President Joe Biden is the third president to grapple with the challenge of managing a U.S. exit from Afghanistan. Both Barack Obama and Donald Trump undertook detailed policy reviews, announced new initiatives but ended up passing the buck. And each time, the problem became more intractable. After 20 years of military engagement, during which U.S. troop presence exceeded 100000 a decade ago and is now down to 2500, U.S. policy is again at cross roads. President Biden is no stranger to the Af-Pak challenge, having visited the region nearly a dozen times as Senator and as VP but the cumulative errors of omission and commission over two decades make Biden’s challenge greater.
What Obama and Trump Achieved
Obama had pledged to end what he called the “dumb war” in Iraq and turn around the “good war in Afghanistan that we have to win”. Eventually, his policy review in 2009 led him to announce a surge in US troop presence to battle what was increasingly seen as a counter-insurgency (COIN), with a drawdown beginning 18 months later, in mid-2011. The goal was to seize and clear territory, hold and re-build on the peace and hand it over within 18 months to the Afghans. Gen David Petraeus, who had overseen a similar surge followed by a drawdown in Iraq, took command in Afghanistan to implement Obama’s policy. By end-2014, US troop presence was down to 8,500 and Operation Enduring Freedom was replaced by Operation Resolute Support. US troops no longer had a combat role; their primary role was to train, advise and assist the Afghan security and defence forces that had been increased and whose capabilities were enhanced. The downside of Obama’s policy was that with more drone attacks and heightened counter-insurgency operations, the fight became increasingly seen as one between Americans and Afghans. According to the US COIN handbook, the operation needed a force of 20 soldiers per thousand of the population, amounting to a US-NATO force of 500000, that was politically impossible to muster (1) .
Taking over in 2017, President Trump ordered another review and then declared in August that the “U.S. was seeking an honourable and enduring outcome”. He agreed to Gen John Nicholson’s request to send an extra 5,000 soldiers to turn the tide against the Taliban, raising U.S. troop presence to 13,500 (2) . A year later, he changed course and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was
appointed to pursue peace and reconciliation talks with the Taliban; thus did the Doha process begin (3) .
On 29 February 2020 in Doha, Khalilzad signed an agreement with the Taliban Dy Leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. The document bore a curious title – “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognised by the US as a state and is known as the Taliban and the USA” – which perhaps reflected the mistrust between the parties and consequently, the fragility of the deal (4) . It is just as well that the deal was signed on 29 February with its anniversary due in 2024, by which time its ignominy would be forgotten.
More than a year since the Doha agreement was inked, it is commonly held that it is in tatters. The problem is that it was packaged as a “peace deal” while it was, in reality, a “withdrawal deal”. As the latter, it was initially on track but the US elections in November intervened and growing violence levels in Afghanistan shifted the focus back to a ‘peace deal’. Under the Doha terms, the US is to withdraw its remaining 2500 (and the 1000 troops for counter- terrorism operations) troops from Afghanistan by 1 May in return for unverified counterterrorism guarantees and the open-ended negotiation of an intra- Afghan peace agreement that would bring some stability to Afghanistan. The latter two conditions have not been met, and Biden is faced with the choice of either keeping to the deadline or finding other options.
The problem is that there are no good options. If Biden pulls out all 3,500 troops by May – as Trump had promised during the campaign – it is a foregone conclusion that the fragile government in Kabul would collapse, possibly within the year, and ignite a bloody civil war. The US could try to negotiate a brief extension of the deadline but this would need cooperation from the Taliban – something that is not forthcoming. Nevertheless, an extension is unlikely to help unless the Taliban are pressured to fulfil their commitments; this is not possible without cooperation from Pakistan, Iran and Russia. The US could also decide to extend its stay unilaterally, since NATO has already declared that “the conditions of withdrawal have not been met” and the alliance will withdraw “only when the time is right” 5 . NATO members, (other than the US) have another 7,500 soldiers in Afghanistan. While this may give comfort to the Kabul regime, it is unlikely to stem the steady military gains of the Taliban over the last twelve months. Given that Taliban links with Al Qaeda have remained intact and IS – Khorasan is active in some of the eastern provinces of Afghanistan, the US could also decide to extend its war indefinitely, by maintaining a small counterterrorism force, together with NATO, to ensure that Afghanistan does not become a safe haven for such terrorist groups in future. This is unlikely to go down well in Afghanistan or in the region. Therefore, the Biden administration must find the lesser evil. This could be a short extension of stay, perhaps for six months until November, with Taliban acceptance and some reduction in violence as part of a renewed push towards intra-Afghan negotiations.
