South Asia Brief

Biden Has No Good Options in Afghanistan

Facing a May 1 deadline to withdraw U.S. troops, the new administration must walk a tightrope toward peace.

Security personnel walks past a wall mural with images of Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, and and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Kabul on July 31, 2020.
Security personnel walks past a wall mural with images of Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, and and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Kabul on July 31, 2020. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief. I’m Michael Kugelman, the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington, and I’m delighted to be the new writer of this newsletter.

I have big shoes to fill as I take over from Ravi Agrawal, now FP’s editor in chief. I look forward to sharing news and analysis from a region with one-quarter of the world’s population—and an endless supply of fascinating stories.

The highlights this week: The Biden administration faces tough choices in Afghanistan, India and Pakistan announce a surprise border truce in Kashmir, and why Bhutan has recorded only one COVID-19 death to date.

If you would like to receive South Asia Brief in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.

Biden’s Afghanistan Quagmire

The Biden administration is reportedly close to completing a policy review on the war in Afghanistan—but it’s faced with a difficult decision because it has no good options. No matter what it does, the intense violence in the country will likely increase. The choice President Joe Biden makes will resonate at home, especially among his critics, because it will be one of his first major foreign-policy decisions. In the words of one U.S. official, Biden’s choices amount to a “shit sandwich.”

One year ago, the Trump administration signed an agreement with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, that called for the full withdrawal of U.S. forces by May 1, 2021, so long as the insurgents upheld counterterrorism commitments including preventing al Qaeda from mounting attacks on the United States or its allies from Afghan soil. The accord also obliged the insurgents to launch peace talks with the Afghan government and ended Taliban attacks on U.S. forces.

While the Taliban began talks with the Afghan government last September, six months later than stipulated in the Doha deal, they’ve made little progress. Taliban violence against non-U.S. targets has increased over the last year. Meanwhile, reports from the U.S. government and the United Nations contend that the group still cooperates with al Qaeda—which may not violate the deal but certainly raises questions about its willingness to curb al Qaeda attacks.

With the May 1 troop withdrawal deadline looming, here are Biden’s options.

First, Washington can withdraw the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops by May 1. This move risks the Taliban capitalizing on the battlefield advantage afforded by the departure of U.S. troops to intensify their fight against the Afghan government and try to seize power by force.

Or the Biden administration can disregard the May 1 deadline and keep the troops on. But the Taliban would likely accuse the United States of violating the Doha deal, scrap the agreement, scuttle the peace process with Kabul, and redeclare war on U.S. forces. Stephen M. Walt’s latest column for Foreign Policy highlights the additional risks of remaining in Afghanistan.

Finally, a third option for the United States is to negotiate a withdrawal extension with the Taliban. This would buy the Biden administration time to help create the conditions for a more orderly final drawdown and a healthier environment for intra-Afghan peace talks, from a reduction in Taliban violence to continued U.S. support for Afghan security forces.

On Feb. 23, Vox cited an official who said a full withdrawal in May was already “off the table.” Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin cautioned against a “hasty” withdrawal. Such messaging suggests the administration won’t feel constrained by the May 1 deadline.

But getting the Taliban to agree to a deadline extension would be a tall order. For nearly 20 years, the group’s core goal has been to expel foreign forces from Afghanistan. The Taliban would demand significant concessions for even a brief delay, including obligations in the Doha deal that Washington has yet to fulfill, such as removing the Taliban from U.N. sanctions lists.

If the Biden administration makes such concessions, it will have less leverage later, especially as it tries to compel the Taliban to agree to a cease-fire—a critical U.S. objective. Additionally, the Taliban would likely demand the establishment of a new transitional government, something that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has categorically rejected. Back at home, Biden will be under political pressure from Democrats and Republicans alike to both pull up stakes and stay the course.

Then there is the regional challenge. Administration officials say they favor a “robust and regional diplomatic effort” to support the peace process in Afghanistan. But the key regional players—China, Iran, Russia—are America’s bitter rivals. Neighboring Pakistan derives leverage over the Taliban from the sanctuary it provides to the group’s leadership. Washington can pressure Islamabad to prod the Taliban to stay committed to the peace talks, but its capacity to do so remains unclear.

India, Washington’s top regional partner and a close friend of the Afghan government, can ironically only play a limited role in advancing the peace process because it lacks a relationship with the Taliban. Any potential endgame—whether a collapsed peace process and worsening civil war that undermines Kabul or a political settlement that gives the Taliban a share of power and by extension more influence to Pakistan—will disadvantage New Delhi.

Biden has never supported a large, long-term military presence in Afghanistan. He opposed Barack Obama’s 2009 troop surge and has long favored a small counterterrorism-focused force. But if the president opts for one, the Taliban’s strident commitment to total U.S. withdrawal means that he risks torpedoing the fragile peace process and putting U.S. forces back in the Taliban’s crosshairs.

