When Joe Biden's victory in the U.S. presidential election was announced, Afghans celebrated. They had been obsessively checking their phones for results for days. If most prayed that Donald Trump, the U.S. ahmaq ("crazy man"), would lose, it was not because they believed or wanted the promised U.S. troop withdrawal delayed or halted. Rather, a new U.S. administration offers hope that the withdrawal might be done better: without surrendering Afghanistan to the Taliban.
Since signing a much-vaunted U.S.-Taliban peace agreement on Feb. 29, 2020, the United States has put enormous pressure on the Afghan government to make concessions to fulfill the Taliban's preconditions for intra-Afghan negotiations — the talks that most matter to Afghans, for they will determine the shape of the country to come.
At the price of numerous painful concessions wrested from a reluctant Kabul by the special representative for Afghan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad — such as allowing the Taliban to bar almost all Afghan government officials from participation — those negotiations finally began in September in Doha, Qatar. But instead of real progress toward a functional future for Afghanistan, the talks have concentrated on Taliban demands. Meanwhile, its fighters have increased their attacks in a striking demonstration of their disregard for the Washington deal.
The Taliban has made its position clear: It has no intention of giving up violence. And its objective is plain to see: a return to total power in Afghanistan.
Now Biden and the Pentagon are reconsidering the May 1 U.S. troop withdrawal date set under Trump. The only responsible way for the U.S. to withdraw is simply to do so without pressuring the Afghan government to make more unilateral compromises. Fostering the intra-Afghan talks may assuage some American consciences as the U.S. forms its exit strategy, but American diplomacy is not inducing the Taliban to lay aside the terror and destruction it is wreaking on Afghanistan.
In fact, Americans must come to terms with how Washington's approach to dealing with the Taliban has so far only whetted the insurgents’ insatiable appetite for power and violence.
First, the United States elevated the Taliban’s status by negotiating the 2020 peace deal without Kabul’s participation. It put the government — suddenly isolated and insignificant — to shame. It legitimized the insurgents, and their violent tactics, in the eyes of ordinary Afghans and the world.
Then, upon signing the peace agreement, Khalilzad pressured the government to release Taliban prisoners, without any return concessions or even guarantees that these freed fighters would not show up again on the battlefield. Kabul ultimately agreed to a manifestly unfair swap, under which 5,000 Taliban fighters selected by name by the terrorist leadership were freed from jail in return for 1,000 abducted civilians. And yes, many of the freed Taliban fighters have in fact been recaptured on the field of battle.
Neither the formal signing of the peace deal with the United States nor the prisoner release resulted in the Taliban standing down. Forget a cease-fire. Between July and September, compared with the previous quarter, the violence doubled according to one estimate, which put the count at 900 dead and more than 1,500 injured. In December, The Times reported the Taliban was “filling the gaps” as the U.S. presence was shrinking. And according to the New York Times, the Taliban is now threatening “to drive the country to its breaking point.”
At the end of 2020, when the Taliban moved on the strategic Arghandab district in Kandahar province — a leafy valley of pomegranate orchards brought back into government control at great price in American effort and lives a decade ago — few Kandaharis were surprised. According to locals, the Taliban was reinforced by local youths. Many Afghans assume the U.S. will simply hand over control of the country to the Taliban as it leaves, so for the sake of survival, they join.
U.S. troops should not remain in Afghanistan. Afghans fully understand that a continued U.S. military presence is not a real possibility, and few wish it were. For one thing, Taliban recruiters who brainwash youngsters to wage holy war against invaders will be short an argument once all U.S. troops are gone. The insurgency will lose legitimacy, even among its own followers. Besides, Afghans have always been independent-minded, restive under foreign “assistance.”
What Afghans cannot fathom is the blatant favoritism toward the Taliban that the Trump administration displayed, the recognition it conveyed. When the Biden administration announced it would review the 2020 peace deal, Taliban leaders entered “bilateral talks” first with Iran and then Russia about Afghanistan’s fate; in Moscow, the Taliban representative falsely claimed that the insurgents had kept their side of the U.S. deal.
The Afghan government is guilty of abuse of power rife with financial corruption and ridden with nepotism. It lacks checks and balances. But most Afghans still prefer it to the alternative the Taliban offers: a totalitarian emirate, a regime that would once again deprive Afghans — especially women and girls — of their social and political rights. Worse yet, Afghans who have supported the Afghan government or the international community over the past two decades might be punishable under such rule.
The Biden administration can withdraw U.S. troops without weakening the Afghan government further and making the Taliban stronger. Rather than forcing Kabul to meet any more of the Taliban's demands or conferring on it any more power, the Biden administration can warn the insurgents and their international backers that it will support Kabul diplomatically, financially and politically, regardless of the presence of its troops. It can make clear that the sacrifice of American lives and the huge investment made by American taxpayers in Afghanistan will not be dishonored by a simple return to the status quo ante.
The United States must stand by Afghanistan. But "standing by" does not have to mean thousands of troops with guns at the ready. An end to binding, gagging and sidelining the Afghan government would be a start.
P. Atif is a former aid worker in Afghanistan and an independent consultant for government and nongovernmental organizations.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.