Geopolitical rivalries and a shrinking military presence in the region are reshaping American policy thinking towards Afghanistan and Pakistan. Along with counter-terrorism, the United States policy would also have to deal with managing its growing competition with China, the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic, the focus on climate change and the economic challenges that the United States faces in the region.
The Afghan Conundrum Continues
The United States for the past two administrations (President Obama and President Trump) has made an effort to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan and end its ‘longest war’. Towards this, in February 2020, the Trump administration signed an Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan with the Taliban that stated “The United States is committed to withdraw from Afghanistan all military forces of the United States, its allies, and coalition partners, including all non-diplomatic civilian personnel, private security contractors, trainers, advisors, and supporting services personnel within fourteen (14) months…”[ii] (May 1, 2021) if the Taliban upheld its promises, including not allowing al-Qaeda or other militants to operate in areas it controlled, and start with intra-Afghan negotiations for peace and reduce attacks on Afghan forces. Nonetheless, peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government are proceeding at snail’s pace with Taliban violence levels remain high. This is evident from the fact that the number of targeted attacks, assassination attempts of government officials, civil society leaders and journalists has increased. According to the Quarterly report to the Congress by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) “Only days after the signing, however, the Taliban announced that it had resumed military operations….”[iii] and increased attacks on Afghan security forces. Despite these setbacks President Trump continued to draw down, leaving office with about 2,500 troops actually stationed in Afghanistan, the lowest since 2001.
The withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan is inevitable with a public that is war weary. During his presidential campaign, President Biden promised to end the so-called forever wars, but he also said he would leave a small number of Special Forces in countries such as Afghanistan to conduct counterterrorism missions. Many hope that the Biden administration’s review of the Doha agreement would be beyond the narrative of ending ‘the longest war’ to one that looks at the situation on the ground with inputs from military officials stationed in Afghanistan.
Building a new partnership with Pakistan
The withdrawal from Afghanistan permits the United States to redefine its interests in the region and also presents Pakistan with opportunities to strengthen its political and economic ties with the United States and to explore relations beyond security parameters set by Afghanistan. President Biden has experience of this as he was one of the original architects of the Kerry-Lugar bill or the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009 and the policy of engagement with the civil government to support a sustainable long-term relationship with Pakistan.[iv] In a possible reset, the Biden administration may focus on non-military areas of cooperation such as climate change, infrastructure development, enhanced economic engagement and robust political dialogues with partners and alliance members. Given the current healthcare crisis, public health is an emergent area of significance. Nevertheless, the security factor will remain too strong for the United States to circumvent completely.
Much like Afghanistan, there is a view within the United States that a review of relations with Pakistan is needed. Pakistan remains critical for peace in Afghanistan and to this end the Biden administration needs to emphasise that positive bilateral relations including a review of the cancellation of support through the Coalition Support Fund to Pakistan will be dependent on Pakistan officials using their good offices to influence the Taliban to mitigate violence and reach a political settlement. It could further also be made dependent on actions taken by the Pakistani government and the security forces, to counter the activities of terrorist organisations. On the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) front the Biden administration is aware that pressure asserted from the forum has resulted in crucial gains and remains a key leverage to get further concessions from Islamabad.
The United States policy of alternating between assistance and sanctions did not help cultivate an ally in Pakistan nor has it changed Pakistan’s behaviour. The ‘carrot and stick’ policy has ended up driving the partnership towards a chronic trust deficit. While the importance of Pakistan in ensuring peace in Afghanistan is beyond doubt, it also is true that terrorist organisations within Pakistan remain the cause of much instability and tension in the region. The duality was visible when President Trump’s South Asia strategy, unveiled in 2017, emphasised the threats posed by Islamist militancy in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, contending that, “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.”[v] Nonetheless, in December 2018, the United States requested Pakistan’s assistance in negotiating a peace agreement with the Taliban. While security would remain a factor in the relations, the Biden administration may well engage with Pakistan by making significant investments in the economic sector, while keeping in mind the growing China- Pakistan partnership.
The Biden administration has the opportunity to reshape its relations with two nations that will have long term consequences for the security of the United States. It remains unclear how the Biden administration will proceed in its review of the Afghan peace agreement. The United States may insist on some level of troop presence for the moment, however, it has to be prudent to balance the need to withdraw while ensuring that the issue of peace is resolved through lasting intra-Afghan political dialogue. Relations with Pakistan are expected to see growth. Given his knowledge of the region and of Pakistan’s civilian and military establishments, President Biden could make the relations more productive for both nations.
*Dr. Stuti Banerjee, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer : Views expressed are personal.
The text of the agreement is available at https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Agreement-For-Bringing-Peace-to-Afghanistan-02.29.20.pdf
[ii] The US Department of State, “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America February 29, 2020,” https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Agreement-For-Bringing-Peace-to-Afghanistan-02.29.20.pdf, Accessed on 11 Feb. 2021
[iii] The report is available at https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/quarterlyreports/2020-04-30qr.pdf
[iv] The bill laid down a programme for USD 7.5 billion non-military aid to Pakistan for a period of five years that tripled American aid to the country.