By: Spencer Ackerman
President Biden’s Afghanistan negotiator has begun a diplomatic trip that will include the first meeting of the new administration with the Taliban, sources familiar confirmed to The Daily Beast.
The State Department did not immediately provide comment on the agenda Zalmay Khalilzad is bringing to the Taliban, which belatedly resumed peace talks with the U.S. client Afghan government last week. Khalilzad will first travel to Kabul for meetings with an Afghanistan government whose viability in a post-American Afghanistan is an open question. He’ll also visit other crucial regional capitals.
Khalilzad “will resume discussions on the way ahead with the Islamic Republic and Afghan leaders, Taliban representatives, and regional countries whose interests are best served by the achievement of a just and durable political settlement and permanent and comprehensive ceasefire,” a State Department official said.
Khalilzad, who has been an Afghanistan envoy for three different presidents, arrives in the region at a pivotal time. Two months remain before the Doha Accord, the deal Khalilzad negotiated with the Taliban last year, requires a full U.S. troop withdrawal. There is enormous international speculation over whether Biden will abide by a deal that extricates the U.S. from a 20-year war it will not admit it has lost.
“I find that leaving right now is more compelling than it’s ever been in the past,” said Carter Malkasian, who has advised the U.S. military in Afghanistan for more than a decade.
Almost immediately upon entering office, Biden placed the Afghanistan deal, struck by the Trump administration, under review. It represents the first critical foreign-policy decision of his presidency. While the review is reportedly nearing its terminal phase, sources familiar with it or close to the administration have said nothing – only that it is not completed, a course of action has not been decided, and they consider the process rigorous.
Biden, an opponent of escalation in Afghanistan when he was Barack Obama’s vice president, is under significant elite pressure to forestall a pullout stipulated for May 1. Both Democratic foreign-policy eminances and prestige think-tank panels have urged a delay. “Keeping U.S. troops beyond May while sustaining Doha is possible,” argued Lisa Curtis.
Curtis was the senior Afghanistan official on Trump’s National Security Council. She’s a critic of what she calls the “flawed peace deal” Khalilzad negotiated at Trump’s behest, as the obligations it places on the United States—the withdrawal—are more specific than for the Taliban, which is supposed to stop Afghanistan from being a staging ground for international terrorism and enter a dialogue with the Afghanistan government to resolve the country’s political future. Negotiators like Khalilzad should “emphasize [Doha’s] sections on a comprehensive ceasefire and political roadmap,” Curtis said.
But delaying the pullout risks blowing up the only diplomatic way out of Afghanistan. “If Biden tears up the agreement, he will own the consequences, and the consequences will not be good,” said Christopher Kolenda, a retired Army colonel who in 2017 and 2018 conducted preparatory diplomacy with the Taliban in Doha.
Curtis, Kolenda and all other Afghanistan observers agree on a basic fact, if not its implications. The Taliban, which kept up attacks on Afghan forces after signing the U.S. accord, have put themselves in place for a massive offensive that the U.S., its allies and the Afghanistan government may not be able to repel. Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that the Taliban have closed in on several of Afghanistan’s major cities and control the vital roads to many of them. Whatever Doha envisioned for a Taliban-Afghanistan government path to reconciliation, this is not that. The Taliban, having functionally defeated the U.S. at war, now appear on the horizon of outright victory.
“They’re in position for a major offensive. That offensive will include mass-casualty attacks on Americans if we miss the deadline,” said Barnett Rubin, another longtime Afghanistan adviser to the U.S. and the United Nations. “They might be prepared to extend, but if we unilaterally say we’re not satisfied with you so we’re not leaving, that’s what they’ll do. And the muscle memory of the U.S. government is to do that.”
Kolenda and other longtime Afghanistan observers argue that attempting to defer the pullout will have precisely the violent effect that Curtis and her side argues will follow the pullout. The Taliban, they argue, would likely see that the U.S. cannot be trusted to keep its word—friction between Washington and Kabul in 2012 doomed an earlier peace process in its infancy—ending any hope of a negotiated end to the war, to say nothing of a secure departure for the remaining U.S. troop presence.
“If you’re the Biden administration, would you rather depart as agreed in a safe, orderly manner while leaning into a peace process, or would you prefer the optics of C-17s screaming out of Bagram on the heels of a Taliban offensive like Saigon 1975?” Kolenda said. “I don’t hear the stay-forever crowd talking about the possibility of a humiliating exit.”
Curtis acknowledged that the Taliban abandoning diplomacy and attacking U.S. troops again “is a risk.” But, she said, “What is our goal and our objective? We don’t want a terrorist safe haven to reemerge. It’s not just covering us for a safe exit.”
Malkasian, more than most, has spent many years attempting to prevent the reemergence of such a safe haven.
He sees the risk of a subsequent terrorist attack launched from Afghanistan soil as a “bearable” one— something now grimly proven by COVID-19. “For a good number of days in the winter, we were losing more people per day than we lost on 9/11,” he said. “That means leaving is a viable strategy.”
While the review is closely held, the early indications out of the Biden administration and its allies have not suggested an intention to stick with the scheduled pullout.
On February 12, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said among the issues the review will examine are “whether the Taliban are fulfilling their commitments relating to counterterrorism, reducing violence, engaging in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan Government and other stakeholders.” On February 19, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, after meeting with NATO allies, said he sought a “responsible and sustainable end to this war” rather than emphasizing the deal currently in place. This past week, Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), the Democratic chairman of the armed-services committee and a crucial White House ally, advocated for delaying withdrawal. A source described as familiar with the review told Vox that a full withdrawal is “off the table.”
“I think the steps the president has taken, in terms of hinting that we might not pull the rest of our troops out on the 1st of May, is exactly right,” Bob Gates, the former Obama and George W. Bush defense secretary, told The Washington Post on Friday. “We may be in a position where we have to tell ourselves we will have an ongoing presence in Afghanistan for some period of time.”
Rubin believes there is a way to sell the Taliban on a one-time troop extension of six months—something he acknowledges could backfire, but something he considers possible owing to the six-month delay between the February accord and the September commencement of pivotal Taliban-Afghan government negotiations, which have proceeded haltingly.
The Taliban still want things from the U.S.-led coalition, Rubin pointed out, such as additional prisoner releases and the removal of sanctions placed on it not only by Washington but by the United Nations.
Additionally, the administration can take advantage of recently energetic regional diplomacy, particularly by Russia, to accelerate the peace process. Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, pledged a “robust and regional diplomatic effort” in a call last month to his Afghan counterpart, but it has yet to publicly manifest.
“If one tries to extend the timeline, it should be cast as ‘we’re fully intending to leave Afghanistan, we have this agreement, we want to see it’s fully met, and then we’re returning to a timeline for us to fully leave,’” urged Malkasian. “There is no peace in Afghanistan as long as we stay. We are a driver of violence. The Taliban is able to cast us as an occupying power and it drives them to fight us. That doesn’t mean all Afghans, it’s just enough to get a critical mass to fight. If we want a peace agreement, we have to be willing to leave Afghanistan.”