February 20, 2021
US soldiers, part of the NATO- led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) patrol west of Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP/File)
Almost two decades after 9/11, one of the biggest early foreign policy decisions that US President Joe Biden will have to make is over Afghanistan, at a crossroads in its history.
Biden and his new administration are in the throes of a comprehensive policy review over how best to end America’s 20-year engagement there, its longest war. Biden will report before the May 1 deadline to withdraw all foreign forces, set in a US-Taliban peace agreement brokered by the Trump team.
NATO, which took control of international security operations in Afghanistan in 2003, met last week to discuss its own presence in what is also the military alliance’s longest, costliest, and most ambitious operation. At the meeting, NATO defense ministers effectively pushed back a decision on the May 1 deadline to await Biden’s review, to try to ensure alignment with Washington.
It is possible that the final call on NATO’s operation will not come until after its foreign ministers meet in mid-March. To try to buy time before then, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg urged the Afghan government and the Taliban to step up the pace of reconciliation talks.
NATO has about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, helping to train and advise the Aghan security forces. Most are not now US personnel, but the wider troop contingent could not continue if US transport, logistics and other support were withdrawn.
The Biden review of the peace deal, which involves withdrawal of foreign forces in exchange for security guarantees by the Taliban, comes as Afghanistan stands at a crossroads. The peace deal has been violated repeatedly with growing concerns that levels of violence are still too high to justify a total pullout of foreign forces.
While the peace process with the Taliban may offer the best hope in decades for a sustained peace, many in Afghanistan are understandably anxious about their future. Fragile gains have been made since 2001, but there remains a daunting array of economic, security, and political risks.
The biggest challenge may be the internal security situation, despite pledges by Taliban militants. This increase in disorder comes after Afghan authorities released thousands of Taliban prisoners, as promised in last year’s deal.
In this context, fears have been repeatedly raised that should the security situation deteriorate much further in coming months the US and NATO force (now a tiny fraction of the previously 150,000-strong combat presence) is not big enough. This footprint also remains key for ensuring training and cohesion for the several hundred thousand Afghan police and military personnel with day-to-day responsibility for security in the country, which may otherwise disintegrate.
On the economic front, the news is not good either. Reconstruction has been slow, unemployment remains high, and over a million Afghans are internally displaced, with millions more refugees believed to be in Pakistan and Iran; this despite estimates that Washington has spent more on Afghan reconstruction than the cost of the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after the Second World War.
It is also clear that since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001 the economy has not been diversified enough from drug exports such as opium and heroin, despite Afghanistan’s abundant natural resources — gas, minerals and oil with an estimated value of $3 trillion.
Despite this difficult picture, there remains some cause for optimism, especially if a sustainable peace deal can be agreed with the Taliban. For example, the national unity government has survived for seven years. Its creation in 2014 to succeed President Hamid Karzai’s post-9/11 administration was the first democratic transfer of power in the country’s history. While there have been significant tensions, the government has consolidated the legitimacy of the new post-Taliban political system.
Other gains are Afghanistan’s accession to the World Trade Organization and wider moves to revive economic links with the outside world, including the modern Silk Road, a new rail route connecting Afghanistan to China and Central Asia. There are more children, including millions of girls, enrolled in schools, greater recognition of women’s rights, and a spread of technologies such as the internet and cell phones.
Nevertheless, these reversible gains remain in jeopardy, depending upon the outcome of the intra-Afghan peace process. While a sustainable peace breakthrough remains possible subject to Taliban acquiescence, there is a growing prospect of intensified political, security and economic instability if the reconciliation process breaks down, plunging the country into new uncertainty.
• Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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