President Biden has acknowledged that “it was not a very solidly negotiated deal”. (6) However, the administration’s helplessness is apparent in the fact that Ambassador Khalilzad has been retained – he who delivered the flawed February 2020 agreement under Trump has been retained and is now tasked with transforming the old agreement into a new one that will enjoy support in Kabul, with the Taliban and in key global capitals.
The U.S. Dilemma
The US’ problem is not in withdrawing from Afghanistan; it is in managing the optics of such an exit. It needs to ensure a decent interval after its departure so that the Afghan chapter can be finally closed. This will need a deal with Taliban, who can sense military victory and therefore have little reason to oblige. They emphasise that a ceasefire was never promised and they have upheld what they did commit: “no attacks on departing U.S. forces”. Since a ceasefire cannot now be introduced on the agenda, Khalilzad is reduced to pleading for a “significant reduction in violence”, hoping that the quantum of reduction and its duration (if the Taliban agrees) will be a politically sellable “decent interval” in the Western narrative.
The term ‘decent interval’ has a chequered past in US history. In the late 1960s, the administration of Richard Nixon had realised that a military solution in Vietnam was not possible and tasked Henry Kissinger to negotiate a US exit. During Kissinger’s covert visit to China in July 1971, he assured Premier Zhou Enlai that the US would completely withdraw from Vietnam in return for the release of US POWs and a ceasefire lasting a “decent interval” of perhaps 18 months or so. Kissinger and Nixon knew that the deal would leave their ally, the South Vietnamese government led by President Nguyen Van Thieu, vulnerable. In the declassified 1972 White House tapes, Nixon and Kissinger
acknowledge that “South Vietnam is not going to survive and the idea is to find a formula that can hold things together for a year or two”. Nixon reaffirmed the assurance during his pathbreaking visit to China the following year in February (7) . The plan worked.
President Nixon was re-elected on a peace platform in November 1972, scoring a record margin against his rival. In January 1973, the Paris Peace Accords were signed and by end March, US had completed its withdrawal from Vietnam, ending its direct military involvement in the conflict. US POWs were released. By end-1973, the ceasefire was in tatters: Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese forces on 30 April 1975. To win re-election in 1972, Nixon promised an honourable peace and delivered a delayed defeat but by then, the world had moved on. Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973. The secret assurances given by Kissinger and Nixon in 1971-72 seeking only a “decent interval” surfaced after four decades.
Today, a “decent interval” does not have to be 24 months, only as long as it takes for people in the west to lose interest, easily manipulable in today’s 24/7 news cycle-driven, crisis-prone age. As former Defence Secretary Gen James Mattis put it, “U.S. does not lose wars, it only loses interest” (8) . But the problem both Obama and Trump faced was getting to the “decent interval” even as they realised that the US had outlived its welcome.
A cumulative set of errors fuelled the Western fatigue with the Afghan project: a belief in 2002 that the Taliban had been defeated when they had only dispersed to safe havens and sanctuaries in Pakistan; introducing a highly centralised Presidential system that lacked institutions to provide checks and balances, resulting in weak local governance; the focus shifting to the disastrous war in Iraq in 2003; the gradual return of the Taliban beginning in 2005 and US inability to check Pakistan’s duplicity on the matter; growing factionalism; rising opium production that fuelled the insurgency; corruption; announcing the troop surge in 2009 along with the drawdown beginning in 2011; and a growing legitimisation of Taliban as a political force, cemented by the opening of the Doha office in 2013, spearheaded by some European states like UK, Norway and Germany. Put simply, the Taliban sponsors (Pakistan’s ISI) remained consistently loyal and the government in Kabul lost its supporters. The US failure lay not in its inability to transform Afghanistan, but in failing to change Pakistan’s policy of “run with the hare and hunt with the hounds” or as the late Gen Zia ul Haq explained the art of handling the U.S. – “The water in Afghanistan must be kept boiling at the right temperature, but not boil over”.
