect, four prongs: 1) ‘Regional Engagement’: Secretary Blinken notes that the US wants to approach the UN to convene a meeting of top diplomats of Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India and the US to “discuss a unified approach to supporting peace in Afghanistan”; 2) ‘Accelerated Peace Negotiations’: He emphasizes the need to “accelerate discussions” on what can be called the “Biden Peace Plan” for a “negotiated settlement and ceasefire”; 3) ‘Kabul-Taliban Direct Talks’: He highlights that the US will ask Turkey to host one-on-one or direct talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government to “finalize a peace agreement”; and, 4) ‘Across-the-Board Reduction in Violence/Temporary Ceasefire’: Finally, Secretary Blinken recommends a 90-day “reduction” in violence across the board to create space for negotiations to continue.
At the same time, the letter slips in pithily worded indications of what this new “Biden Peace Plan” will entail. Importantly, around the time this letter was sent to President Ghani, and just afterwards, broad outlines on the plan have also emerged. In brief, the Biden Plan seems to include replacing the Kabul-based government of Mr Ghani with an interim “peace government”. Then, the Plan seems to suggest, a new constitution is to be drawn up. This new constitution would build in ironclad guarantees for a continued electoral democracy, the right of Afghan citizens to choose their own political leaders and, women and minority rights.
However, more interestingly, the new constitution is supposed to be far more Islamic in character than the current one. In fact, it also seems to envisage the set up of something equivalent to Pakistan’s “Council on Islamic Ideology” but with a role similar in nature to that of Iranian clergy. That is to say, not only will this council advise on Islamization and reconciling Afghan law with the spirit of Islam, it would also have the power to veto legislation that it finds to be in contravention to Islam. This might be an inducement to the Taliban to get on-board. Finally, the new constitution is supposed to build a formal role for the Taliban in the governance of Afghanistan, including by allowing their unelected representatives to remain part of a new parliament.
Supposedly, once the above is accomplished, the US and its allies will conduct a free and fair election in the country where President Ghani, his party, the Taliban, and other Afghan leaders will contest. Whoever wins will form a new government. Thereupon, the US and allies will ‘fold their flags’ and call it a night. Barring an openly suggested direct role for the Taliban, this peace plan is actually quite similar to the so-called “Bonn Agreement” of 2001 that heralded the post-Taliban Afghan world and government of Mr Hamid Karzai, following the US invasion.
So then, the Blinken letter was as much about telling the Kabul government to fall in line with the Biden Peace Plan, as it was to formally announce it to the world. On that, more later – But first: Kabul. The administration of President Ghani has come to be viewed by the US as part of the Afghan problem. The Ghani administration has repeatedly emphasized that it believes the Taliban should renounce violence and join electoral politics. The Ghani administration has continually opposed giving the Taliban a role in governance through non-electoral means. It has remained unwilling to work with them. This was the reason why the Trump administration in the US had cut Kabul out of peace talks and begun talking to the Taliban directly, resulting in the historic Doha Deal in February 2020.
This brings us to the timing of the Biden administration’s initiative. You see, the Doha Deal had committed to a withdrawal of US forces (some 2,500 troops) from Afghanistan by May 01 this year. Yet, the deal had been viewed as something that would throw away 20 years of work that the US and its allies had put into state-building in Afghanistan and into guarding their interests there. It was believed that the deal gave the Taliban too much too quickly and had too few provisions that would protect western interests. It was thought that the Taliban would seize power through military action as soon as the US leaves, taking the country right back to 2000. With business as usual, the Taliban were expected to go back to implementing Islamic Shariah law, something viewed negatively in the west, and to harbouring individuals and groups (such as Al Qaeda) viewed as security risks by the US and allies. Therefore, the Doha Deal needed to be revised.
