The Biden administration’s policy on Afghanistan is finally out. In a recent televised address, President Joe Biden said the US forces would be back home by September 11 this year. This means he is not adhering to the May 1 deadline his predecessor, Donald Trump, had agreed with the Taliban as part of a deal. But what was significant in Biden’s announcement was that the US drawdown would not be conditions-based i.e. foreign troops would exit Afghanistan irrespective of the ground situation. This was surprising given that many were hoping that Biden, a foreign policy veteran, would attach certain conditions to the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. Some, even in the US, are worried that such a situation would be ideal for the Taliban who already control large swathes of Afghan territory. The insurgents would buy their time and march towards the capital once roughly 10,000 foreign forces leave Afghanistan. It may well be the end of America’s longest war in history, but the misery of the Afghans may be far from over.
Biden said the US had already achieved the objectives it had set out for invading Afghanistan. He insisted the US forces could not wait for the ideal conditions before exiting Afghanistan. He conceded there was no military solution to the Afghan problem – something Pakistan has long been insisting on. Now the key question remains: will the pullout lead to any semblance of peace in Afghanistan? A lot will depend on the peace process. A crucial UN conference is set to take place in Turkey later this month. The conference is to be attended by foreign ministers of Pakistan, Russia, China, Iran, India, Qatar, US and Turkey and is part of the four-point proposal the Biden administration is advancing to strike a peace deal. The Afghan government delegation will also join the conference but the Taliban, after Biden’s announcement to delay troop withdrawal, have refused to be a part of the process. The insurgent group has taken this position in public, but privately it is believed they are open to negotiations with the US and Afghan government.
Pakistan and other players including China, Russia and Turkey want the Taliban to remain part of the process. It is expected that despite the Taliban’s hardline stance they may attend the conference. But even if they do so, the prospects of a peace deal in the next few months appear slim. This is worrying for Pakistan and other immediate neighbours of Afghanistan. The Foreign Office, in its reaction to Biden’s withdrawal plan, said it is important that the withdrawal coincides with the progress in the peace process. In other words, Pakistan thinks that in the absence of a peace deal it would be unwise of foreign forces to exit Afghanistan. Although Biden has announced unconditional troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, there is a possibility that he may review his decision if the situation remains volatile at the time of troop drawdown. Therefore, the situation is far from certain!
Amidst this uncertainty, the role of other regional players particularly Russia and China has become far more important. The unrest in Afghanistan may not affect the US and its Western allies much compared to countries like China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran. Hence, it is natural these countries would push for a political settlement. They can offer the Taliban financial and other incentives for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Afghanistan in return for expecting the Taliban to change their style of governance and work with other political players in the country for the larger interest. But for now, that seems a distant dream!