A Trump defeat could alter Afghanistan's trajectory, but it won't necessarily change Ghani's fortunes.
The US-Taliban deal signed in February explicitly identified the start date for the intra-Afghan dialogue: March 10. With the release of the final batch of Taliban prisoners, those talks will finally begin on Saturday—six months late.
The start of the intra-Afghan dialogue is welcome news. Afghans, including the Taliban, sitting side by side, now have an opportunity to end the war. But the long delay in the start of the talks gives ample reason to be sceptical of a breakthrough before US presidential elections in November.
Over the course of this year, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has deployed a range of tactics—including balking at the release of Taliban prisoners—to defer the initiation of the intra-Afghan dialogue. Even after the initiation of talks, he is likely to continue the use of obstructionist tactics at least into the November elections.
The reason: Ghani has the most to lose from a political settlement with the Taliban. It would almost certainly require that he step down as president. Ghani would probably have to hand over power to an interim government even before a final all-Afghan agreement is signed.
So it makes political sense for Ghani to wait till the fog clears after the US elections. Ghani likely hopes that a Joe Biden victory may at the very least buy his government some time as a new administration comes to power and develops its own Afghanistan policy. He may believe that he has little to lose, given US President Donald Trump’s resolve to leave Afghanistan.
The US-Taliban agreement requires a complete withdrawal of American forces by next April, and Trump’sforthcoming nomination of Will Ruger as ambassador to Afghanistan is just one of many signals of his desire to fulfill that commitment.
Ghani’s gamble is a dangerous one. Trump still has a chance to win the election. Biden’s lead has narrowed since August, especially in critical swing states. If Trump sustains this momentum, he could eke out a narrow electoral college victory, even if he loses the popular vote.
With his behavior this year, including precipitating an election crisis and repeatedly delaying prisoner releases, Ghani has severely, and perhaps irreparably, damaged his relationship with the Trump administration, which has had to resort to tough action—including the threat of a reduction in aid—to gain the Afghan leader’s compliance.
The continued necessity of stern prodding is reflected in the recent White House’s readout of National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien’s call with Ghani, which underscored “the need for intra-Afghan talks to start without delay.”
Personal relations with world leaders are paramount for Trump. Ghani’s antagonistic behavior may ensure that Trump follows through with a withdrawal regardless of whether the Taliban hold up their counterterrorism end of the bargain.
Furthermore, a Biden presidency would not meaningfully improve Ghani’s political fortunes. On Thursday, Biden expressed support for Trump’s plan to draw troop levels down in Afghanistan to below 5,000 by November. He shares Trump’s skepticism of the Afghanistan war and has pledged to end America’s “forever wars.”
A decade ago, Biden shouted at Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, telling him that he would not send his military veteran son again to Afghanistan “to risk his life on behalf of women’s rights.” Biden also once berated Hamid Karzai, Ghani’s predecessor, for enabling rampant corruption and told the then-Afghan president that Pakistan was “fifty times more important” than Afghanistan.
As a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and US vice president, Biden knows Afghanistan well and has no desire to ramp up the US role in Afghanistan, especially as China consumes America’s strategic bandwidth.
Biden is more inclined than Trump to maintain a residual US counterterrorism force in Afghanistan. But if he becomes president, Biden would have a short window—less than four months—to decide as to whether to follow through with the full withdrawal, unilaterally renege on the agreement with the Taliban, or buy some additional time by declaring the Taliban non-compliant on its anti-Al-Qaeda commitments.
The latter two options would result in a surge in violence and draw the US deeper into the Afghan war. No longer bound by the deal with Washington, the Taliban would resume attempts to seize provincial capitals.
The US would likely use its air power on behalf of Kabul to push the Taliban out of the cities. Ghani would also deploy the militia leaders he has recently resumed support for. Afghan civilians would pay a heavy price. With a rising civilian death toll, the peace council led by Dr Abdullah could disband, leading to the fragmentation of Ghani’s government. And Afghanistan’s downward spiral would accelerate.
To avert such a scenario, Biden may demand early results in the intra-Afghan dialogue—perhaps an initial ceasefire to coincide with a final US withdrawal.
A more prudent path for Ghani would be to operate on the assumption that whoever is president of the United States next spring would follow through on the full withdrawal commitment in the US-Taliban agreement. This would require giving the peace process with the Taliban precedence over his desire to retain political power.
Ghani, unfortunately, has already wasted half a year on political machinations—time that could have been spent forging a consensus among non-Taliban Afghans on red lines for changes to the political system and a robust intellectual defense of a modern Islamic republican system.
Last month, opposition leaders signed a letter addressed to Ghani, accusing those close to the Afghan president of intimidating his opponents. The letter insinuated that high-ranking officials in Ghani’s government are behind some of the mysterious assassinations of peace activists and critics of Ghani.
Ghani also unilaterally appointed dozens of individuals to a leadership committee associated with the Abdullah-led peace council. Several of the appointees, including Karzai, disassociated themselves from the group. And Abdullah has suggested that the list of appointees was issued without his final approval.
In his second term as president, Ghani has continued with the Machiavellianism that characterised his first term. But both his country and America are now at a crossroads. In the coming months, their paths may fully diverge as America focuses on its internal challenges and the new Cold War with China. Ghani should take advantage of the existing US presence in the country to sue for peace. Because once they leave, all bets are off.
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