Only a negotiated extension of the withdrawal timeframe with the Taliban and an expedited peace process inclusive of regional countries can help the US achieve a settlement.

Afghanistan is one of the most daunting foreign policy challenges for US President Joe Biden. As his administration reviews its Afghan policy, the choices are quite stark.

An exit from Afghanistan by May, the Doha agreement’s stipulated time frame, will hasten the collapse of the country’s existing democratic order. On the contrary, if the US unilaterally extends its stay beyond the May deadline, on the grounds of the Taliban’s questionable commitment to the Doha agreement, the war will continue.

Only a negotiated extension of the withdrawal timeframe with the Taliban and an expedited peace process, inclusive of regional countries, can help the US achieve a politically negotiated settlement in Afghanistan.

Since the signing of the Doha agreement between the US and the Taliban in February last year, violence has spiked across Afghanistan. The security situation in Afghanistan’s main cities has deteriorated so much that regular Afghans going to work in the morning are not sure if they will return to their homes peacefully in the evening. 

Targeted assassinations of journalists, provincial officials, aid workers and prominent female figures — all vocal critics of the Taliban — have become a regular occurrence.

Despite the Taliban’s promise to cut ties with Al Qaeda, as per the US Treasury Department’s recent report, the latter is gaining strength in Afghanistan under the former’s protection. 

Similarly, the progress on the intra-Afghan peace process in Qatar has stalled. The Taliban have demanded from the Ghani administration to accept a new “inclusive Islamic system” that includes all Afghan tribes. On the contrary, the government is urging the Taliban first to join the current system and announce a ceasefire.

Arguably, Washington’s unilateral extension of the withdrawal timeframe beyond May will upend the Doha deal. The Taliban maintain that they have shown more flexibility than necessary to keep the agreement afloat and facilitate a respectful exit of the US forces from Afghanistan, despite reservations and pressure from their ranks.

The Taliban contend that any further concessions to the US would be detrimental to their organisational coherence and ideological legitimacy. Lately, the Taliban’s reconciliatory tone in their propaganda publications towards the US and NATO has been replaced with shrill rhetoric.

As a violent entrepreneur, the Taliban’s strength lies in their asymmetric fighting potential. In the last few years, the Taliban’s territorial control in Afghanistan has expanded. 

Contrary to the negotiations, the resumption of the fight would work as a catalyst for in-group solidarity. Despite the seasonal winter break from the fight, the Taliban have asked their commanders and fighters to return to the battlefield frontlines.

Washington’s conundrum

Amid stalled talks in Qatar and the US’ review of its Afghan policy, Taliban delegations have visited Moscow and Tehran. A Taliban delegation is also expected to visit Turkey in the near future. The aim of visiting these powerful regional actors is to garner their backing in the event of an extended US stay in Afghanistan.

In recent months, the US has accused Tehran, Moscow and Beijing of paying bounties to the Taliban for attacking the US troops in Afghanistan. Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan view the open-ended US presence in Afghanistan as the primary reason for continued instability in Afghanistan and detrimental to their regional interests and national securities.

More importantly, if the US stays in Afghanistan unilaterally, the Taliban will see no incentive of cutting ties with Al Qaeda — one of the main demands of the Doha agreement. Al Qaeda’s closeness with the Taliban blurs the counterterrorism and counterinsurgency line in Afghanistan. Going after Al Qaeda means continuing the fight against the Taliban. In other words, counterterrorism in the current situation is not possible without engaging in counterinsurgency.

Though a revised withdrawal timeline will help President Ashraf Ghani’s goal of regime survival, it will not alter the Afghan conflict’s strategic deadlock. Despite their tactical upper hand in the existing stalemate, the Taliban lack the numbers and conventional military muscle to take on Kabul’s power militarily.

On the other hand, notwithstanding several weaknesses and legitimacy issues, the Ghani administration is not that weak to melt away to a Taliban onslaught in the presence of US-NATO troops. However, this is a recipe for perpetual conflict.

The Biden administration’s purported condition-centric approach in Afghanistan is music to Ghani’s ears. In this situation, he has no incentive to make compromises with the Taliban. Instead, he will play hardball during the Qatar peace talks and drag the negotiations with the hope of staying in power on the back of a continued US stay in Afghanistan. 

Given Ghani’s rigidity in peace talks, his political opponents have formed a 21-member parliament committee to separately engage the Taliban in Qatar.

To avoid the catch-22 of a withdrawal by May that could hasten the collapse of the current political order and an open-ended stay prolonging the conflict, the US should engage the Taliban regarding the extended stay. The US has not yet removed the Taliban from its sanctions list. The Biden administration can leverage that as an incentive to get the Taliban to agree to a revised withdrawal timeframe.

Any extended US stay in Afghanistan will have to have a Pakistani buy-in to convince the Taliban to be accommodative. Pakistan’s position of neither supporting absolute Taliban victory nor their total marginalisation in the Afghan political arena leaves enough room for the US to negotiate a one-time extension of the planned withdrawal.

In return, the US could offer to help Pakistan get off the Financial Action Task Force’s grey-list and address the country’s India-centric security concerns in Afghanistan. Such an offer will have traction in Islamabad, which was nervous about a clumsy US exit without putting in place a stable political order.

Simultaneously, the US should redouble its regional diplomacy by engaging Russia, China and Iran, which Trump left out, to facilitate the peace process. Though this pathway does not guarantee a way out of the current deadlock, it perhaps offers the best possible approach under the current circumstances.    

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