It was expected that the policy pursued by Trump in Afghanistan was bound to change under a new administration simply because its contours were wrongly perceived and implemented and were proving extremely harmful to the people of the country. Trump’s arbitrary decision to pull out of Afghanistan was primarily an election gimmick devoid of any consideration for the situation on ground in Afghanistan. The hastily signed peace agreement between the US and Taliban was extremely inadequate as it did not ensure end to violence that has become the bane of the country. The Taliban actually started using the temporary American inaction as a licence to engage in maximum violence and make it as the final arbitrator for any solution.
The assessments about the policy direction that could be taken by the Joe Biden proved correct as the Biden administration said it will review the deal with the Taliban, focusing on whether the insurgent group has reduced attacks in Afghanistan, in keeping with its side of the agreement. Joe Biden has stated that while he would reduce the number of combat troops in Afghanistan, he would not withdraw US military presence. President Joe Biden’s newly appointed national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, spoke with his Afghan counterpart Hamdullah Mohib and made clear the United States intention to review. Mohib, the Afghan national security adviser, tweeted that during the call the two sides agreed to work toward a permanent ceasefire and a just and durable peace in the country.
Washington struck a deal with the Taliban in Qatar last year, to begin withdrawing its troops in return for security guarantees from the militants and a commitment to kick-start peace talks with the Afghan government. The US had committed to reducing the number of its troops in Afghanistan from 13,000 to 8,600 within 135 days of signing the deal and working with its allies to proportionally reduce the number of coalition forces in Afghanistan over the same period. Currently, there are 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan. But violence across Afghanistan has surged despite the two sides engaging in those talks since September.
In the wake of the surging violence American administration wanted to check that the Taliban are living up to their 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. Sullivan underscored that the US will support the peace process with a robust and regional diplomatic effort, which will aim to help the two sides achieve a durable and just political settlement and permanent ceasefire. Sullivan also discussed US’ support for protecting recent progress made on women and minority groups’ rights as part of the peace process.
Anthony Blinken had also hinted that an increase in violence in Afghanistan may lead to US retaining some of it troops. He specifically mentioned that the US wants to retain some capacity to deal with any resurgence of terrorism, which is what brought America. He stated that it is required to look carefully at what has actually been negotiated as the US wants to end this so-called forever war. When contacted the Taliban said they remained committed to the agreement and honour their commitments. Tony Blinken however clarified that the new administration would also continue the peace process started by the Trump administration. Blinken, who is a former State Department official, would undertake a review of the peace deal because like the outgoing Trump administration, which negotiated the deal, the new US rulers also want to end the almost 20-year long war in Afghanistan. Blinken also promised to consider the rights of Afghan women and girls whose freedoms were severely curtailed during the Taliban regime.
The reason for Washington’s move was met with a sigh of relief from officials in Kabul after months of speculation over how the new administration would potentially recalibrate the Afghan policy. Another top Afghan government official lambasted the Taliban’s failure to live up to the February 2020 deal, saying the agreement had failed to achieve its stated goals. Deadly attacks and high-profile assassinations have increased in recent months, particularly in Kabul where several journalists, activists, judges and politicians have been murdered in brazen daylight attacks. The Taliban have denied responsibility for these killings but Afghan and US officials have blamed the group for the murders.
The change of American policy is quite in line with Pakistani understanding of the scenario and it is encouraging to notice that the Biden administration has started to see Pakistan as an essential partner in any peace process in Afghanistan and believes that continuing to build relationships with Pakistan’s military will provide openings for the United States and Pakistan to cooperate on key issues. More importantly the change of perception was given voice by the Biden administration’s secretary of defence Gen Lloyd J Austin who added that it is required to encourage a regional approach that garners support from neighbours like Pakistan, while also deterring regional actors, from serving as spoilers to the Afghanistan peace process.
When asked what changes he would recommend to US relations with Pakistan as the new defence chief, Gen Austin said that he will focus on shared bilateral interests which include training future Pakistan military leaders through the use of International Military Education and Training funds. He emphasised that Pakistan will play an important role in any political settlement in Afghanistan and that the US needs to work with Pakistan to defeat al Qaeda and the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) and to enhance regional stability.
Gen Austin was probed about any perceived change in Pakistan’s cooperation with the US since the Trump administration’s decision in 2018 to withhold security assistance to which he replied that Pakistan has taken constructive steps to meet US requests in support of the Afghanistan peace process. Pakistan has also taken steps against anti-Indian groups, such as Lashkar-i-Taiba and Jaish-i-Mohammad, although this progress is incomplete. The general, however, acknowledged that many factors in addition to the security assistance suspension may impact Pakistan’s cooperation, including Afghanistan negotiations.
On the other hand, Afghan government negotiators holding peace talks with the Taliban charged their opponents had been avoiding formal engagement for more than a week, an accusation the insurgents denied. The two sides have been meeting in the Qatari capital Doha since September in a US-backed effort to contain the violence in their country but the negotiations have already been interrupted by several long pauses. Negotiators from Kabul and the Taliban in early December decided to take a weeks-long break after months of often frustrating meetings bogged down by disputes on the basic framework of discussions and religious interpretations.
Since the talks reconvened in January, the Taliban team have held numerous meetings with other groups, including with Iranian officials in Tehran and with the former Indonesian vice president in Doha. An Afghan government source close to the talks was of the view that it seems they want to buy time and put further pressure. He added that they want not to engage in meaningful talks for a future political settlement so the May deadline comes and they believe the US will withdraw, and they can take over entirely. TW