What does the Biden presidency mean for Afghanistan?


The outcome of the US Presidential election has been earnestly anticipated as it affects the whole world, not least Afghanistan. As the results came in, Joe Biden won the White House and put an end to a tumultuous four-year term of Donald Trump. The polls have closely been watched by global states because all of them hold a stake in it, one way or another. For Afghanistan, a lot here is dependent on what is going on in U.S. politics. Such a drastic change has a direct impact on the situation here. Afghanistan is on the verge of a historical transition despite the recent spikes in violence as the warring sides are engaged in direct talks — something unprecedented in the past two decades of war. The U.S. engagement in Afghanistan is dubbed as the longest U.S. military intervention ever and almost everybody in America: the republicans, the democrats, and the ordinary Americans seek an end to this U.S. war in a country far away. But a responsible end to the military intervention is much more necessary than a hasty withdrawal that would jeopardize the achievements made in Afghanistan in the post-2001 period, for both Afghanistan and the U.S.

Biden’s previous policies and the general psyche among the democrats suggest that unlike Trump, he will listen to the boots on the ground and other military advisors on Afghanistan who don’t favor a Trump-like quick and immature withdrawal that will seriously endanger the American interests in the region and globally.

U.S. President-elect Biden has vowed to rebuild the U.S. image as a world leader and focus on reversing the damage done by Trump’s administration domestically and internationally. The Biden administration will rejoin the Paris Climate accord, remove the immigration ban on Muslim-majority countries and focus on controlling the COVID-19 pandemic as the first major steps for undoing Trump’s policies. Biden will likely revise the U.S.-Iran Nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The deal was considered as one of the landmark diplomatic achievements in foreign policy for former President Barack Obama, but Trump withdrew from the deal in May 2018. Besides, experts expect the former U.S. vice president would be harsher on North Korea.

Looking at Biden’s previous positions on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, he once favored the Afghan war over Iraq but then was against President Obama’s 2011 troop surge in Afghanistan. He wasn’t a fan of the Karzai-led Afghan administration and was against the notion of nation-building in Afghanistan from the very beginning. Nevertheless, he has indicated support for maintaining a small presence in Afghanistan for counter-terrorism purposes, an idea co-echoed by the U.S. military generals in Afghanistan and the Pentagon. As former U.S. vice president and a strong democrat, the president-elect will follow the more traditional U.S. approach toward its engagement in the Middle East and South Asia. 

Biden’s victory has been received as good news in Afghanistan but is that really something to be happy about? Afghan President Ashraf Ghani expressed that ties between Kabul and Washington were expected to deepen in areas of counter-terrorism and building peace as he congratulated Joe Biden on his election victory. The Ghani-led Afghan government was completely kept out of the loop in the direct talks between the U.S and the Taliban brokered by the Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation. The Afghan government also wasn’t a party to the U.S-Taliban peace agreement but regardless, the government released 5,000 Taliban as promised in the peace accord. This, however, opened the window for direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban but there haven’t been any major developments since the talks started. At the same time, the intensifying level of violence on the ground has raised concerns among Afghans. Despite the calls for the reduction in violence, in recent days, the war takes more than 100 lives every day, according to the RiV-monitoring — an independent project documenting the war-related incidents in Afghanistan. The Taliban attack on the city of Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of southern Helmand province, and the unclaimed attacks, assassinations and car bombings in the urban centers are considered violations of the peace agreement. The Taliban, on the other hand, have called the airstrikes by the U.S. forces targeting Taliban positions a breach of the agreement. These are setbacks for the peace process and are obstructing the path to an immediate political solution to the war in Afghanistan. A ceasefire, requested by all sides including the U.S. military general, will help steady the process and contribute to durable peace in Afghanistan. Biden will likely co-echo the calls of his military and intelligence officials in Afghanistan for the reduction in violence, continue support for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and keep the window for a peaceful settlement open.

In Sept. this year, Biden supported the U.S. military’s footprint of up to 1,500 – 2,000 in the country to combat ISIS and other terror threats, unlike President Trump who wanted full troop withdrawal. This means Biden is likely to maintain a small troop presence in Afghanistan, something that would predominantly go against the U.S.-Taliban peace deal signed earlier in February that stipulates U.S. exit by May next year. This is while recent signals from the Taliban indicated the group was in favor of Trump’s victory.

Biden can be reasonably anticipated to push the Taliban for a ceasefire if he wishes to pursue the ongoing peace process initiated by the U.S. but he is also keen to keep a small military presence in the region. He has reiterated time and again that the U.S. was committed to supporting Afghanistan through the Strategic Partnership Agreement and that “We are not leaving the region –- even as Afghans step up and take responsibility.” For Afghan peace, this could be translated as Biden’s potential strategy to stage a responsible and not-too-hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops.