Get tough with, but also work with, the Taliban
As President Joe Biden takes office, he will find an old dossier on his desk, and he’ll have to decide what to do about it. It’s the Afghanistan case, and it could become his first foreign policy crisis.
Biden is familiar with the issue. He watched the Afghanistan problem heat up throughout his eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president, but now he finds himself personally confronted by a half-solved war.
His predecessor, Donald Trump, signed an agreement with the Taliban in February 2020 to completely withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Although thousands of U.S. troops have come home, about 2,500 U.S. military members are still there.
For Biden to close the page on this thorny issue, he will need to tackle the root cause of the protracted conflict. What effective measures can the Biden administration take? As a former interpreter for NATO forces and a native of Afghanistan, I can offer three suggestions.
First, he has to put his foot down on the Pakistan/Taliban situation. The key to the Taliban insurgency lies in Pakistan. It’s no longer a secret that Taliban leaders reside in Pakistan and enjoy the support of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and its security establishment. A video circulated in Afghan social media shows Mullah Ghani Baradar — the Taliban’s second-in-command and chief peace negotiator in Doha — talking to wounded Taliban fighters in a hospital in Karachi, telling them that all decisions about the peace process are being finalized in consultation with Taliban leadership and the Taliban’s cleric council in Pakistan.
Pakistan publicly pledged to play a constructive role in finding peace with Afghanistan by encouraging the Taliban to come to the negotiating table with the Afghan government, but there is still no sign of them doing so.
The Afghan government believes Pakistan’s civilian government is keen to cease its support of the Taliban, but it’s the Army that’s calling the shots. Pakistan’s army uses the Taliban to punish Afghanistan for having close relations with India.
In an article in Foreign Affairs magazine, Aqil Shah writes that Pakistan’s military has long used its rivalry with India to legitimize its political actions.
But there is some good news. According to Shah, the military has been losing its grip on power in recent months and faces mounting political challenges. The Pakistan Democratic Movement — an unprecedented coalition of once-fractious opposition parties — has staged large rallies against Prime Minister Imran Kahn’s government, demanding, among other things, that Pakistan must stop meddling in Afghan affairs.
This provides an opportunity for Biden to use U.S. leverage to convince Pakistan military leaders that there will be no pacification unless Pakistan generals stop supporting the Taliban.
For his second step, Biden should demand a firm promise from the Taliban to honor what has been accomplished in the past two decades during the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. That means the Taliban would respect human rights, freedom of speech and free elections, and not impose their emirate on the Afghan people.
Values such as free government, free markets and the rule of law can serve as the foundation for a stable and long-lasting peace. It cannot happen in Afghanistan unless those universal values are invoked.
But so far, even after signing the Doha Agreement, the Taliban have not denounced violence or shown any sign of ceasing their own violence against Afghan citizens.
The most recent quarterly report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction notes that insurgent attacks from July through September were up 50% from the previous quarter. Furthermore, the Taliban have not severed their ties to al-Qaida and its affiliates, as specified in their peace deal with the U.S.
The Taliban have no grass-roots support among ordinary Afghan citizens, who have come to embrace a free government, free market and rule of law. Afghanistan is in no mood to revert to the Taliban’s strict interpretation of Islamic rule.
For his third and final step in solving the Afghanistan problem, Biden should keep a small contingency of forces there to keep an eye on the bad guys and also impress upon Afghan rulers that U.S. financial aid comes with a price tag, and violation of the terms of agreement will not be rewarded.
With these three steps, Biden has a good chance to trigger positive change in Pakistan’s political environment and bring to fruition democratic values among Afghanistan’s new generation. Then he might finally close the Afghanistan War dossier with a happy ending.
Harold Wilson, who lived through World War II and served as Great Britain’s prime minister, believed that the ordered liberty that characterizes Anglo-American countries opened a path to permanent prosperity and peace. He believed the mix of free markets, free government and the rule of law that developed in the United Kingdom and the U.S. was transforming the world for the better.
I suspect Joe Biden shares those beliefs, and if he can nudge Pakistan and Afghanistan in that direction, his presidency could be truly transformative for the entire world.
Wahab Raofi, an Afghan-born American, is a graduate of Kabul Law School. He formerly worked as an interpreter for NATO forces in Afghanistan.