Joe Biden's team is facing a complex dilemma in Afghanistan and it seems that it has not reached a final conclusion yet. Biden's foreign policy team is caught between two conflicting realities in Afghanistan. On the one hand, it is facing the Doha peace agreement, according to which the US must leave Afghanistan by May 1, 2021, and on the other hand, it is concerned about destruction of the democratic values in Afghanistan as well as China’s rise in the wake of the US withdrawal. Therefore, the most likely scenario for the US administration is to try buying time and extending the US presence in Afghanistan- or even increasing the number of troops- through negotiations with the Taliban. In that case, the United States needs to enter serious talks with Pakistan and Iran, and at the same time, offer tempting concessions to the Taliban. Otherwise, the Taliban are unlikely to comply with this US demand.
By: Nozar Shafiee
According to information leaked from the White House, Biden's foreign policy on Afghanistan has not been finalized yet. It is also important that Afghanistan is not among the top ten foreign policy priorities of the US administration. This is not because of Afghanistan’s insignificance, but it is due to the complexity of the country's internal and regional situation. Maybe in the near future, the policymakers of the Biden administration get forced to make Afghanistan one of their top priorities.
Biden's foreign policy team is caught between two conflicting realities. On the one hand, it is facing the Doha peace agreement, according to which the US must leave Afghanistan by May 1, 2021, and on the other hand, it is concerned about destruction of the democratic values in Afghanistan as well as China’s rise in the wake of the US withdrawal. In other words, Biden's foreign policy team looks at Afghanistan from two different perspectives.
The impact of liberal values on Biden’s team
The first perspective is an internal one. The Democratic Party’s approach is based on the values of liberal democracy. These values can be summarized in three elements: democracy, human rights and market economy. The issue of democracy and human rights in Afghanistan is important to the Biden administration. For this reason, it seeks to support the Ghani government as the elected government of the people, and to support the political rights of the Afghan people, especially the civil society, as an aspect of human rights. Maybe that is why Biden defended the Afghan government in his declared policy.
This approach is contrary to Trump's policy in Afghanistan. What was important for Trump was the kind of service that each country or each force could do in favor of the US interests. Trump did not care about democracy and human rights in other countries. So, the difference between the two American presidents can be clearly seen in these two different approaches, which originally has roots in the ideological foundations of the Republican and Democratic parties. According to the Democrats’ approach, if the Taliban enter the democratic process in Afghanistan as a political force, Biden will support it. But, Biden's team has four reasons to be skeptical about such a change in the Taliban’s approach.
First, the Taliban was supposed to reduce the violence level based on the Doha agreement, but they continue their attacks against the military forces of Afghanistan. Second, the United States maintains that the Taliban, contrary to their promise, are still in contact with al-Qaeda. Third, the Taliban have established close ties with China through Pakistan. And fourth, The Biden administration is concerned that the Taliban, in the light of the Doha Agreement, gradually gaining power in Afghanistan and thus fall out of US control by deceiving the United States.
The Impact of Afghanistan's geopolitical position on Biden’s team
The second factor that is influencing the US foreign policy toward Afghanistan is the country's geopolitical position. This is considered an external factor influencing the US policy in Afghanistan. The United States sees China as its most important international rival. That is why Trump put a lot of pressure on China. Now, given Biden's comments about China, it seems that he will put more pressure on the country.
One of the ways Biden can put pressure on China is using the Containment Doctrine. Accordingly, the United States can effectively put China in a strategic impasse by creating a circle of its own allies around the country so that Beijing can no longer think about its outside world. This coalition consists of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, India and other Southeast Asian countries. The US officials have also decided to add Pakistan and Afghanistan to this circle. This is where Afghanistan becomes strategically important to the US. This is an important reminder of Afghanistan's historic role in the world powers’ Great Game. In the past, however, Afghanistan had been playing the role of a buffer state in the relations of the great powers, but today it plays the role of a deterrent state. A deterrent state is a country that plays an important role in the equations of the world powers and that is why the superpowers always compete for more influence in such countries. Now the question is that if Afghanistan is supposed to become part of the siege ring of China, what would be the function of the country?
Trump hoped to turn the Taliban into an anti-China force via a compromise with the group, and via dragging Pakistan into its own camp. In fact, he intended to help the separatist forces in China’s Xinjiang province through the Taliban, or if possible through al-Qaeda and the ISIS, in order to take Afghanistan out of China's control and make the country a base for undermining China’s interests. Contrary to Trump's view, the Biden administration more doubtful about using the Taliban as an anti-China tool and more hopes to take Afghanistan out of Beijing’s control through reinforcing the country’s sovereignty. In that case, Biden's strategy in Afghanistan would be supporting the current government. That is why the US-Taliban agreement has worried Biden. The US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has recently talked about making some revisions in the Doha agreement, which means that 2,500 US troops and 6,346 US military contractors will remain in Afghanistan. This is a very small number compared to 2011, when there were 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. That is why the US security sources say that the government may decide to add about 4,000 more troops to the US forces in Afghanistan.
The first option is to withdraw the US troops from Afghanistan in accordance with the US-Taliban agreement, which may lead to the fall of the Afghan government and decline of democracy and human rights in the country. Another concern in this scenario is the takeover of Afghanistan by China. The reports about China’s military and financial assistance to the Taliban in order to target US forces can also be assessed in this regard.
Biden's second scenario is to withdraw from the Doha agreement on the pretext that the Taliban are not adhering to it, and stick to the previous plans for the unlimited presence of the US troops in Afghanistan. The danger of this scenario for the Americans is that they may face a fate similar to that of the Soviet Union. Especially that China intends to immediately fill the vacuum caused by the US withdrawal, and if the Americans remain in Afghanistan, China seeks to cause serious problems for the US by supporting the Taliban. Moreover, some experts argue that the United States, despite spending $2 trillion in Afghanistan over the past 20 years, has not created any significant change in Afghanistan, and that the US stands where it stood twenty years ago. This is what makes Biden's team doubtful about presence in Afghanistan.
The third and the most likely scenario for the US administration is to try buying time and extending the US presence in Afghanistan- or even increasing the number of troops- through negotiations with the Taliban. In that case, the United States needs to enter serious talks with Pakistan and Iran while offering tempting concessions to the Taliban. Otherwise, the Taliban are unlikely to comply with the US demand.
Joe Biden's team is facing a complex dilemma in Afghanistan and it seems that it has not reached a final conclusion yet. While the Afghan government hopes to see Biden changing Trump's disrespectful behavior towards the Afghan government (not inviting the Afghan government to the peace talks), the Taliban are hopeful to see Biden’s commitment to the Doha agreement and they believe that Zalmay Khalilzad’s reinstatement is a good sign of the US president’s commitment to the agreement. So, the US is in the calculation stage and it seems that it takes more time for the Biden administration to form Washington’s new policy towards Afghanistan.
Nozar Shafiee,is a professor of International Relations and expert on Afghanistan