As the administration has changed in Washington, pundits see changes vis-à-vis the US policy towards different regions. The Afghanistan war is in one of the to-do lists issues Biden has to resolve. Since Obama’s first term, winding up the Afghan war has been a key objective in US South Asia policy. Though an agreement with the Taliban for a future road map to peace was laid last year, many hurdles exist in the way to reach a durable settlement. However, the question of how the new administration in Washington that has recently taken charge looks at the Afghan peace process and the US-Taliban despite the objective of disengagement from Afghanistan will remain the same.
President Biden who has spent nearly five decades in the Senate and various administrations has a detailed history of advice and opinion on the Afghan affairs that makes him a president who can amicably resolve the Afghan quagmire soon. He has the desire to keep a small counterterrorism force and reach an agreeable settlement with the Taliban. However, if this opinion shapes his future policy, how long the small counterterrorism force should be maintained? And will it be acceptable to the Taliban who has according to many won the table talks with the US where the agreement was labeled almost favorable to them, not the US? This is a challenge to the new Biden administration how it goes with the deal the Trump administration made with the Taliban in February 2020.
The Doha agreement is under threat from many sides. Many deadlines specified in the deal have been missed due to the late start of the intra-Afghan talks. There is no specific development between the Taliban and the Afghan government due to disagreement on the agenda of the negotiations and then probably their eyes were towards the new administration to take charge and what changes it made in the agreement that has to define the future of the process. The Taliban a couple of days showed their willingness for a ceasefire if the complete withdrawal of the US troops and the future Islamic state in Afghanistan was guaranteed. If the White House and Pentagon are calculated in their steps vis-à-vis the peace process, the Taliban also ensure quite vigilantly.
In its initial announcement, Biden administration want to review the Doha deal made with the Taliban. However, the Taliban on the other hand is strongly against revising the deal which gave them an upper hand. The Biden administration can have two main options vis-à-vis dealing with the said issue. One, the deal made by the previous administration can be implemented in its original form. The prospects of which seem very less likely. However, the Doha deal was mostly favorable to the Taliban and emboldened them by giving them international legitimacy and internal morale boost that can be questioned by the new team in the White House. On the other hand, if the intra-Afghan talks got momentum and the Taliban agreed to a ceasefire, the Biden administration can proceed with the Doha deal. President Ashraf Ghani’s administration was waiting for the new president if he reversed the Doha deal where the Afghan government was not a party, a condition of the Taliban while dealing with Washington. A couple of days before, the Taliban said in a statement that they are ready for a ceasefire if the US troops’ withdrawal and the future Islamic state were guaranteed. This option is viable once both the parties to the agreement: the US and the Taliban abide by the Doha deal and the intra-Afghan talks succeed.
The second option can be renegotiating the Doha deal to change some of its parameters in order to make it favorable for the US. It will depend on the new administration’s team how they prioritize policy objectives and handle the situation vis-à-vis the Afghan peace process and the US withdrawal. The administration can put a premium on how to change the course of the deal by adding additional understanding to the agreement that could provide for a small counterterrorism force until the settlement of the issue between the Taliban and the Afghan government. For withdrawal of the US forces, May 2021 is the deadline for the complete withdrawal and had to reduce its troops level to 2500 till January 2021 that has been met before Trump left the White house. The current number of US troops in Afghanistan is the lowest in the last two decades. However, the Biden administration would likely try to extend the troops’ withdrawal deadline with the Taliban as many of the provisions of the agreement remain unfulfilled by the parties due to the delay in the intra-Afghan talks output. Yet, any changes in the Doha deal would certainly need the Taliban’s willingness.
However, the new administration should put a premium on how to nudge the Taliban and the Afghan government sitting in Doha for negotiations to reach any settlement. It seems quite obvious that the Taliban will not compromise on its core demands and concerns at any cost. Besides, the Taliban are reluctant to renegotiate the Doha deal or make any concessions. The parties can be in hot waters especially in the US if the deadline of the deal is reached and no progress was achieved. If the new administration hopes to sustain chances of achieving peace and especially the output of the US-Taliban peace process that took almost ten years to reach the Doha deal, it needs to track vibrant diplomacy vis-à-vis the issue.
*The writer is Senior Research Associate at Strategic Vision Institute, Islamabad and author of The Troubled Triangle: US-Pakistan Relations under the Taliban’s Shadow. He tweets @yousafzaiZafar5.
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