Will Biden stay on the course set by Trump in Afghanistan?

How will Joe Biden’s election as the US president affect the Afghan peace process, which was pushed by his predecessor, Donald Trump?

FILE PHOTO: U.S. flag is seen at a post in Deh Bala district, Nangarhar province, Afghanistan
US flag is seen at a post in Deh Bala district, Nangarhar province [File: James Mackenzie/Reuters]

How will Joe Biden’s election as US president affect the Afghan peace process, which was pushed by his predecessor, current President Donald Trump? Analysts say Biden will largely stay on the course set by the outgoing president but will hold the Taliban accountable for violence.

They say the real difference will be in implementation, with some Afghans expressing hope Biden will give fewer concessions to the Taliban, which has been engaged in peace talks with the Afghan leadership in the Qatari capital Doha.

On Monday, Afghanistan’s second vice president, Sarwar Danish, called on the incoming Biden administration to review the peace process and apply more pressure on the Taliban, which signed an agreement with the US to reduce violence.

Such moves can give more leverage to the Afghan government negotiators at the intra-Afghan peace talks in Doha, that has struggled to set off since its launch in September.

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in New York
Trump pushed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to join the intra-Afghan talks [File: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

“A Biden government is much more likely to listen to concerns of allies, including those in Kabul, and its own national security establishment, and adjust its policy of drawdown and disengagement to ensure continued stability as much as possible,” Andrew Watkins, senior analyst on Afghanistan at the International Crisis Group, told Al Jazeera.

Sultan Barakat, director of the Centre for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies at the Doha Institute, also echoed Watkins’s point of view saying logistical decisions on reducing US troops will continue and could end the United States’s 20 years of war – its longest one.

“Biden may follow the strategy of explaining more detail the reality on the ground to the Afghans and to the Americans,” he said.

“He will also be pressuring more on good regional relationships with countries surrounding Afghanistan. He has to keep them on board.”

Biden’s priorities

The Taliban has been accused of carrying out deadly attacks on government forces while holding talks in Doha. The Afghan armed group says it has not flouted the February deal with the US, as the Afghan government was not party to it.

On Tuesday, the Taliban urged Biden to implement the February agreement that calls for a complete withdrawal of US troops by May 2021.

“The Islamic Emirate would like to stress to the new American president-elect and future administration that implementation of the agreement is the most reasonable and effective tool for ending the conflict between both our countries,” the armed group said in a statement, its first comment on the results of the US presidential election.

In the run-up to the US elections, Biden had said he would withdraw US troops but was not averse to keeping some counterterrorism forces in Afghanistan [File: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

The February agreement envisioned phased withdrawal of US forces in exchange for the Taliban pledging not to allow Afghan soil to be used against the US and its allies. Thousands of US troops have already been pulled out as part of the deal.

Afghan analyst Maisam Wahidi said it is unlikely for Biden to reject the US-Taliban deal, as his priorities would be to solve more urgent domestic issues rather than getting into a disagreement with the Taliban.

“Biden’s priorities are other domestic and global issues; including COVID-19 crisis in the US, Paris agreement, dealing with China, Russia, and Iran. So, I don’t think he will be the president to restart a war in a country that has proven to bring out no winners,” Wahidi said.

However, Biden might keep a small number of counterterrorism troops in the country to ensure America is not under threat from armed groups like al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS), Wahidi said, adding that this will make the Taliban more accountable to fulfil one of the core tenets of the US-Taliban agreement: To break ties with al-Qaeda.

A report released in May by the UN said al-Qaeda has between 400 to 600 operatives active in 12 Afghan provinces: Badakhshan, Ghazni, Helmand, Khost, Kunar, Kunduz, Logar, Nangarhar, Nimruz, Nuristan, Paktiya and Zabul.

‘Don’t give Afghanistan to Taliban’

Many Afghans believe Trump rushed with the peace process. They say the US president did not prioritise a responsible pullout of American troops, something that can result in pushing the country back into a civil war.

Trump has also been accused of giving the Taliban more concessions during talks and “sidelined the Afghan government”.

“Biden’s presidency is a hope that Democrats will come up with something better than just giving the country to the Taliban,” Sana Haider, a healthcare provider in Kabul, told Al Jazeera.

Afghan security officials have come under attack from Taliban [File: Watan Yar/EPA]

“To us, it looks like Trump was in a hurry to get his troops out of Afghanistan. If US troops leave in May 2021 and the peace process is still ongoing, it will give the Taliban more power and will allow them to take control of the country.”

Trump, who promised to pull out US troops from “endless wars” abroad, had cut US aid to the country after rival leaders squabbled over the formation of a new government following a disputed presidential election.

Pashtana Durrani, an education activist, says American presidents are not saviours of Afghanistan. “He [Biden] is not interested in keeping his troops in Afghanistan. He wants to focus on Americans and America first rather than the welfare of Afghans,” she said.

In an interview with CBS in July, Biden had said the US bears “zero responsibility’’ if the Taliban came back to power after the withdrawal of US troops.

“Zero responsibility. The responsibility I have is to protect America’s national interest and not put our women and men in harm’s way … that’s what I’d do as president,” Biden said in the interview when asked whether the US would bear responsibility if the Taliban came back to power.

The war in Afghanistan began in 2001 and has cost about $978bn until 2020, nearly $49bn each year, according to Brown University’s tally on cost of war. About 157,000 people have been killed, including more than 43,000 civilians. The US says more than 2,400 of its troops have died in the war.

Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. envoy Afghanistan
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the leader of the Taliban delegation, and Zalmay Khalilzad, US envoy for peace in Afghanistan, shake hands after signing an agreement in Doha [File: Ibraheem al Omari/Reuters]

Durrani said: “It is important to have to make sure that we have a peace agreement in which a permanent ceasefire is agreed between all parties involved in the intra-Afghan talks before foreign troops leave, otherwise the country will plunge into chaos.”

“For a better Afghanistan, we have to take care of our own affairs now. We have to focus on the peace deal, we have to focus on making the Afghan government more accountable,” said Durrani, who runs LearnAfg, an NGO dedicated to innovation in education.

Even as the peace talks are under way in Doha, violence has increased. At least 876 civilians were killed and 1,685 injured as attacks surged by nearly 50 percent in the three months to the end of September.

“The most important thing for Afghanistan is that the fighting de-escalates immediately, in particular the violence that is targeted towards [or unduly impacts] civilians,” Watkins said.

“The second most important thing is that the process of both sides talking to each other continue, no matter what happens over the next few months. Even amid the worst effects of war, the act of talking bears the potential for change in the future.”

In the run-up to the US elections, Biden had said he would withdraw US troops but was not averse to keeping some counterterrorism forces in Afghanistan as well as Iraq.

“Afghan war is over for the US,” said Wahidi, the Afghan analyst.

“It is more of an Afghan conflict rather than a global war.”

Source: Al Jazeera