What to Expect from Bonn 2
Pakistan has consistently maintained that the Bonn agreement hammered out in 2001 was fatally flawed because it excluded the Taliban and the only way to rectify it is to do a Bonn 2. Khalilzad has been able to sell this notion to the Biden team. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has written identical letters (9) to President Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah Abdullah, Chairperson of the High Council for National Reconciliation, indicating that while the policy review has not been completed, an initial conclusion is that peace talks need to be accelerated. A draft agreement to jumpstart the intra-Afghan peace talks is doing the rounds -it contains provisions for bringing in a transition government based on power sharing with the Taliban and proposes a Bonn 2 under the auspices of the United Nations (10).
This may provide the elusive “decent interval” to enable a “responsible U.S. withdrawal” if the Taliban agrees and President Ghani steps down. Still, this is unlikely to bring peace to Afghanistan. The reason is that calling it “Bonn 2” implies a desire to turn back the clock, and yet as the old saying goes – you can’t step in the same river twice. Bonn 1 was not a peace conference. The four groups invited (Rome, Cyprus and Peshawar groups and the Northern Alliance) were not fighting each other and were not likely to do so; Bonn 1 only sought to set up a road map for political normalisation in Afghanistan with these four groups. These four would hardly have countenanced Taliban in Bonn; nor could U.S. have allowed it given the ties between Taliban and Al Qaeda. For Bonn 2, there are essentially two parties, Taliban and the Afghan government who are at war. The Taliban have gained legitimacy, expanded their presence and are militarily strong. The Kabul government is internationally recognised but has lost considerable legitimacy because of its disunity, consequent fragility and incompetence. Most important, the US can no longer count on the same kind of support it received from Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran in 2001.
The most important internal factor is Afghanistan’s demographics – a median age of 18.4 years with 46 percent of Afghan population below 15 years and another 28 percent between 16-30. This large cohort is used to living in a conservative but open society. If the Doha agreement generated concerns among youth, women and minorities (and the Afghan government), the new
proposal confirms their worst fears. The only thing they are all agree upon is that they will not accept a return to the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan. Taliban have remained opaque about their stand on issues of concern like democracy, constitution, human rights etc other than dropping vague hints that their positions have evolved. Fortunately for the Taliban (and for their Pakistani backers), there are quite a few “useful idiots” who maintain that the Taliban have changed, pointing to their clever use of social media or the fact that do not want to be isolated as was the case in 1990s. Yet, no Afghan believes that the Taliban will take part in elections or have any interest in sharing power.
There is consensus among all Afghans for peace but no consensus on the price that can be paid for it. On the other hand, the Taliban are not the Viet Cong; they are reportedly fractured and questions have surfaced about the control of the Quetta shura on all those fighting in the field. Lack of an internal consensus makes it easier for Afghanistan’s neighbours to find their preferred powerbrokers. A decade ago, Taliban numbers were estimated at 6,000; today, estimates are upward of 60,000. The US has assured that its financial commitment for Afghanistan stands but this will quickly dry up when the chain of command in the Afghan army or the police force starts breaking down because of disunity among the leaders.
The Afghan vision of a sovereign, independent, democratic and plural Afghanistan is not subscribed to by all its neighbours, preventing a regional consensus. With growing rivalry between the major powers, consensus too, is limited to ensuring an early US exit. As the Kabul government realises, proxy wars are easy but peace by proxy is not possible. In the absence of a consensus, the Afghans are not left with no good options that can bring them closer to their vision. Internal rivalries, conflicting interests among the countries in the region and divergent and often unstated objectives have rendered peace-making in Afghanistan an impossible act of political balancing.
Russia has stepped up its role in recent years by opening up channels with the Taliban, supporting the Doha process, sponsoring the troika of Russia, China and US, an expanded troika that includes Pakistan, and the Moscow format that includes India, Iran and Central Asian and other states. Its core interest is in preventing destabilisation in the region, any long-term U.S. presence and a check on the opium production. In returning to the scene, Russia has sought to wipe out the legacy of the 1979-89 intervention successfully as the attendance at the conferences it has sponsored shows.
Even a tenuous and vaguely worded Doha agreement between the US and the Taliban took 18 months to work out. It would be difficult to expect an agreement in the next eight weeks on a transition government and a significant reduction in violence. For the US, the “least bad” option of an exit even without a “decent interval” is still an option; for the Afghans yearning for peace, there is no quick solution that Bonn 2 can bring about. However, the call for President Ghani to step down in the interest for peace is gathering momentum. Iran, Russia and Pakistan favour it too (for their own reasons) as do a number of Afghan leaders who have been antagonised by his attitude and behaviour. This convergence creates the illusion of a consensus but it is only limited to seeing the exit of the Ghani government and not beyond.
