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What Biden Should Consider in His Approach to Afghanistan

Now that Joe Biden has been sworn in as president, a very familiar quagmire awaits him in Afghanistan. For nearly twenty years, the U.S. has invested heavily in Afghanistan both economically and in lives lost. The U.S. has used all sorts of tools from soft power, hard power, economic power, and even the “mother of all bombs” – but to no avail. War and militancy have dragged on.

It is yet to be seen how President Biden will approach the Taliban. On the one hand, Biden has said that the “Taliban per se is not our enemy,” while on the other hand, he has actively taken the fight to the Taliban as seen with U.S. troop surges during the Obama era. The Biden administration may come to the same conclusion as the Trump administration: It may be time for the U.S. to simply leave. The following three things must be considered in laying the foundation for a complete and responsible U.S. exit. In other words: “Peace with Honor.”

Strengthen the Hand of Zalmay Khalilzad

President Biden may want to consider keeping and strengthening the role of Zalmay Khalilzad as the Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation at the U.S. State Department. He is an experienced Afghan-American diplomat who led the peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar in 2018.

This wasn’t the first time Khalilzad had been involved in coordinating talks with the Taliban. In the late 1990s, Khalilzad, at the time an oil executive, facilitated direct engagement between the Taliban and the United States – with the Taliban seeking international recognition while the U.S. wanted oil agreements, an agreement to curtail opium production, and measures to counter Iran.

If Biden chooses to pursue negotiations with the Taliban, retaining the services of Khalilzad could be helpful.

Make a Deal with the Taliban and Target ISKP

The Afghan-based ISIS branch known as ISKP (Islamic State Khorasan Province), poses a transnational terror threat to U.S. interests much more than the Taliban. Any peace deal with the Afghan Taliban will allow the U.S. to withdraw troops and resources as well as deal with the threat from ISKP. The two groups are opposed to each other, and the U.S.-Taliban Doha agreement aims to counter ISKP even further by requiring the Taliban to not allow Afghan soil to be used for international terrorism.

Striking a deal with a militant group like the Afghan Taliban may not sound ideal, but there is precedent in other U.S.-involved conflicts. In Syria, the U.S. and allied forces worked with Kurdish forces to counter ISIS. In Iraq, the U.S. allied with mostly Shiite and Iran-backed militias to reclaim a third of Iraq back from the ISIS caliphate. Whether these involvements will be successful in the long-term has yet to be seen, however, these alliances did achieve national security successes and can be applied to Afghanistan as well in the context of a deal with the Taliban to counter ISKP.

The Taliban will need a power-sharing agreement for this to happen, which can be based on a joint transitional governance model. John Allen, the former commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, recently opined that perhaps as part of a peace settlement with the central government, the Taliban can be incorporated into the Afghan judiciary and allow their courts to run parallel to government-run courts and the Afghan people can decide which one to use. With any settlement, the international community must ensure that human rights gains of the past 19 years are assured.

Increase anti-Corruption Measures

At the November 2020 Geneva Conference on Afghanistan, donors pledged $12 billion over 4 years, roughly $3 billion a year. As the co-sponsor of the event, Finland’s Development Minister Ville Skinnari remarked at the end of the event that “particular attention will be paid to anti-corruption measures” by the Afghan government as they receive pledged aid. This is another crucial area for Biden to address.

With 19 years of foreign aid trickling into Afghanistan and increased levels of corruption, it is no surprise that the country ranks 173 out of 180 in Transparency International’s ranking index for corruption levels. Addressing the root causes of corruption will require strengthening anti-corruption institutions to ensure accountability. Reducing corruption will also help reduce the negative perception about the Afghan government and rebuild trust with Afghans. The Biden administration can strengthen this area of weakness by requiring aid to be contingent on anti-corruption measures taken by the Afghan government.

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A gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops and resources based on a peace settlement in Afghanistan may be the ultimate solution to the Afghan war. To achieve this, the Biden administration must lay a strategic foreign policy foundation by setting further troop reduction goals, strengthening the hand of Zalmay Khalilzad, countering ISKP, and continuing to provide aid but bind it with anti-corruption measures.