The Biden Presidency: What choices for Afghan policy remain?

The Biden Presidency: What choices for Afghan policy remain?

By Kate Clark co director of ANA on Nov 12,


Before the extent of Trump’s ‘America First’ policies were made clear, many Afghans who feared the prospect of a US withdrawal were optimistic that a return to a Republican administration might make the US a more steadfast ally for Afghanistan. Trump’s populist isolationism and haphazard approach to decision-making eventually disabused them of that hope. While Obama’s drive to take American out of an ‘endless war’ footing was more principled, he and Trump broadly converged on the goal of troop withdrawal. Biden has long advocated a light footprint, which seems to be where he remains today. What has changed are the conditions of the Doha agreement that may prevent even the lightest CT footprint.

Much has been made of Foreign Policy’s reporting on the team of 2,000 foreign policy and national security advisors amassed by Joe Biden. They will be receiving suggestions and recommendations from many corners of Washington and the world on Afghanistan, advising Biden what he ought to do, or reminding him of the obligations some feel he should have for a country whose government the US toppled and whose fate it then got tangled up in. However, Biden will have strong ideas of his own on Afghanistan policy, as will some of the familiar names being touted for top cabinet posts.

Moreover, times are very different from when he and Barack Obama took power over a decade ago. In their first year in office, when Obama announced the surge it was because he was persuaded that what happened in Afghanistan and Pakistan had a fundamental impact on the security of the United States. It is worth giving a long quote from his speech delivered on 1 December 2009 as it underlies just how much has changed in US views of Afghanistan:

I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak. This is no idle danger; no hypothetical threat. In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror. And this danger will only grow if the region slides backwards, and al Qaeda can operate with impunity. We must keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and to do that, we must increase the stability and capacity of our partners in the region.

As for the Taleban, Obama said the movement had maintained “common cause with al-Qaeda, as they both seek an overthrow of the Afghan government.” The US had to “reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government.”

The prospect of al-Qaeda re-establishing itself and the Taleban again ruling Afghanistan has not gone away. Yet in Biden’s Foreign Policy article and Stars and Stripes interview, he made no mention of the Taleban and referred to al-Qaeda just once. Afghanistan will not be a priority for Joe Biden when he takes power. Other policy decisions – the Covid-19 pandemic and the domestic economy as well as a whole host of other foreign policy issues – are far more pressing. Afghanistan is simply not that important to America any more.

Washington’s decisions still remain fundamental to what happens in Afghanistan and for many Afghans, the need for action from the US may feel urgent, given the 30 April deadline and the intensification of the conflict. Yet, what room Biden has to re-set US policy on Afghanistan will be limited, not only by his inheritance of the US-Taleban deal but also his own inclinations.