The Biden administration’s surprise diplomatic push in Afghanistan could serve a dual purpose: to lay the groundwork for a U.S. military presence in the country past a looming May 1 withdrawal deadline, and to create an opening to work with adversaries Iran, China and Russia, each of which has created major geopolitical headaches in the White House’s early days.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, revealed publicly over the weekend by Afghanistan’s TOLOnews, calls for a multinational conference to forge a comprehensive deal between the U.S.-backed government in Kabul and the insurgent Taliban, who hold tremendous sway over negotiations because of the vast territory they control and their demonstrated ability to survive and grow despite two decades of war with the U.S.
Seen by some regional analysts to be a last-ditch effort to save the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, Mr. Blinken has proposed a meeting in Turkey that would bring the two Afghan parties together with representatives from the U.S., Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and India. The proposal also reportedly calls for a power-sharing arrangement that would give the Taliban a major role in determining the future of the country.
The meeting would call into question the point of U.S.-backed power-sharing talks between the Taliban and the Ghani government that began under President Trump. The negotiations, held in Doha, Qatar, have produced little progress.
The unexpected diplomatic moves may signal that the Biden administration is prepared to keep some U.S. troops in Afghanistan past the May 1 exit date laid out in a deal that Mr. Trump struck with the Taliban in early 2020. That pact, among other things, called for a major reduction in attacks by Taliban fighters and a complete break with terrorist groups such as al Qaeda. Virtually all observers believe the group has failed to meet those conditions.
The new round of multilateral negotiations could give Mr. Blinken, Afghanistan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and other administration officials justification to keep roughly 2,500 American troops, as well as allied forces, in Afghanistan. In theory, it would give Washington more leverage as it pushes for concessions from Taliban leaders, who desperately want U.S. troops gone.
Although Washington’s interests clash with those of China, Russia and Iran on other fronts, none of the regional powers favors a return to harsh Taliban rule or to more violence, and instability in Afghanistan.
Critics say the administration faces long odds. Simply bringing more countries into the process, they say, does little to change the fact that the Taliban have not kept their word but are still on track to be rewarded with power and prestige.
“The Biden team is approaching Afghanistan with a naivete that makes pre-9/11 decision-making look quaint,” said former Defense Department official Michael Rubin, now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “Bringing other countries in for cover doesn’t change the fact that Blinken and Khalilzad are empowering the Taliban.
“The proposed Islamic council to which the Taliban will appoint jurists will wield a veto over all laws,” he said. “In effect, Biden and Blinken are imposing on Afghans the Sunni version of Iran’s theocracy. This doesn’t mean the U.S. needs to stay forever, but if the goal is to leave, for God’s sake, don’t undercut and undermine the Afghan government on the way out.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price on Monday would not confirm the authenticity of Mr. Blinken’s letter, though he seemed to suggest its broad strokes are correct. Officials have not disputed the letter’s contents.
“It is true that they are consulting and the department more broadly is consulting with allies, with our partners, with countries in the region. … But at the same time, everything, every idea we have put on the table, every proposal that is out there, certainly any proposal that we would endorse, we understand that this process at its core must be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned,” Mr. Price said.
Seats at the table
Early signs suggest that the U.S. could find willing negotiating partners in rivals Iran and Russia. Iran’s theocratic regime could enhance its standing in the theater if it plays a significant role in shaping the future of is neighbor. Officials in Tehran said Monday that the nation is open to joining talks.
“Afghanistan is important to us and is not our bargaining card with anybody,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told Iranian media.
Multinational talks on Afghanistan would put the U.S. and Iran at the same negotiating table, which might improve the atmospherics as Washington and Tehran spar over reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that President Trump repudiated in 2018.
Russia, which has hosted officials from Kabul the Taliban, also appears open to participating. U.S.-Russian cooperation on the future of Afghanistan could help thaw a frosty relationship, further strained by U.S. economic sanctions on Moscow for the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and a massive hack of U.S. companies and government agencies largely believed to be the work of the Kremlin.
Russian officials have not publicly addressed Mr. Blinken’s letter, but top Kremlin leaders last week said the country wants a voice in the Afghanistan debate. China’s communist government has not commented on the specific proposal but may be willing to take part in the talks to flex its muscle and further prove itself to be an influential player in the region.
But the willingness of outside powers may matter little in the end. With the Afghan government skeptical at best of the proposal, Kabul could resent the pressure to enter into a power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban, foreign policy analysts say.
“The U.S. political system is not exactly functioning in an exemplary fashion, but one wonders how President Biden would feel if a U.S. ‘ally’ circulated a plan that called for dumping the U.S. Constitution and setting up a ‘peace government’ requiring Biden to share power with the extremists who invaded the Capitol on Jan. 6th,” William Maley, emeritus professor at the Australian National University, wrote in a Monday analysis piece for TOLOnews.
Monday also brought fresh evidence of the chaos and danger in Afghanistan. An analysis from the open-source military intelligence firm Janes found that 2,373 attacks last year from “non-state armed groups” killed 6,617 people, a 15.9% increase over the previous year. Janes said “the increasing violence in Afghanistan was driven almost exclusively by Taliban attacks targeting the security forces” of the Afghan government.
U.S. military officials have stressed that diplomacy is the only real path forward in Afghanistan, but they also have made clear that the Taliban have failed to keep the commitments they made to reduce violence.
“Both parties have got to show that they’re willing to make the concessions that are going to be necessary to find a political path forward. And frankly, I remain concerned about the actions that the Taliban have taken up until this point,” Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, said last week during an event at the Middle East Institute.
⦁ Guy Taylor contributed to this report.