Yet, the May 01 deadline is just month-and-a-half away, and the Taliban expect that the withdrawal commitments would be kept. They have publicly indicated that if the withdrawal does not happen, they would restart their military campaign against international forces in the country. Thus, put simply, the choice before President Biden has been to either withdraw in accordance with the Doha deadline or face renewed conflict in Afghanistan and continue to fight America’s “forever war”. That he has committed to an early end to the Afghan war through his presidential campaign is well-known. In addition, Biden, the man, has a history of opposing military solution in Afghanistan. In fact, he led the opposition to his own president, Mr. Barack Obama, to whom Mr Biden was Vice-President, when he deliberated – and then ordered – a “surge” in American troop numbers in Afghanistan in a bid to militarily defeat the Taliban.
Now then, President Biden seems to have found himself a “third way forward” – as opposed to the dualistic choice listed above – and this is the most important takeaway from the letter. The “third way”, and the letter hints at it, seems to be to bring the full might of American diplomacy to bear on the situation and to successfully negotiate an extension in the withdrawal deadline directly with the Taliban. By looping in the Taliban themselves, and seeking their agreement in a short extension (6-12 months), the Biden administration can buy just enough time for the above delineated peace process (the four prongs) and the Biden Peace Plan (as described above) to develop a shot at forging an enduring resolution to the Afghan imbroglio. Then, what this letter was actually doing was to announce this to the world and to announce it in a way that tells everyone that the Americans are really invested in this idea.
To get fully on his “third way”, President Biden had to do three major things: A) Engage regional and international stakeholders and get them onboard with his idea by, for example, offering them a role in the peace process; B) Convincing Afghanistan’s political leadership, especially that is based at Kabul, to go along; and, C) Get the Taliban onboard with this as well.
Clearly, the letter to President Ghani seems to be linked to our point “B”. In my view, the letter may even be the first step toward pulling President Ghani out of the Afghan game altogether. As for “A” – i.e. engaging regional and international stakeholders – a list of countries to be put directly on the negotiating table is included in both the Blinken letter and the Biden plan. This list includes US rivals, Russia, China and Iran – as well as India and Pakistan, the two countries that compete for influence in the country. The Biden plan makes references to getting the UN Security Council involved, where some of America’s most important European allies are members. Likewise, while most European capitals might have expressed some discomposure at not being invited to the negotiating table, yet there seems to be broad approval of the extension-in-deadline idea. In fact, NATO leadership has mirrored American moves in deferring decision-making on its own withdrawal rather indefinitely.
Finally then, it leaves the Taliban. So far, the Taliban have an avowed resumption of hostilities should the withdrawal not take place. With the Afghan spring just around the corner, the Taliban will be tempted to launch a broad-based offensive against international and Afghan forces. However, most interestingly, the Taliban also seem to understand that they cannot win militarily. Especially, if the US decides to respond by staying or increasing troop levels, or if it returns to Afghanistan after withdrawing. Put another way, the Taliban also seem to realize that the only real solution to the Afghan situation is through a negotiated settlement. What that means is that the Taliban have a real incentive to agree to a temporary extension in the withdrawal deadline.
It is possible that the Taliban might come to see stepping up limited attacks against the Afghan army and trying to stage “spectacular” events, as a better strategy. Here, they would want to throw increased violence into the negotiations mix that take place over an extension. By doing so, they might seek to obtain better terms against their agreement to extend the withdrawal deadline. Unless, of course, someone can dissuade them of such a course – either entirely or quite early on along this course.
Presently, the confidence the Biden administration is exhibiting – is it mere coincidence that all this public knowledge and that the letter is available online in full? – seems to suggest that it feels its diplomatic push has a very real shot at winning through. Perhaps, it has been encouraged by its allies. Perhaps, it also has assurances from someone that they can help them along. Perhaps one would recall a flurry of diplomatic activity since January and international travels of several important American officials through February.
Anyway, be that as it may, the Biden administration is gambling big on Afghanistan and we must watch closely as to what happens. In particular, we must watch how the Taliban respond. Peace in Afghanistan and adjoining regions hangs in the balance.