In the post-Taliban phase, India undertook an extensive development programme covering humanitarian assistance (food assistance, nutritious school child feeding and deploying medical teams), infrastructure development (Zaranj-Delaram highway, Pul e Khumri power transmission link to Kabul and sub-stations, Salma dam, parliament building), over 700 reconstruction projects covering health centres, schools, small roads and bridges) and capacity development by providing both short term and long term courses in India and setting up training centres in Afghanistan. Today, there are over 16,000 Afghan students pursuing higher education in India and during the last two decades, over 60,000 graduates, post-graduates and other professionals have returned to Afghanistan. Indian assistance, estimated at $3 billion dollars, has been spread across all provinces, cutting across ethnic lines. In undertaking these activities, India has sought to work with the newly created institutions rather than through preferred partners.
This approach has helped India to build upon the age-old cultural ties between the two countries. Zahiruddin Mohammed (Babur), founder of the Moghul empire finds his resting place at Bagh e Babur in Kabul, a favoured picnic garden was restored (funded by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture) by a renowned Indian architect specialising in preservation of Moghul era monuments and gardens. Afghanistan’s beloved national poet Abdul Qadir ‘Bedil’ (or Bedil Dehlavi in north India) died in Delhi in the 18th century. He earned his renown as a poet at the Moghul court and was also considered a Sufi saint. His shrine Bagh e Bedil, in Delhi remains popular among Afghan visitors to Delhi. Building on this, a sports stadium on the outskirts of Delhi, serves as the training ground for the Afghan cricket team, with India providing coaching and technical support. Hindi language movies (or the Bollywood industry) are an abiding link, surviving even the political upheavals.
India is also the traditional market for Afghanistan’s horticultural produce. In the absence of road links through Pakistan, a dedicated air freight corridor set up in 2018, has seen nearly 500 flights that have ferried 5000 MT of Afghan exports to India. However, India has not hosted Taliban delegations, preferring to follow the lead of the Afghan government, in keeping with its stated position of supporting “an Afghan led, Afghan controlled and Afghan owned” peace process. The absence of a shared border and focus on using ‘soft power’ reflects the reality that India lacks the leverage to play ‘spoiler’, unlike Afghanistan’s other neighbours.
At Bonn I, India was invited because it had been a key supporter (along with Russia and Iran) of the Northern Alliance. Today, India is invited because it has acquired the distinction of being the preferred development partner. This realisation is not lost on the Taliban either who have been supportive of India’s developmental role.
By the end of 2021, it is more than likely that the US and NATO troops would have already left Afghanistan. It is also likely that if Russia, Pakistan and Iran exert influence on Taliban to agree to a six-month extension, violence levels may come down for a brief interlude. A Transition Government is almost a certainty given the growing domestic and the international consensus that
President Ghani should step down.
Given the wide divergences, however, the interim government might not last long once the US leaves. Under the circumstances, Taliban may not announce a Spring offensive for 2021 but the signs for 2022 are ominous.
Indeed, in Afghanistan, things come together in different ways but fall apart according to the same script: the fragmentation of the regime in Kabul (11).
(1) Obama’s Wars by Bob Woodward (Simon and Schuster 2010) provides a detailed account of the debates leading to the ‘surge’ decision. The January 2017 article in New York Times looks at how Obama saw his dilemmas when he was demitting office in January 2017 –
(2) Donald Trump’s speech on 21 August, 2017 laying out his South Asia policy
(3) ORF Commentary by the author dt 24 September, 2018 https://www.orfonline.org/research/44444-seeking-a-managed-exit/
(4) ORF Commentary by the author dt 5 March, 2020 https://www.orfonline.org/research/the-sum-and-substance-of-the-afghan-deal-61950/
(5) Announcement made following a meeting of NATO Defence Ministers on 18 February, 2021
(6) Transcript of President Biden’s ABC interview on 16 March, 2021
(7) Ken Hughes, a scholar with the University of Virginia exposed this from the declassified Presidential Tapes in2014 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/140712
(8) Jon Basil Utley, “Mattis on our way of war”, The American Conservative, December 6, 2016,
(9) Text of Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s letter https://tolonews.com/pdf/02.pdf
(10) US Draft Peace Plan https://tolonews.com/pdf/pdf.pdf