Exit Strategy. Biden’s Afghan Dilemma
Giuliano Battiston 11 February 2021

In his first foreign policy speech as US president at the State Department in Washington, last February 4th,  Joe Biden did not mention Afghanistan. It was a deliberate choice, in line with the administration officials’ relative silence: the Biden-Harris administration is still trying to figure out how to handle the Afghan dossier inherited by its predecessor, Donald Trump.

On November 17th 2020, Trump ordered to cut the number of US troops from 4,500 to 2,500, by January 2021, the lowest number since 2001, in accordance with a comprehensive agreement between the United States and the Taliban. Under the US-Taliban deal signed in Doha on February 29th, 2020, all foreign forces are scheduled to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for security guarantees from the militant group, which has also pledged to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula with the internationally recognized government in Kabul, not officially recognized by the Taliban.


The Doha US-Taliban deal

The first issue the new Biden team will have to prioritize is, therefore, to determine the pace of any further US withdrawal, to decide whether to adhere to, revoke, or renegotiate the terms of that deal. As the withdrawal deadline approaches, a limited spectrum of options is available: the Biden administration has a short timeframe and has already announced a policy  review. On January 22nd, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan clarified “the United States’ intention to review the February 2020 US-Taliban agreement, including to assess whether the Taliban was living up to its commitments to cut ties with terrorist groups, to reduce violence in Afghanistan, and to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government and other stakeholders”.

According to several observers, despite the repeated reassurances that troop withdrawal is tied to conditions on the ground and to substantial progress in the so-called intra-Afghan peace process, the Taliban has never lived up to what the international community expected. The levels of violence within the country “are simply too high”, recently reiterated General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of the United States Central Command, indirectly blaming the Taliban for this tendency. While the intra-Afghan talks, inaugurated in Qatar in September 2020 (six months after their planned start), led only to a three-page set of procedures for the future substantial talks.


The intra-Afghan negotiations

The set of procedures was agreed upon by the two main Afghan warring sides, the Taliban and the “negotiating team of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan”, the IRoA team. The latter is a heterogeneous and deeply divided “Republican front”, whose pluralism is a sign of fragmentation rather than democratic diversity, reflecting the deep political ruptures within the Afghan political landscape. Here, two major points should  be recalled. First, the Afghan government came to the peace negotiations in relative weakness, due to Trump’s policy on Afghanistan based on the concession to first sit bilaterally with the Taliban without the Afghan government present and to push the latter to abandon the principle of “reciprocal concessions”. Second, although the US-Taliban deal of February 29th 2020 does not say much about the shape of intra-Afghan talks, “Taliban sources consistently insisted that they would not talk to the Ghani administration, but only to an interim government that represented the whole Afghan political spectrum. This position has not really changed”, writes Antonio Giustozzi, a leading scholar on the Afghan insurgency.


The Afghan government is weak, the Taliban is strong

Within the IRoA team, the Afghan government is one player among others. President Ashraf Ghani reluctantly agreed to concede to his rival Abdullah Abdullah as head of the High Council of National Reconciliation, the plethoric body overseeing the peace process, in order to solve a prolonged post-electoral conflict. Now Ghani risks being “fired”, as several politicians seem ready to approve the creation of an interim government that would bypass him. Recently, Ghani’s opponents have set up a 21-member parliamentary committee to possibly meet separately with the Taliban, accusing Ghani of stalling peace talks to remain in power. Ghani’s supporters, meanwhile, say the committee is trying to unseat the president.

To the extent that the Republican front is divided and fragile, the Taliban are strong.  They have obtained the Doha agreement with the United States, a marker of international legitimacy, plus the consequential, imminent full withdrawal of foreign forces. They were also successful in kickstarting intra-Afghan talks on their terms. Soon, they will flex their diplomatic muscle, probably offering a trade-off: an interim government vs a ceasefire. Quite simply, as Michael Kugelman states, “the Taliban has an upper hand. It has no incentive to be pressured into accepting demands or making concessions it doesn’t support”. The Biden administration has to take into consideration all these issues, before announcing the new policy for Afghanistan.


Biden and Afghanistan

On February 3rd, the Afghanistan Study Group – a bipartisan panel established by the US Congress in December 2019 to identify policy recommendations that “consider the implications of a peace settlement, or the failure to reach a settlement, on U.S. policy” –  released its recommendations. Washington should not abandon the Afghan peace process, the report said, but the United States should make “an immediate diplomatic effort to extend the current May 2021 withdrawal date in order to give the peace process sufficient time to produce an acceptable result”. The main aim would be to reinforce the mechanism for interdependence of the four elements of the Doha Agreement: US troop withdrawal, Taliban counter-terrorist guarantees, a comprehensive ceasefire, and a political roadmap.

The Biden administration is unlikely to fully reverse the withdrawal of US forces or radically depart from the Trump administration’s plan. Rather, it would buy some time, revisiting the withdrawal timeline with the Taliban, postponing the deadline and making military cuts contingent on progress in peace talks as well as the Taliban reducing violence and containing al Qaeda. As suggested, Washington could seek to adjust the agreement by negotiating “a one-time, six-month recalibration of the deadline for troop withdrawal” together with recalculated target dates for its other obligations, including the Taliban’s counter-terrorism commitments. “A six-month postponement of the withdrawal deadline could resynchronize the timeline without giving the impression that the U.S. will renege on the agreement to withdraw all troops”, Barnett Rubin writes.

However, how the deal-review is going to be handled will produce deep, long-term consequences.  A negotiated extension of the US withdrawal timeline would not ensure peace but would keep the peace process alive and the political path open. The price is additional concessions to the Taliban in new, direct negotiations with the US. A unilateral extension against the will of the Taliban would guarantee the war’s continuation. Both options imply dramatic uncertainty for Afghan citizens, stuck between two unpopular actors – the Taliban and the Afghan government – and an international player that is trying to leave behind a fallen war it does want to play anymore.


Cover Photo: Then US Vice President Joe Biden visits an Afghan National Army training center – Kabul, January 11th, 2011 (Shah Marai / AFP).

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