The situation in Afghanistan is very fluid and there appears no sign of any improvement in it. Matters are hanging in balance because of the impending change of command in Washington that may also decide the future role to be played by US representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad.
It appears that the US war in Afghanistan will continue under its fourth president but it will not be the same war President-elect Joe Biden dealt with during his time as vice president. The situation on the ground may be even worse but the Trump administration has initiated a drawdown and made a tentative diplomatic deal with the Taliban.
The Biden administration has given no indication as yet of changing Khalilzad. US Afghan policy experts are quietly urging the Biden transition team to consider asking Zalmay Khalilzad, to remain on the job as a transitional negotiator after President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated on 20 January 2021. The effort reflects a belief that the ultimate end game sought by Trump and Biden—the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan—is largely the same and that a move to immediately replace Khalilzad at a sensitive stage in US peace negotiations with the Taliban could complicate that effort.
Khalilzad, a veteran diplomat from the George W. Bush administration who grew up in Kabul, has a deep relationship with Afghan leaders such as President Ashraf Ghani dating back decades and command of the major languages of the region. But his contacts with the Taliban, with whom he negotiated decades ago on behalf of a California oil company looking to build a pipeline through Afghanistan, has badly dented his popularity in Kabul. Afghan government officials resented being largely cut out of Washington’s secretive deal-making with the group that once harboured Osama bin Laden.
Biden’s top foreign-policy advisors, including Antony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, and Michele Flournoy, are said to be open to considering a possible extension for Khalilzad but are by no means committed. There are many scenarios presented in this respect in which the new administration may seek to build on what Khalilzad has done and there are scenarios in which they may opt for something different. Officials close to Biden are of the opinion that the Biden administration may not make any major policy or personnel decisions on Afghanistan during the transition and that any final decision will be formed by a coldhearted assessment of what approach would best serve US interests. For now, Biden’s top foreign-policy advisors are essentially soliciting recommendations from a wide range of foreign-policy experts, including some who have called for Khalilzad to stay and others who say it is time for a new approach.
All eyes are now fixed on the Biden administration that will join the fray with a war that is eroding militarily and crawling diplomatically and it will face a critical decision almost immediately. As a former chairman of the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee and vice president, Joe Biden has been closely involved in Washington’s war in Afghanistan and its complex relations with neighbouring Pakistan for decade. The US is committed to withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by 1 May 2021 according to the agreement it signed with the Taliban. This will provide just three months to the Biden administration to re-orientate its policy and it looks probable that it will play for time.
Though the US-deal includes troops withdrawal but in the same para it states that the implementation of the deal requires the commitment and action on the obligations of the Taliban under the terms of the agreement. Those terms include not cooperating with or hosting individuals threatening the security of the United States and its allies but the head of al-Qaeda’s franchise in South Asia was recently killed in southern Helmand province in a Taliban compound. The deal also includes some secret annexures referring to the use of violence of the Taliban as part of their fight and talk strategy and the breaches occurring in this respect are mostly alluded to both by Khalilzad and Gen Miller, commander of US forces in Afghanistan who mention that the Taliban are violating the agreement. It looks quite obvious that the Biden administration may prepare a compelling case bringing to fore the violations committed by the Taliban insisting that the withdrawal may be paused until such time as the Taliban demonstrate their intent to comply with the deal fully.
It is also expected that the Biden administration may re-draw the red lines as the Trump administration had conveniently ignored them just to obtain an agreement with the Taliban. The Trump administration has restricted Afghanistan’s security forces to active defense or limited offense with America conducting necessary airstrikes. It is becoming quite clear that the Taliban will keep on pursuing their strategy of using violence as the final arbitrator and the Biden administration may increase aggressive action and change the dynamics that may also include counterterrorism options that do not rely on a US military presence in Afghanistan and may solicit support of regional allies and proxy groups within the country. Along with these measures the Biden administration may also demand a series of reforms of Afghanistan’s security forces with a view to allay the impression that they will collapse once American troops withdraw.
While there is a hiatus in American actions, a Taliban team led by its co-founder came to Pakistan to talks to Pakistani authorities amid growing calls for a reduction in violence in Afghanistan. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and his delegation came to Islamabad from Doha and their visit came a day after US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad made a quick trip to Pakistan. Pakistan is rendered as primarily instrumental in getting the Taliban to the negotiation table with the United States in 2018. Those talks eventually led to the US-Taliban deal and also paved way for the start of talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which began in September in efforts to hammer out a roadmap for post-war Afghanistan.
The talks, after some recent procedural progress, have been suspended till early January though there is speculation the resumption could be further delayed. Kabul has called for the talks to resume inside Afghanistan while the Taliban insist they continue in Doha where they maintain a political office. However, it is unclear if the Taliban visit to Pakistan would yield any progress toward even a temporary cease-fire in Afghanistan. The Taliban have so far rejected calls for a cease-fire to be included in the agenda of the Qatar talks. The final withdrawal hinges on Taliban fulfilling their commitment to cut off al-Qaida and other militant groups and ensure that Afghan territory is not used for attacks on the United States. The Islamic State group known as a rival of the Taliban, is seen as America’s greatest security threat in Afghanistan.
In the meanwhile violence continues in Afghanistan as a roadside bomb struck a vehicle in Kabul wounding two people. A lawyer was shot and killed in the latest target killings sweeping the country. At least 13 Afghan police officers were killed in an attack on their checkpoint in Afghanistan’s northern province of Baghlan. Another three policemen were wounded in the overnight attack that took place in the Wazirabad area of Pol-e-Khumri city. Taliban fighters were also said to have carried out attacks against government forces in the country’s southern province of Uruzgan. A car bombing in Kabul targeting an Afghan lawmaker killed at least nine people. Lawmaker Khan Mohammad Wardak survived the blast but is among the 20 injured including women and children.
In this context, the top US military officer pressed the Taliban to reduce violence in a rare meeting with them. Gen Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met Taliban representatives in Qatar and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul. It was only the second time the top US general met the Taliban discussing the need for an immediate reduction of violence and accelerating progress towards a negotiated political solution which contributes to regional stability and safeguards US national interests. TW