When US President Joe Biden took office, he inherited a foreign policy catastrophe in Afghanistan. A year ago, envoys from his predecessors negotiated a deal with the Taliban whereby the last US troops would leave the country on May 1. It’s just six weeks away, and leaving then would mean the collapse of the elected government that the United States helped create. And yet, a decision to stay beyond May would put the remaining US forces at risk from further Taliban attacks.
The wisest course for Biden would have been to keep US troops in Afghanistan, but call on the Taliban for violating the deal and work to negotiate a more lasting deal. According to a Jan. 4 memo from the Inspector General of the Treasury Department, Al Qaeda is gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under Taliban protection. “The February 2020 accord requires the Taliban to order its members to end their cooperation with al. -Qaida and prosecute individuals and organizations that threaten the national security of the United States. This should be enough to make the deadline for agreements irrelevant. Sadly, the Biden administration appears to have made a decision that gives the United States the worst aspects of both options. Biden now says meeting the May deadline for the troop withdrawal will be difficult, “but he also predicts that US forces will not stay in the country for long.
In other words: US forces will stay, risking another round of Taliban attacks. But they won’t stay long, robbing the United States of its already dwindling influence to force the Taliban to adhere to the 2020 accord.
In fact, it’s even worse than that. Earlier this month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken informed leaders of the Taliban and Afghan governments that Biden believed the best solution was to speed up the peace negotiations. To that end, he called on the Turkish government to host peace talks in the coming weeks. In a letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Blinken wrote that the peace talks were aimed at getting all parties to honor their commitments. “
This suggests that both sides share responsibility for the escalating security situation in Afghanistan. In fact, the Taliban have stepped up their attacks on Afghan civilians. Worse yet, the Turkish government is not a neutral arbiter. While Turkish troops have recently fought against Islamic State, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has always maintained an opportunistic relationship with other Sunni jihadists. Turkey has sheltered senior Hamas leaders and more recently has sent religious militias abroad to fight for Turkish interests. So the upcoming peace talks will give the Taliban some sort of edge on the ground. The choice of Turkey as the venue for the talks also rewards Erdogan as he continues his own war against what remains of Turkish democracy.
Blinkens’ request for the United Nations to host a high-level diplomatic conference for neighbors of the United States and Afghans is also troubling. In his letter to Ghani, Blinken wrote: I am convinced that these countries share a common and constant interest in a stable Afghanistan and must work together if we are to be successful. “
It does not pass the laughter test. Participants at this UN conference would include Russia, which Biden has repeatedly accused of working with the Taliban to place bounties on US soldiers; Pakistan, which has long hosted and funded the top Taliban leaders; and Iran, which hosted the political leader of the Taliban for consultations in January.
All of this highlights the fundamental problem with Bidens’ approach to Afghanistan (who was also Donald Trump): the Taliban are the reason Afghanistan is in crisis. To this day, the group sees itself as the only government in the country. And he waged a vicious campaign, with no regard for civilian life, against Afghans who disagree.
His fantasy is to believe that once the remaining US forces leave the country, the Taliban will agree to share power with the elected government of the Ghanis. And yet, that’s what the so-called peace deal Biden inherited says.
A better solution for Biden, the United States and Afghanistan would be to recognize that this deal was never going to work and that the few thousand remaining American forces in the country are manageable. A recent study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that the annual cost to the United States for its engagement in Afghanistan is between $ 10 billion and $ 20 billion per year. That’s less than a third of the annual war on terror budget and a small fraction of the overall US military budget. It is also a small price to pay to prevent the upcoming September 11th. The alternative is to trust the Taliban not to allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for international terrorism, which is not a choice at all.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy.
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