In Race Against Time, Biden Officials Launch New Afghan Peace Drive

Washington’s latest proposal would draw on Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran for support.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at the State Department.
U.S. President Joe Biden's new secretary of state, Antony Blinken, speaks at the State Department in Washington on Jan. 27. Carlos Barria/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

With a May deadline looming for the United States to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, the Biden administration is turning up the pressure on President Ashraf Ghani to reach a peace deal with the Taliban. 

In a blunt letter to Ghani, obtained by Foreign Policy, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for his “urgent leadership” in the coming weeks. Blinken outlined a number of steps the United States planned to take to “move matters more fundamentally and quickly” toward a political settlement with the Taliban and a cease-fire, giving the first concrete glimpse into President Joe Biden’s strategy to extricate the United States from its longest war in history. 

Blinken told Ghani that he would also be sharing the plans with Abdullah Abdullah—the chair of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, which is overseeing peace talks with the Taliban.

Biden’s national security team is working against the clock: Former President Donald Trump during his final year in office made a deal with the Taliban to withdraw all remaining 2,500 U.S. troops from the country by May 1, 2021. Blinken said that possibility was still on the table, among other options. 

Blinken said the United States intends to ask Turkey to host peace negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban “in the coming weeks.” He also said the administration expects the United Nations to convene talks with a half-dozen countries—including Washington’s top geopolitical rivals Iran, China, and Russia—to coordinate a “unified” approach to peace in Afghanistan.

The proposals in the letter underscore the precarious diplomatic tightrope the Biden administration must walk to secure a final peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban after more than two decades of conflict. The previous two presidents vowed to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, only to see their plans disintegrate in the face of prolonged conflict and systemic instability as efforts to fully defeat the Taliban and other militant groups repeatedly failed. 

Afghanistan poses one of the most complex foreign-policy challenges for the new administration, and it is an early test of whether Biden can fulfill a key campaign promise of ending what Blinken and others have termed the “forever wars.”

During his last visit to Kabul, the American envoy for Afghan peace talks, Zalmay Khalilzad, floated a U.S. plan for the formation of an interim participatory Afghan government that would include the Taliban in meetings with Afghan and U.S. leaders—including Ghani, Abdullah, and former President Hamid Karzai. 

During those talks on how to move the peace process forward, U.S. and Afghan sources familiar with the matter said Khalilzad raised the possibility of a conference that would emulate one held in Bonn, Germany, in 2001, where a new Afghan leader was selected following the Taliban’s ouster from power. Under the new Bonn-style conference, Afghans and the Taliban would meet at the leadership level to discuss the prospect for a participatory government (similar to the government led by Karzai, which emerged from Bonn). The U.S. envoy also raised the idea of an agreement between the United States and regional countries to support the process that Blinken outlined in his letter to Ghani.

The U.S. proposal reviewed by Foreign Policy outlined principles for a peace agreement and the creation of a “transitional Peace Government” with the president and vice presidents selected “based on agreement between the two Parties.” The proposal, drafted in consultation with the various Afghan parties, outlined pledges for an immediate cease-fire from all sides. A joint cease-fire commission composed of the Afghan president and four members each from the Afghan government and the Taliban would monitor the truce. 

The U.S. side stressed in the draft agreement that it was a proposal meant to “jump-start” negotiations, but that ultimately “the two sides will determine their own political future.”

In his letter to Ghani, Blinken said the administration would ask the U.N. to convene envoys from Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, and India. “It is my belief that these countries share an abiding common interest in a stable Afghanistan and must work together if we are to succeed,” he wrote in the letter, which was first published by TOLO News

The conference adds another layer of complexity to peace talks, given tensions between Washington and rival powers in Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran. It remains unclear whether India and Pakistan, historic rivals, could find common ground on Afghanistan. 

Securing a regional consensus for a path forward in Afghanistan is viewed as a difficult but crucial step toward comprehensive peace and political development. The civil war in Afghanistan has created cross-border problems for Afghanistan’s near neighbors—including Pakistan, India, and China—all of which are eager to shape the country’s future to some extent, along with Russia. U.S. officials believe an international effort would force the parties to work more quickly to negotiate the terms of an interim government, while neutralizing their dueling agendas. 

Pakistan has long voiced concern over India’s influence in Afghanistan, and some analysts warn that Iran is making inroads with the Taliban in an effort to gain leverage over the United States in Afghan peace talks.

Turkey, which the United States hopes will host the peace talks, is seen as a neutral force by Afghan’s opposing factions. Earlier this month, Afghan Foreign Minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar said that Ankara could play a key role in helping reach a regional consensus for peace in the country. Turkish forces have been part of the NATO-led international coalition in Afghanistan, which comprises a noncombat force of 10,000 troops, since 2001.

When pressed for comment, a State Department spokesperson declined to respond to a series of detailed questions about the proposal, telling Foreign Policy the department does “not comment on alleged correspondence with foreign leaders.”

“We have not made any decisions about our force posture in Afghanistan after May 1. All options remain on the table,” the spokesperson added.

State Department spokesman Ned Price in a press briefing on March 5 downplayed the U.S. proposals for an international conference, saying the outcome of Afghan peace talks is up to the Afghans.

“We believe those outcomes should reflect the wishes and aspirations of the Afghan people,” Price said. “We continue to consult closely with our allies, our partners, countries in the region, regarding how we can collectively support this peace process and we’re considering a number of different ideas that might accelerate the process forward.”

Ghani has rejected the idea of an interim power-sharing government in the past, saying he was elected by the Afghan people and will finish his term. On Saturday, during a speech to the legislative National Assembly, he said the only way an Afghan government should be formed was through “free, fair, and inclusive elections under the auspices of the international community.” He did not directly refer to the proposed international conference.

Khalilzad also traveled to Doha, Qatar, to meet with the Taliban. Gen. Scott Miller, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, traveled to Doha with Khalilzad and took part in the meeting.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith said during a discussion at the Brookings Institution on Friday it was “highly unlikely” that the United States would meet the May deadline to withdraw its troops, but that he could envision forces leaving this year under the right conditions.. 

We’re not going to be out by May 1, [but] it would be enormously important for U.S. foreign policy if we could get out of Afghanistan. There is concern about the degree to which the United States has relied on its military to impose its foreign policy on the world,” Smith said. “We need to find a way to have our presence be more strategic and less large.”

Elise Labott is an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service and a columnist at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliseLabott

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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