Biden’s looming foreign policy catastrophe in Afghanistan

Revised March 23, 2021.

On February 29, 2020, the United States under Donald Trump and the special ambassador he appointed to lead the “peace” negotiations with the Taliban, Zalmay Khalilzad, signed a “peace agreement” calling for the withdrawal of all American and allied forces from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021. The commitments were one-sided: the U.S. agreed that it and its allies would withdraw all of their forces from Afghanistan in exchange for a “commitment” by the Taliban to enter into  “intra-Afghan” negotiations with the democratically-elected government of Ashraf Ghani , and to not let the territory of Afghanistan to be used to attack the security of the United States and its allies. One of the items on the agenda of the “Intra-Afghan” negotiations was to be the establishment of a ceasefire.

The Agreement essentially amounted to a surrender agreement, by which the Americans would “cut and run” from Afghanistan, turning their backs on all the promises of supporting democratic government and human rights in Afghanistan made since it overthrew the Taliban government, following the September 11, 2001 attacks orchestrated from Afghan territory.

See,

“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. Signed in Doha, Qatar, “in Pashto, Dari, and English languages, each text being equally authentic “.

Significantly, the Agreement provides in Article 3(1) the following:

“Art. 3(1). The United States will request the recognition and endorsement of the United Nations Security Council for this agreement.”

This language is kind of boilerplate, but it deserves careful scrutiny now in the context of the withdrawal agreement.

The significance of this unilateral commitment may not be appreciated by those who are not specialists in international law. Endorsement by the United Nations Security Council could convert the Agreement into a kind of super-international law overriding other treaties, providing the Taliban with a potential argument that it overrides human rights treaties, including treaties and provisions for the protection of women.

The argument is not dispositive as to many human rights and other obligations which represent “peremptory law” (from which there can be no exception) or what is known by specialists as jus cogens. Nonetheless, the argument would be made on the battlefield of public opinion, which does not always appreciate international law principles such as that of jus cogens.

The agreement is an abomination. It reflects a policy of Donald Trump which was aimed primarily at giving him an advantage in the 2020 presidential election.

It pursues the wrong goal, and was negotiated by the wrong people. It is strongly opposed by the Afghan Government of Ashraf Ghani, leading experts, and many allies whose forces (primarily from the NATO countries, in addition to the U.K and Canada) have fought and died alongside American and Afghan soldiers. Their assistance, both military and civilian, was given all in pursuit of what the U.S. held out to be the goal of establishing a democratic state governed by law.

Now, the United States has joined with Russia in convening a conference in Moscow to be attended by Russia, China, Iran (invited), Pakistan, and Turkey. Notoriously uninvited and absent were the Europeans and the NATO members who helped make up the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan from 2001-2014, and since 2014 its follow-on successor, “Operation Resolute Support”. The latter, in principle, has been focused on training.

The reason the Europeans were not invited is blazingly clear:  They would never go along with a settlement which sells out the democratic government of Afghanistan, established pursuant to elections in 2018 (legislative) and 2019 (presidential), and made up of a coalition of the two leading presidential candidates in 2019 and their supporters. Nor would the Europeans be likely to go along with a settlement that surrenders the future of Afghan women to the Taliban.

The stated U.S. objective in the “peace” agreement is the promise by the Taliban not to let the territory of Afghanistan be used by any group to conduct attacks against the security of the U.S. or its allies.

THE WRONG GOAL

A fatal flaw in U.S. policy in Afghanistan in recent years, and perhaps as far back as 2001, has been the stated goal of getting out of Afghanistan. This makes no sense, since to withdraw U.S. and Allied forces will in all likelihood lead to the fall of the democratically-elected government of Ashraf Ghani, and a takeover by the Taliban. The U.S. and its allies have worked hard, with considerable success, to build up the Afghan military. But without U.S. air and logistical support, the ability of the Afghan military to hold the cities and other territory the government controls is dubious at best.

The goal of getting out of Afghanistan makes about as much sense as saying that the goal of the United States in the Korean Peninsula should be to get all of its forces out of Korea, or to say that its goal in NATO should be to get all of its forces out of Germany.

The United States has forces stationed and deployed in many countries around the world, to secure important foreign policy objectives. Should our goal in Africa be to get all American and French troops out of Africa, and simply leave the nascent democracies there to deal with Islamic terrorists on their own? What foreign policy objectives would this achieve?

The problem is that Joe Biden, like Donald Trump, is letting his foreign policy objectives be determined by domestic politics.

THE WRONG NEGOTIATORS

Why in the world did Anthony Blinken and Joe Biden leave Zalmay Khalilzad in place as Trump’s point man to negotiate an American withdrawal. This was a huge mistake, and one which needs to be corrected immediately.

Biden must replace Khalilzad forthwith. If he needs his advice, Blinken can sign him on as a consultant. Zalmay Khalilzad is an Afghan and now also an American, whose his interests and objectives are not always clear. He has reportedly considered running for the presidency of Afghanistan in the past.

See,

Pamela Constable and Sayed Salahuddin, “Afghans are rooting for Zalmay Khalilzad to end up in Trump administration,” Washington Post, November 19, 2016.

The authors, after discussing Khalilzad’s background including the positions of Ambassador to Afghanistan and Ambassador to Iraq under George W. Bush, observe the following: “(H)e also has been criticized as a lone operator who “freelanced” or skirted official limits as a diplomat. He also reportedly considered running for president of Afghanistan in 2009 and 2014.”

