To Leave Afghanistan, Biden Must Solve His Ghani Problem

Even as the United States checks the Taliban, it must stop the Afghan president from playing the spoiler.

By Elise Labott, an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service and a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani arrives with the government delegation during a visit in Herat province, Afghanistan, on Jan. 21.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani arrives with the government delegation during a visit in Herat province, Afghanistan, on Jan. 21. Hoshang Hashimi/AFP via Getty Images

Afghanistan isn’t high on U.S. President Joe Biden’s list of priorities, given the number of crises he faces at home and abroad. But the looming deadline to withdraw all U.S. troops, part of a deal reached last year between the Taliban and the Trump administration, will force a decision that could define his presidency—and the legacy of 20 years of America at war.

Given Biden’s promise to end the so-called “forever wars,” the question is not whether he will withdraw troops. Rather, it’s how he can do so in a way that preserves something of the gains made in Afghanistan and ensures that decades of American sacrifice weren’t in vain. The problem is that Washington is stuck between two unpopular movements. The Taliban, who’ve spent the past year on a rampage, are despised nationally, with approval ratings in the single digits. But Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government is also extremely unpopular. Most Afghans and U.S. officials agree that the Taliban’s ability to continue the insurgency has been largely due to Ghani’s bad leadership—and he has shown little interest in reaching a lasting peace agreement that might usher him out of power.

The biggest near-term obstacle for the Biden team might be its inheritance of the Doha agreement, the 2020 peace deal urged by former President Donald Trump and negotiated by (then and still) U.S. envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad. It was a well-intentioned but deeply flawed effort to end America’s two-decade presence in the country; under pressure from Trump to pull U.S. troops out quickly, Khalilzad was unable to secure guarantees on human rights, democracy, or protection for women’s rights. The deal has no provision for a cease-fire or even an express promise by the Taliban to end violence. From their point of view, the Taliban are still at war in Afghanistan and have only pledged to negotiate both as part of an intra-Afghan peace deal. The lopsided deal was seen as an act of bad faith by the Afghan people and rightly convinced the Taliban that the United States was rushing for the exit. This perceived victory over the U.S. occupation has given them confidence to stand firm in their negotiations with Afghan groups.

Biden’s national security team is striking a notably skeptical tone about the deal, and nobody is happier than Ghani. The new U.S. national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, told his Afghan counterpart in one of his first calls that the administration is “taking a hard look” at whether the Taliban were meeting their commitments under the agreement. The Taliban have stopped attacking U.S. forces (for the most part). But the Defense Department’s inspector general for Afghanistan noted this week that levels of insurgent and extremist violence continue, including a spate of high-profile assassinations of Afghan officials, and that the Taliban have yet to break ties with al Qaeda, as they promised.

To nudge the Taliban toward upholding their part of the bargain, Khalilzad needs to send the Taliban an unambiguous message—at the negotiating table and on the battlefield—that U.S. troops won’t leave until the insurgents deliver. The message could be simple: The quickest way to finally get U.S. troops out is to get the deal done.

But that message shouldn’t just be for the Taliban. Washington must also warn Ghani, who fears that an intra-Afghan deal could spell an end to his presidency, that spoiling the peace process will not be tolerated. Ghani’s fumbles extend beyond his efforts to stymie the peace deal, though. In a 2016 profile, George Packer—a thoughtful chronicler of Afghanistan—described Ghani as a “visionary technocrat” who literally co-wrote the book Fixing Failed States but whose elitism and lack of political skills prevented him from governing.

Having alienated every possible constituency—parliament, warlords, and the country’s non-Pashtun political establishment—Ghani surrounds himself with a few close advisors, including National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib and Vice President Amrullah Saleh. To avoid his infamous temper, they shield Ghani from the country’s violence. His reliance on hand-picked community leaders, who present a rosy picture of rural politics, ensure that he has little idea of what is going on in Afghanistan beyond the palace gates. Corruption within the executive branch is as high as it has ever been, with the palace profiting off large-scale military contracts. And constant interference by Ghani and his inner circle in security personnel appointments—replacing young, smart U.S.-trained commanders with incompetent loyalists who have little military experience—has undermined trust among the people and security forces.

So what can the United States do?

The Afghan army, particularly the elite U.S.-trained special forces, has been effective in routing out the Taliban and most other terrorist groups and is a respected institution among the Afghan people. In addition to reaffirming its commitment to funding and logistical support, Washington must seek to protect Afghan security personnel from corruption and political abuse.

And possibly use a little more leverage than the $4 billion a year in annual security aid. Retired U.S. military commanders such as Joseph Dunford, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff whose Afghanistan Study Group is due to make its recommendations this week, believe the United States should stay, with at least a residual force, until the Afghans reach a political settlement. Or, others argue, even longer: Most military experts agree that a small number of U.S. counterterrorism forces will be needed to maintain maximum pressure on the Taliban and other armed groups in Afghanistan and to check neighbors like Pakistan and Iran, given Afghanistan’s long-term strategic centrality to the United States.

Washington should not be forced to stay in Afghanistan to prop up Ghani’s weak government.In theory, Dunford’s idea makes sense, but it would likely discourage both sides from concluding a deal. Buoyed by their victories in Doha and momentum on the battlefield, the Taliban remain confident they can wait Washington out and have little incentive to compromise. Ghani, who sees a peace deal as an existential threat to his rule, will continue to put up roadblocks—one reason that calls are growing louder for him to cede power to an interim or power-sharing government that can negotiate a peace deal until a new constitution is written.

Even as the Biden team works to reassure Ghani the United States is once again a reliable partner, it must convince him to broaden his governing coalition. Washington should not be forced to stay in Afghanistan to prop up his weak government. If Ghani stands in the way, the United States might consider another Bonn-type forum where the Afghan political establishment and the Taliban agree on a governance structure for the country’s future and on new leadership that is acceptable to all parties.

Afghanistan’s ongoing need for billions of dollars in U.S. aid and military training and assistance will give the Biden administration continued leverage—and that can be used to at least try to maintain a limited number of U.S. troops and ensure that basic standards of human rights are protected in a future constitution. As they take on more responsibility in the government, the Taliban will have obviously have a say in the way the country is run, including the role of religion—and are already eyeing a return to a strict interpretation of Islam that they imposed on the country a quarter century ago. But the Biden administration, with whatever Afghan government it works with, must also make the Taliban accept that Afghanistan in the future cannot, and will not, return to the 1990s.

Elise Labott is an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service and a columnist at Foreign Policy. As a correspondent for CNN for two decades, she covered seven secretaries of state and reported from more than 80 countries. Twitter: @EliseLabott