Afghans See No Good Choices in the U.S. Election
Regardless of who wins next week, Afghans feel neither Trump nor Biden will do anything for Afghanistan—they just hope the next president completes the U.S. withdrawal.
KABUL—When Donald Trump was elected in 2016, he was an unknown entity in Afghanistan, a reality TV show host who’d spent years belittling the American incursion in the country at a time when the government in Kabul was hoping for a continued U.S. troop presence to check the rise of the Taliban and other militant groups.
Four years later, as the United States faces one of the most momentous elections in its history, the situation couldn’t be more different. In February, Washington signed a peace deal with the Taliban as part of Trump’s plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan after almost 20 years. Now, Kabul is hoping that whoever wins the election will stay that course—withdrawing U.S. troops, not leaving them in Afghanistan forever.
“At this point, we really do want them gone. It took us a long time to see it, but now we know they are only holding us back,” said a senior security official who did not want to be named.
In Kabul, as in so many other capitals around the world, government officials are watching this year’s election on tenterhooks because the stakes are so high—for both countries.
“Right now, our biggest concern is what happens in seven days,” the official said of a Trump defeat, which polls suggest is likely. Kabul is used to contested elections—the last two presidential races here ended in monthslong disputes and accusations of widespread fraud. But Afghans worry that if Trump loses, the fallout will be a lot worse than anything that happened in Afghanistan in 2014 and 2019.
“Millions of Trump’s supporters are armed. They’re also highly racist—that’s a recipe for disaster. Right now, we’re really hoping things go well in the U.S.,” the official said.
But the stakes are huge for Afghanistan, as well. The peace process kicked off this year has so far delivered anything but. A recent United Nations report on civilian casualties found that despite the start of intra-Afghan talks with the Taliban, “[h]igh levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian.”
In Kabul, the concerns are twofold—and neither outcome is particularly appealing. If Trump wins, few Afghans have confidence in his ability to carry out his own promises in a timely fashion, when delay will just mean more civilian deaths. Edris Lutfi, a former advisor to Afghanistan’s chief executive, said that even if Trump does win, it will be difficult to convince the president to pay due attention to Afghanistan. “Trump is unpredictable,” Lutfi said.
For instance, in an Oct. 7 tweet, Trump managed to blindside both the U.S. Defense Department and officials in Kabul. “We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas,” he wrote.
The Afghan security official said that although the tweet caught Kabul by surprise, they couldn’t take it seriously. “We believe him. We believe that he believes what he says, but everyone knows it’s impossible to recall thousands of troops over a two-month period in a pandemic,” the official said.
As impetuous as Trump is, a Joe Biden presidency breeds its own uncertainty for Afghanistan. Afghans who were against the peace process—which essentially gives the Taliban a dominant voice in Afghanistan’s future, in exchange for very little—had initially placed their hope in Biden, saying he would scrap the whole idea, but his subsequent statements have done little to instill confidence in Kabul.
Over the summer, one high-level government advisor had told other high officials that “there is no peace process—Biden will undo it as soon as he wins,” but now even he admits he was wrong. “He hasn’t said anything different from Trump, so let us make our own decisions for ourselves finally,” the government advisor said.
And while Biden has repeatedly said he agrees with a U.S. troop withdrawal, he has made many other comments that have sown plenty of doubts.
Lutfi said he is most worried by a statement Biden made during the New Hampshire Democratic primary debate, where he said: “I was totally against the whole notion of nation building in Afghanistan. The only thing we should be doing is dealing with terrorism in that region.” Biden continued: “There is no possibility of uniting that country, no possibility at all of making it a whole country.”
Lutfi fears the full implications of what Biden said. “Does he believe Afghanistan is too divided and that it’s a lost cause?”
The comments from Biden, who once defended a continued, if reduced, U.S. troop presence in the country, explain why even onetime Afghan backers of an extended U.S. force are washing their hands.
“What have they left here? Fundamentally what have they actually built here? Their presence here is affecting our economic and foreign policies, but we haven’t seen enough actual change to warrant that,” the security source said.
Another concern is that a Biden victory would slow the final implementation of the peace process since it would be far from a priority in a term filled with much more urgent domestic emergencies. That dalliance will ultimately only lead to more bloodshed, said Orzala Nemat, the director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a leading Kabul-based think tank.
“This was all Trump’s political move. His intention was always to win support ahead of elections by saying he ended this war and brought their troops home,” she said. “It’s never been about the Afghan people.”
And the Taliban, who already hit the jackpot with the Trump administration, would likely try to run the table with a new and unproven administration, she said, which would only further slow the peace process and add to the civilian body count.
Yet for many Afghans, there is one potential bright spot to a Biden victory: Everyone Foreign Policy spoke to said Kabul’s biggest hope for a Biden administration is a replacement for Zalmay Khalilzad, the current U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation. Khalilzad, an Afghan-born academic who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan under George W. Bush, has become a highly problematic figure for his handling of the current peace process.
“The Republicans gave a lot to the Taliban,” Nemat said.
Since the announcement of the peace process in February, violence across the country has spiked. According to the U.N., the number of civilian deaths attributed to the Taliban increased by 6 percent in the first nine months of this year. The Taliban’s recent effort to overrun the southern province of Helmand has called their dedication to peace into question.
For many observers, this is more proof of Khalilzad’s failure to hold the group accountable. Lutfi says Khalilzad has been seen as a “failed diplomat” so far. Others have been less charitable. Last year, Hamdullah Mohib, the current Afghan national security advisor, said Khalilzad has ambitions of becoming a “viceroy” in a possible “caretaker government,” something Kabul has adamantly stood against.
In the end, no matter who wins the U.S. election next week, the road ahead will be littered with the same obstacles, and neither candidate has laid out a coherent framework for either a smooth withdrawal or a continued counterterrorism presence. Afghanistan is ready to start moving on—whether Washington has sorted itself out or not.
The security source said he speaks for millions of Afghans. “If they want to be involved in Afghanistan, they are free to invest, but we don’t need their soldiers anymore,” he said.