When President Joe Biden took office, he inherited a foreign policy disaster in Afghanistan.
A year ago, his predecessor‘s envoys negotiated an agreement with the Taliban that said the last US troops would leave the country by May 1. That’s just six weeks away, and leaving then would mean the collapse of the elected government the US helped create. And yet a decision to stay past May would put remaining US forces at risk of renewed Taliban attacks.
The wise course for Biden would have been to keep US troops in Afghanistan but call out the Taliban for violating the agreement and work to negotiate a more durable deal. After all, according to a Jan. 4 memo from the Treasury Department‘s inspector general, “al-Qaeda is gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under the Taliban’s protection.” The February 2020 agreement requires the Taliban to instruct its members to end cooperation with al-Qaida and pursue people and organizations that threaten US national security. That should be enough to render the agreement‘s deadline moot.
Unfortunately, the Biden administration appears to have made a decision that gives the US the worst aspects of both options. Biden now says meeting the May 1 deadline for troop withdrawal will be “tough,” but he also predicts US forces will not stay in the country much longer.
In other words: US forces will stay, risking a new round of attacks from the Taliban. But they will not stay long, depriving the US of its already dwindling leverage to force the Taliban to adhere to the 2020 deal.
Actually, it’s even worse than that. Earlier this month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken informed Taliban and Afghanistan government leaders that Biden believes the best course is to accelerate peace negotiations. To that end, he has asked the government of Turkey to host peace talks in the coming weeks. In a letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Blinken wrote that the peace talks were meant to “bring all parties into compliance with their commitments.”
This makes it appear that both sides share the blame for the spiraling security situation in Afghanistan. In reality, the Taliban has stepped up its attacks on Afghan civilians.
Worse still, the government of Turkey is not a neutral arbiter. While Turkish troops have recently fought against the Islamic State group, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has always maintained an opportunistic relationship with other Sunni jihadists. Turkey has harbored senior leaders of Hamas and, more recently, sent religious militias abroad to fight for Turkish interests.
So the upcoming peace talks will give the Taliban a kind of home field advantage. Choosing Turkey as the venue for the talks also rewards Erdogan as he continues his own war against what is left of Turkish democracy. Last week his party stripped a prominent Kurdish lawmaker of his seat and began the legal process of outlawing the country’s largest Kurdish political party.
Also troubling is Blinken’s request for the United Nations to host a high-level diplomatic conference for the US and Afghanistan’s neighbors. In his letter to Ghani, Blinken wrote, “It is my belief that these countries share an abiding, common interest in a stable Afghanistan and must work together if we are to succeed.”
This doesn’t pass the laugh test. Participants in this UN conference would include Russia, which Biden has repeatedly accused of working with the Taliban to place bounties on US soldiers; Pakistan, which has long harbored and funded the Taliban‘s senior leadership; and Iran, which hosted the Taliban’s political leader for consultations in January.
All of this underscores the fundamental problem of Biden’s approach to Afghanistan (which was also Donald Trump’s): The Taliban is the reason that Afghanistan is in crisis. To this day, the group considers itself the country‘s only government. And it has waged a vicious campaign, with no regard for civilian life, against any Afghans who disagree.
It’s fantasy to believe that once the remaining US forces leave the country, the Taliban will agree to share power with Ghani‘s elected government. And yet that is what the alleged peace agreement that Biden has inherited says.
A better course for Biden, the US and Afghanistan would be to recognize that this deal was never going to work -- and that the few thousand US forces remaining in the country are manageable. A recent study from the Center for Strategic and International Studies found the annual US cost for its commitment to Afghanistan is between $10 billion and $20 billion a year. That’s less than a third of the annual budget for the war on terror, and a small fraction of the overall US military budget.
It‘s also a small price to pay for preventing the next 9/11. The alternative is to trust the Taliban not to allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for international terrorism, which is no choice at all.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. -- Ed.