Withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan: Biden may extend deadline as Taliban continue to violate accord
Biden is likely to extend the May 1 deadline set by former president Donald Trump for withdrawal of US troops while intra-Afghan peace talks continue in order to secure the support of the Taliban
The scheduled withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021 in sync with the agreement inked by erstwhile US President Donald Trump is mired by a set of uncertainties, although currently there are about 2500 troops in contrast to 100,000 in 2011. But there are still 6.346 US contractors present in the country.
The main hindrance to President Joe Biden in honouring the assurance to complete drawdown of US troops is backing out of the Taliban from written-down commitments. Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said in end-January: "The Taliban have not met their commitments. Without them meeting their commitments to renounce terrorism and to stop the violent attacks on the Afghan national security forces, and by dint of that the Afghan people, it's very hard to see a specific way forward for the negotiated settlement."
Kirby’s stand was endorsed by the new Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who told Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that a "robust diplomatic support for the peace process focused on helping the parties to the conflict achieve a durable and just political settlement and permanent and comprehensive ceasefire that benefits all Afghans" is the need of the hour.
More importantly, the Taliban are yet to disavow the al-Qaeda. The United Nations too has reports that the Taliban keeps escalating attacks against Afghan security forces and civilians. Afghan ambassador to the USA, Roya Rahmani, the first woman envoy from Afghanistan to the USA, in a well-written opinion piece, diplomatically reminded that “the peace process is just that, a process, and we must have patience. But we must also remember how much is at stake in these negotiations. Every day, men, women and children live in fear of losing their rights, their democracy or even their very lives”.
The Biden administration, she asserted, “will have to grapple with this stark reality as they formulate their policy in Afghanistan, and the deadline for making a decision is rapidly approaching. Given that the conditions have been repeatedly violated, the United States must now decide how to proceed”.
But she didn’t let go the opportunity to criticise the Pakistan-backed Taliban. They are “marketing the U.S.-Taliban agreement as evidence of its victory over the United States”, she said.
The US troops, remaining in Afghan soil, are on their guard, as expected. They conduct Special Operations missions with Afghan partner forces against al-Qaeda, the self-proclaimed Islamic State and the like. They keep training, advising and assisting Afghan security forces as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Operation Resolute Support.
Actually there are more allied troops (8000-plus). While small in number, the U.S. personnel continue to provide important functions, including intelligence and air support for Afghan forces. The USA also keeps providing Afghanistan a critical $4.8 billion in assistance per year, accounting for 80 per cent of the Afghan government’s security spending.
There are three options before President Biden, as jotted down by Max Boot, a Council on Foreign Relations expert: One, withdraw U.S. forces by May 1; two, cite Taliban violations as justification for pulling out of the accord and maintaining an indefinite U.S. military presence; or, three, ask the Taliban for an extension of the withdrawal deadline, citing the Taliban’s violations and delays in peace talks between the militant group and the Afghan government.
Boot has stated what the Biden administration would do, based on the thinking of the Afghanistan Study Group, co-chaired by retired General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “On the one hand, the Taliban have signalled publicly that if all international forces are not withdrawn by May 2021, as envisioned in the Doha agreement, they will resume their ‘jihad’ against the foreign presence and will withdraw from the peace process. On the other hand, a withdrawal in May under current conditions may lead to a collapse of the Afghan state and a possible renewed civil war.”
The study group, Boot noted, warns that ‘a precipitous withdrawal could lead to a reconstitution of the terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland within eighteen months to three years’
Biden seems set to pick up the last option: extending the withdrawal deadline while intra-Afghan peace talks continue in order to secure the support of the Taliban at long last. Washington, in all probability, will ask other countries, including China, Iran, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, to pressure the Taliban into amending the agreement.
Pakistan, in alignment with its traditional bad blood with Afghanistan, continues to keep the Taliban in good humour. Rustam Shah Mohamed, ex-chief secretary, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and former ambassador, wrote bluntly in Lahore-based Express Tribune that given a state of anxiety among the Taliban leaders that the Biden administration might ‘review the deal unilaterally and thus practically make the agreement futile’, the Taliban believe the USA would ‘pressure Islamabad to use its leverage to make the Taliban agree to accepting the presence of foreign forces on Afghan soil for the forseeable future and also to agree to a ceasefire’.
But the Pak diplomat realizes that the Taliban’s choice is limited. They are yet to realize that the new administration in Washington is “apparently not happy with the current approach to the conflict and wants to bring the Taliban under more pressure to secure a deal that is more acceptable. The forced reality before the Taliban made the latter “embark upon a diplomatic offensive. The idea is to seek support of regional countries and take them into confidence on their stance on vital issues linked to the peace talks”. The Taliban are on the back foot as never before.
(Views are personal)