The Week Ahead

Feb. 25-27: Afghan Foreign Minister Mohammed Haneef Atmar visits Russia for talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.

Feb. 29: One-year anniversary of the signing of the U.S.-Taliban deal.

March 3: The Wilson Center hosts a webinar on India-Taiwan relations.

March 5: Tune in for an FP subscriber call on South Asia, with insights from Michael Kugelman, Editor in Chief Ravi Agrawal, and Executive Editor Amelia Lester.

What We’re Following

A surprise border truce. One day shy of the second anniversary of the most serious India-Pakistan military crisis in nearly 30 years, when India launched airstrikes across the border for the first time since 1971, the two countries announced a cease-fire along the disputed Line of Control that divides Kashmir. The cease-fire is the first along the border since 2003, and the timing is striking: Tensions between India and Pakistan are currently running high due to the 2019 military crisis and India’s decision later that year to revoke the autonomy of Indian-administered Kashmir.

Experts have offered explanations including India’s desire to free up bandwidth for its border dispute with China and the Pakistani army’s conclusion that its interests are better served by improving ties with India. The cease-fire may not last due to continued high tensions and past precedent. But given the dangerous trajectory of bilateral ties over the last two years, including around 5,000 other cease-fire violations in 2020, the highest figure in nearly two decades, an offramp couldn’t come at a better time.

According to the Hindustan Times’ Shishir Gupta, additional steps to reduce tensions may come in the months ahead. We’ll be watching this space.

India and China disengage. On Feb. 19, Indian and Chinese soldiers completed a withdrawal from the Pangong Tso lake area in the Ladakh region, along their disputed border. The drawdown comes eight months after a deadly border clash in the Galwan Valley, elsewhere in Ladakh, pushed the India-China relationship to its lowest point in decades. The disengagement, along with New Delhi’s decision this week to greenlight 45 Chinese investments placed on hold last year, suggests a possible thaw.

Elsewhere along the 2,100-mile border, troops remain hunkered down, and the security situation is tense. Last month, satellite images showed that China had built an entire village on territory that India considers its own in Arunachal Pradesh state. Indian and Chinese soldiers also briefly clashed in the Sikkim area, along India’s eastern borders.

Imran Khan visits Sri Lanka. Pakistan’s prime minister visited Sri Lanka this week to discuss economic cooperation between the countries. Islamabad already enjoys cordial ties with Colombo. Back in 2009, Pakistan delivered security assistance to Sri Lanka during the final phase of its effort to crush the Tamil Tiger insurgency.

Khan’s visit appears to be part of a broader effort to step up regional diplomacy. In recent weeks, Pakistan has taken steps to strengthen ties with Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Last week, it hosted a 45-nation naval exercise that included Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Under the Radar

There have been plenty of coronavirus pandemic success stories from Asia—Taiwan, Vietnam, New Zealand—but one small country has gone largely unheralded: Bhutan. Despite its poverty, ratio of 1 physician to every 2,255 people, and its shared border with hard-hit China and India, Bhutan has recorded only one COVID-19 fatality.

In the Atlantic, the science journalist Madeline Drexler chalks up Bhutan’s success to quick actions by top officials, clear and consistent messaging from health authorities, and strong public trust in government. But she also identifies an additional factor unique to Bhutan: the spirit of compassion and altruism reflecting its “Gross National Happiness” index. The index considers noneconomic aspects of well-being, including health, as essential to sustainable development.

Quote of the Week

“As long as I am alive, they will not see an interim government. I am not like those willows that bend with the wind.”

—Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, responding to the Taliban’s call for a new transitional administration to oversee the country’s fragile peace process

South Asian Voices

In the Daily Star, the free speech advocate Faruq Faisel laments Bangladesh’s crackdown on online content, including the recent removal of a documentary from social media platforms.

B.N. Sable, an Indian Army veteran writing in the Indian Express, decries the proliferation of military-themed video games that simulate real battles, arguing that “developing and marketing” such games on “politically-volatile and emotionally-distressing subjects is disrespectful” to the military.

Kishwar Enam, a Pakistani pediatrician, advocates in Dawn for the end of the common practice of wealthy Pakistanis hiring children to serve as domestic helpers. “[P]eople who hire child domestic help look upon themselves as the saviours of these hapless children,” she writes.

In the Kathmandu Post, the Nepali corporate executive Sujeev Shakya explains how his country’s economy managed to ride out the pandemic storm.

That’s it for this week.

For more from Foreign Policy, subscribe here or sign up for our other newsletters. You can find older editions of South Asia Brief here. If you have tips, comments, questions, or corrections, you can reply to this email.

Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman

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