Biden’s Options in Afghanistan

The United States and Pakistan must work together to secure the country’s future.

As vice president, Joe Biden visits an Afghan National Army (ANA) training center in Kabul on Jan. 11, 2011.
As vice president, Joe Biden visits an Afghan National Army (ANA) training center in Kabul on Jan. 11, 2011. Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

In a deal signed with the Taliban in February 2020, the United States agreed to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan by May this year. The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden is trying to stick to this peace deal, but it is faced with some difficult challenges as violence remains high and little progress has been made on intra-Afghan talks.

In order to make an American withdrawal more feasible and not entirely abandon the U.S.-Taliban agreement, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has put forward a revised peace plan with an interim power sharing formula and a proposal to involve key countries in the region. Developments over these coming weeks will determine whether the Biden administration can stick to the withdrawal deadline. It is clear, however, after 20 years that no government in Afghanistan can succeed without Taliban participation and that no peace process in Afghanistan can succeed without Pakistan’s full support.

Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States were all instrumental in helping the Afghans repel the Soviets from Afghanistan and bring the Cold War to a close. However, Afghanistan was torn apart by bloody infighting after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. The chaos allowed al Qaeda to flourish and its leader, Osama bin Laden, to carry out his global terrorist agenda. Heroin flowed out to neighboring countries, particularly Iran. When the Taliban took over Kabul in 1996, the group managed to curb opium production, but their rule was ruthlessly repressive, particularly of women. While conflict lessened, India and Iran continued to engage in proxy wars against the Taliban. When the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001, and Taliban leader Mullah Omar refused to hand over Bin Laden to the United States, it took only two months to overthrow the Taliban. They were far from defeated, however.

For the next two decades, the relationship of the United States and Pakistan has been dominated by the situation in Afghanistan and often plagued by animosity and accusations of duplicity. Americans were furious that Pakistanis would not crack down on Taliban hideouts within Pakistan, particularly the notorious Haqqani network, and Americans argued that safe havens in Pakistan prevented an U.S. military victory in Afghanistan. Americans wrongly believed that their billions of dollars in coalition support funds to the Pakistan military would buy them sufficient influence to secure the United States’ strategic goals.

But soon the Americans were accusing Pakistan of not doing enough to crack down on its own terrorist problem. In turn, Pakistan saw the ongoing debates in the United States about troop levels, the swings in violence, and factionalism in Kabul as evidence that U.S. policy was unpredictable and risked expanding the war theatre into Pakistan. If the Taliban were going to be there in the end anyway, Pakistan had a compulsion to continue engaging with them.

Pakistan’s leadership has consistently argued that its inability to go after the Afghan Taliban seeking refuge on its soil was not a matter of will, but of capacity. Pakistan’s military was simultaneously contending with an increasingly hostile India and a lingering insurgent threat in the province of Balochistan, which it suspected was fueled by India. Moreover, although Pakistan retains leverage over the Taliban, pushing the group harder could have driven it even closer to other countries which also built relations with it after the U.S. invasion.

From a Pakistani perspective, the United States made two fundamental mistakes: the first was not to differentiate between al Qaeda and the Taliban; and the second was the United States’ decision to bar the Taliban from the government formation process after the Bonn Agreement in 2001 which sought to reestablish government institutions after the U.S. invasion.

In the past year, Pakistan has been the key player in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. With the U.S. withdrawal agreement at risk, Pakistan will now be expected to pressure the Taliban to comply with its commitments. But the truth is that every day that a political settlement is delayed, Pakistan’s influence on the Taliban is eroded.

The peace process is fragile, and the Afghan army and NATO forces are still fighting the Taliban. Although no U.S. forces have been targeted recently, a breakdown of the peace talks risks a spike in attacks against Americans, which will further complicate the U.S. withdrawal. Lingering destabilization within Afghanistan would lead to a deterioration of Pakistan’s internal security situation and spur another wave of Afghan refugees. Pakistan still has an estimated 2.5 million Afghan refugees within its borders; a stable Afghanistan would give them the option of finally returning home. Renewed instability in Afghanistan would bring violence to Pakistan’s border towns and eliminate any prospects of bilateral trade.