THE WRONG “PEACE” AGREEMENT

The U.S. must make it clear that they are not leaving Afghanistan until a ceasefire is established–and observed–and a reconciliation process is put into motion that allows for some real possibility of Afghans working together in governing the country.

Many possibilities exist, e.g., allowing the Taliban to govern territory they presently control, and allowing the Ghani government to govern the cities and other areas under its control, with negotiated compromises in contested areas.

But let the Taliban know that the United States is prepared to stay for 50 years, if that is what it takes, to reach an equitable peace agreement that protects the human rights achievements, particularly those relating to women, and other achievements they have secured over the last 20 years.

Stop Implementing a Trump Policy

After saying that its goal in Afghanistan was to strengthen and defend the democratic government of the country, almost since the beginning, the United States is now following Donald Trump’s plan to “cut and run” from Afghanistan, and to leave the Afghan democratic forces we have supported for almost 20 years to fend for themselves, without the air and other logistical support that–up until now–has prevented the government from falling to the Taliban.

This is a Trump policy, designed to help him win the election in 2020. Why Joe Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken are following the craven policy of Donald Trump, negotiated by Zalmay Khalilzad, George Bush’s ambassador to Afghanistan (2002-2005) and Iraq (2005-2007), and Donald Trump’s Ambassador charged with getting him out of Afghanistan (2018-2021, continuing since January 2021 under President Joe Biden), is anyone’s guess.

My guess is that Biden and Blinken have been preoccupied with other priorities, and haven’t taken the time to think through Trump’s “cut and run “ policy and its likely consequences. Biden is familiar with the challenges and complexities of Afghanistan, having participated in Barack Obama’s excruciatingly slow and analytical review of Afghan policy in 2009.

What positions Biden and Blinken took then are extremely revealing, and raise the question of whether there has been any fresh thinking, or if they are simply regurgitating their positions from 2009. In 2009, Biden reportedly favored a minimal presence in the country. The latter possibility is suggested by their decision to keep Khalilzad on as the point man on the withdrawal negotiations with the Taliban.

See,

Peter Baker, “Biden No Longer a Lone Voice on Afghanistan,” New York Times,  October 13, 2009.

Baker quotes Thomas Ricks, a leading :military authority authority on Afghanistan, and others, as follows

(O)thers, more harshly, argue that Mr. Biden’s judgment on foreign policy has often been off base.

They point out that he voted against the successful Persian Gulf war of 1991, voted for the Iraq invasion of 2003, proposed dividing Iraq into three sections in 2006 and opposed the additional troops credited by many with turning Iraq around in 2007.

“When was the last time Biden was right about anything?” Thomas E. Ricks, a military writer, wrote in a blog on Sept. 24.

For an incisive account of Biden’s views on Afghanistan and other countries over the years, see,

Greg Jaffe, “The war in Afghanistan shattered Joe Biden’s faith in American military power; ‘I am not sending my boy back there to risk his life on behalf of women’s rights!’ the vice president shouted’,” Washington Post, February 18, 2020.

Another reason to replace Khalilzad is that he is an Afghan, with multiple interests and objectives all of which are not entirely clear.

The fact that Biden and Blinken are planning to sell out the democratic forces in Afghanistan could not be made clearer than by their failure to invite NATO and the Europeans to participate in the international peace process which the conference in Moscow on March 18 has been intended to kick off.

The Iranians and Pakistanis were invited to participate, but not NATO and the Europeans? What greater tip-off to Biden’s and Blinken’s dishonorable intentions could there be?

See,

Jacques Follorou and Jean-Pierre Stroobants, “Joe Biden inflige un camouflet aux Européens sur le dossier afghan; Première donatrice civile, l’Union européenne est mise à l’écart par Washington du règlement diplomatique final de la crise en Afghanistan,” :e Monde, le 17 mars 2021 (11h18; Mis à jour le 18 mars 2021 à 10h03).

The United States is pressuring the government of Ashraf Ghani to give up power to a new coalition government with the Taliban before his term of office ends and without prior elections. They have pressured the Afghan government to participate in the intra-Afghan negotiations on a coalition government, without insisting on a halt to Taliban attacks of Afghan forces and civilians.

The Trump policy behind the U.S. withdrawal agreement, and the May 1 deadline, never made any sense. It was always a surrender agreement designed to give Trump an election argument that he had ended foreign wars, as he had promised in 2016.

Nonetheless, we are where we are.

Now, how can the U.S. get out of the May 1, 2021 deadline for withdrawal of all of its troops?

The Taliban have undercut the logic of a peace agreement by continuing to attack Afghan forces and civilians, in the most brutal way, during the period in which they were supposed to be negotiating the terms of a power-sharing coalition government. They have not negotiated in good faith. That is reason enough to delay any withdrawal, and to insist on a ceasefire and balanced commitment from the Taliban before any further withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Good faith is a fundamental principle underlying all international agreements. By continuing their war against the Afghan government, its military forces, and Afghan civilians, the Taliban have undercut the essential preconditions for negotiation of an equitable peace agreement which might actually advance the cause of peace in Afghanistan. By doing so, they have transformed the February 29, 2029 “peace” agreement into a roadmap leading to the early rapid collapse of the Ghani government and the return to power of a movement driven by an extremist religious ideology.

President Biden and Secretary Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who is in Afghanistan today (March 21), need to act energetically to prevent this looming catastrophe from happening.

If they don’t, the catastrophe could help sink Biden’s presidency.

The Trenchant Observer