- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Presumptive President-elect Joseph R. Biden is facing pressure from all sides in the war in Afghanistan, with Taliban leaders urging him to continue a rapid drawdown of American troops while the U.S.-backed government in Kabul is pleading for a cautious approach and a rock-solid commitment to counterterrorism.

Perhaps no other foreign policy challenge will prove trickier for Mr. Biden to finesse in his first days in office than Afghanistan, as violence escalates on the ground, power-sharing talks midwifed by the Trump administration have barely started, and a U.S. troop withdrawal is gaining momentum.

It seems certain that Mr. Biden’s big-picture, long-term approach to the country — home to the longest war in American history and still a hotbed of Islamic extremism — will in many ways mirror that of President Trump, with the former vice president repeatedly pledging to wind down the “forever wars” that have consumed the U.S. military in the post-9/11 era. Analysts say it’s clear that Mr. Biden’s position has been heavily influenced by Mr. Trump’s largely successful effort to reframe the debate around U.S. involvement in Afghanistan — now nearing its 20th year — and a clear desire among the American public to see the troops finally come home.

But those same analysts say it’s unlikely that Mr. Biden will simply follow Mr. Trump’s playbook to the letter. Mr. Biden has indicated that he is willing to station as many as 2,000 troops in the Middle East and retain a small number in Afghanistan, a move that would require changes to the landmark U.S.-Taliban peace pact struck in February.

That agreement calls for all American forces to leave the country by next summer in exchange for security and political guarantees from the Taliban. The insurgent group this week publicly pressed Mr. Biden to stick to the agreement and quickly move out the remaining 4,500 American troops, while the Kabul government is urging Washington to revisit aspects of the deal and avoid premature withdrawals.

Many predict Mr. Biden’s foreign policy team will continue diplomatic engagement with the Taliban but abandon Mr. Trump’s expedited withdrawal timeline, instead adopting a strict conditions-based approach favored by many Pentagon leaders. A Biden administration is also likely to work more closely with the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani, which was largely sidelined in the early stages of negotiation between Washington and the Taliban.

“Biden will likely continue the ‘counterterrorism-plus’ strategy which would see 1,500 to 2,000 troops remain in the country,” said former Defense Department official Michael Rubin, now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “The biggest difference between Biden and Trump would be that Biden’s negotiators … would be far less likely than [those of the Trump administration] to cut out the Afghanistan government from key negotiations.”

In addition to the U.S. troop drawdowns, the deal also called for direct talks between the Taliban and Afghan government, which are ongoing in Qatar. It also required the Taliban to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorist groups.

But even with the talks underway, new Pentagon assessments have warned that al Qaeda and Islamic State fighters remain active in remote areas of the country near the Pakistan border. As Mr. Biden seeks to bring troops home, he has made clear that terrorism remains a major concern.

“These ‘forever wars’ have to end. I support drawing down the troops,” Mr. Biden told Stars and Stripes in September. “But here’s the problem: We still have to worry about terrorism.”

Growing pressure

Meanwhile, both sides of the Afghanistan conflict are angling for influence as the Biden transition team prepares for power. In a statement this week, Mr. Ghani congratulated Mr. Biden on his apparent election victory but made clear what he expects of his new partner.

“Afghanistan looks forward to continuing and deepening our multilayered strategic partnership with the U.S. — our foundational partner — including in counterterrorism and bringing peace to Afghanistan,” he said.

Other Afghan officials were much more aggressive in their comments, calling on Mr. Biden to ditch Mr. Trump’s approach.

“We hope that Biden does not follow in the footsteps of Trump, who has discredited the U.S. and committed a betrayal both to the U.S. and Afghanistan through the deal with the Taliban,” Hamidullah Tokhi, a lawmaker from Afghanistan’s Zabul province, told Arab News this week. “Biden needs to think about U.S. and Afghanistani honor. He can pull the troops out, but not in a hasty manner. First, he needs to reconcile the two sides.”

Meanwhile, military clashes between the Taliban and Afghan security forces continue. The bloody battles have led the U.S. in recent weeks to step up its own bombing campaign against Taliban targets to keep them from capturing key strategic territory in Helmand province and elsewhere.

U.S. officials also have warned recently that the Taliban’s continued violence could undermine the very foundation of the peace deal.

Taliban leaders are brushing off those warnings. In its own statement this week, the insurgent group pressed Mr. Biden to continue along the path set out by Mr. Trump.

“The Islamic Emirate would like to stress to the new American president-elect and future administration that implementation of the agreement is the most reasonable and effective tool for ending the conflict between both our countries,” the Taliban said. “Withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan, noninterference in our country and not allowing the use of Afghanistan to threaten America are in the interest of both our peoples and our nations.”

About 12,000 U.S. troops were in Afghanistan when the peace deal was signed in February. That number has steadily dropped and now stands at about 4,500.

Administration officials have said it will be down to 2,500 by early next year. Those figures offer a reminder of how dramatically America’s footprint in Afghanistan has changed over the past 10 years.

A decade ago, Mr. Biden and then-President Obama — reluctantly — presided over a massive surge of U.S. forces to Afghanistan, with the number ultimately topping 100,000 in 2010. It was down to about 8,400 when the two men left office in January 2017.

Now, Mr. Biden’s official campaign platform stresses that Washington can no longer stay “entrenched in unwinnable conflicts” in chaotic corners of the world, and promises that the former vice president will bring home “the vast majority” of U.S. troops from the Middle East.

Some analysts say such comments — and Mr. Biden’s use of Trump-esque terms such as “forever wars” — are evidence of just how significantly Mr. Trump’s “America First” policy has reshaped foreign affairs conversations and dictated the options for those who come after him.

“One of the many ironies in President Trump’s legacy is that while he was further to the left on key aspects of foreign policy and international trade than President Obama, the political left gave him no credit for it,” said J.D. Gordon, a former Trump campaign national security adviser and Pentagon spokesman.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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