February 1, 2021
The Taliban last week threatened to kill any American troop that remains in Afghanistan beyond the deadline of the peace deal the group struck with the Trump administration. The insurgent group is freely willing to make such a threat because it feels it holds all the cards. As a Taliban commander told a Western military official at the beginning of Trump’s term in office: “You have the watches. We have the time.”
Hence, the news that the U.S.-led coalition is no longer going to abide by the agreement will likely mean the heat of the Afghan cauldron is about to increase more than a few notches. On January 31, Reuters reported, citing top NATO officials, that foreign troops would remain in the country past April in violation of the said U.S.-Taliban withdrawal pact.
The alliance has argued that conditions of the agreement have not yet been met and the new administration in Washington wants to avoid the “sense” of a hasty withdrawal.
“We could see a much more calculated exit strategy,” one alliance official said.
It will take little calculation, one would think, to conclude that prolonging a military presence is likely not an optimal solution. That’s why the leak may be intended to send a message, and nothing more, which is not necessarily a bad strategy for those sitting thousands of miles away from the nearest Taliban suicide bomber.
The problem for the new U.S. president is that the Taliban’s ceaseless campaign of terror does not violate the terms of the pact. The agreement does not require the Taliban to reduce violence because it was designed to serve as no more than a veneer of justification for Trump to pullout troops ahead of the November election. The pact merely stipulates that a ceasefire will be on the agenda of intra-Afghan talks.
However, the Taliban are clearly violating the letter of the deal by failing to decouple from al-Qaeda, as a U.S. Treasury report revealed in early January.
“Al-Qaeda is gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under the Taliban’s protection,” the report said.
And the Biden administration does not want to be seen fleeing towards the exit doors while the Taliban violate the deal with impunity. Yet many will be quick to accuse Biden of being a warmonger by delaying the troop exodus.
However, before people start romanticizing the Trump era, one should remember he bombed Syria because his daughter cried, he was seconds away from bombing Iran, he tried to overthrow the government of Venezuela, and he pushed the world closer to nuclear holocaust by tearing up the INF treaty.
In fact, if re-elected, Trump would probably not sit still while the Taliban made a mockery of his precious deal of the century. Unconstrained by the need to garner votes, Trump would have little reason not to redeploy U.S. troops to Afghanistan or order the mother of all bombing campaigns (ultimately all leading to the same result).
On the other hand, despite the Taliban transgressions, the Biden administration cannot be blind to painful reality. The Taliban have the luxury of being able to hide in the mountains on the Afghan-Pakistan border for the next century, employing their hit-and-run-and-wait strategy.
They can also absorb casualties without political backlash while madrassas in Pakistan continue to generate fresh recruits. And therein lies the crux of the dilemma. As long as Pakistan fears war with India, Islamabad will want to control Afghanistan for purposes of strategic depth and ensuring Kabul does not align with New Delhi.
Many in the Washington establishment, illustrating an amazing level of collective amnesia, are urging Biden not to abandon America’s Afghan partners. Afghanistan has been mired in an endless civil war that erupted in the early 1970s, marked by shifting alliances between internal factions and external benefactors. What is essentially the same bloodline of rag-tag extremist holy warriors remain undefeated, after withstanding the wrath of two of the biggest military powers in human history.
In short, Biden is faced with either maintaining a bloody gridlock that would hurt Democratic chances to retain the White House in 2024, or continue the exodus and open the door for a Taliban takeover.
So the Biden administration’s only real option is pray détente breaks out between Islamabad and New Delhi. Or pray key stakeholders in the international community, after reaching a consensus themselves, broker, push and underwrite a non-interference pact between India and Pakistan – a mechanism so sacred and inviolable and enforceable that it convinces Islamabad that it no longer needs to control Kabul as a strategic asset.
This type of thinking is probably delusional, but certainly no more delusional than thinking the key to peace in Afghanistan is a perpetual foreign military presence.