In recent years, Pakistan has made progress against its domestic terrorist threat and avoided unification of the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban. Importantly, Pakistan’s security establishment has also continued to upgrade its nuclear command and control processes and improved the country’s Nuclear Safety Index rankings.

Pakistan has an important strategic and economic role to play in Asia, and it would be important for the United States to focus its attention on Pakistan for that reason alone. But renewed fighting in Afghanistan will make that far more difficult. Destabilization in Afghanistan serves neither Pakistan nor the United States’ vital interests. The question now is what practical steps could be taken to improve the chances for peace in Afghanistan.

Given the lackluster results produced by the talks in Qatar, the Biden peace plan proposes that Turkey hosts Afghan peace dialogues. Russia has also announced plans to convene another peace conference on March 18. While different regional players are trying to assert their relevance to ongoing developments in Afghanistan, the need for a negotiated settlement among Afghans remains the topmost priority. The Biden plan calling to replace the Afghan government with a power-sharing interim administration pending elections under a new constitution has not been well received by the Afghan president. Yet, the fact remains that the Taliban will have to be accommodated in a new power-sharing arrangement and a transitional government is a good way to do so till another round of elections can be held. American diplomat Zalmay Khalizad’s talks with the Afghan government and the Taliban, and with Pakistan interlocutors, will prove vital in reaching a political settlement for this much needed transitional set-up.

The Biden plan also envisions an expanded international mediation effort, under the aegis of the United Nations, which involves other regional actors including Russia, India, China and Iran. Critically, only the UN can implement “the robust regional diplomatic strategy” which everyone agrees is necessary for a durable peace in Afghanistan, but no single country can pull off. This is also a good time to set the groundwork for a strengthened United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, which will be needed for years after the completion of any deal to facilitate political cohesion and help create conditions for sustainable peace in coordination with other UN agencies.

The international effort to stabilize Afghanistan also requires other vital components, including an economic plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Just as in every other post conflict situation, employment generation will be essential to its success. Several proposals were made in the past 20 years to better align the Pakistan and Afghan economies and to create jobs in both countries. The discussion of US trade concessions for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Reconstruction Opportunity Zones, which would generate employment and attract investment need to be revisited. The US can also play a vital role in helping revive the Afghan Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement, along with other promising infrastructure investments in the border region.

Afghanistan needs a long-term security plan which includes technical and material assistance to the Afghan army and police for years to come, as well as enhanced security on the Pakistan-Afghan border. The greatest strategic concern for Americans is that Afghanistan will once again harbor al Qaeda or the Islamic State, which will be able to mount attacks against the United States and its allies.

There needs to be a frank discussion of a follow-on counterterrorism strategy among the United States, Pakistan, and NATO in case of a terrorist upsurge in Afghanistan. In the longer term, Afghan and Pakistani counterterrorism cooperation would also prove beneficial but doing so will necessitate assurances that neither side will allow their territory to be used as launchpads for cross-border attacks.

It is in the mutual interest of Pakistan and the United States to stabilize Afghanistan and ensure that global jihadist networks do not make gains within the wider region. Despite periods of turbulence, Pakistan and the United States have a long history of bilateral relations which precedes cooperation on counter terrorism. In a recent interview at the Middle East Institute on Feb. 8, Kenneth McKenzie, commander of CENTCOM, recognized Pakistan as not only being critical to the future of Afghanistan, but also “one of the hinge points in the world today.”

The impending need for a U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan has not diminished the value of bilateral cooperation between Pakistan and the United States. It has instead enhanced it.

Anne Patterson was the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, Colombia, Pakistan, and Egypt.

Ali Jehangir Siddiqui is Pakistan’s ambassador-at-large for foreign investment. Previously, he served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States.

Syed Mohammad Ali is a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute and he teaches at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins Universities.

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