Will the U.S. Withdraw from Afghanistan?

The Doha Agreement, signed on February 29, 2020 as a result of negotiations with the Taliban delegation during the period of the former President of the United States (USA) Donald Trump, envisages the U.S. to terminate its military presence in Afghanistan as of May 1, 2021. As the date approaches, whether the withdrawal plan will be implemented or not is being questioned. It is seen that the US President Joe Biden has not made the final decision on this issue yet. Because of this, the U.S. is in a big dilemma about its Afghanistan policy. The Washington administration, while looking for ways to stay in Afghanistan, is worried that other actors will fill the power gap that may occur in the country in case of withdrawal and therefore calculates the possible risks.

Afghanistan is interpreted as a gateway to the geopolitical crowning of the ideological victory achieved after the Cold War by the U.S. In other words, American decision makers think that it is easier to gain superiority in Eurasia over Afghanistan. Therefore, it is known that the Biden administration is not very keen on withdrawing from Afghanistan. Afghanistan has an important place in Washington’s Central Asia, Middle East and Indo-Pacific policies.

Due to its geopolitical importance, the U.S. is concerned that if it withdraws from Afghanistan, countries such as Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan will gain influence there. Russia is a country that occupied Afghanistan in the past. It shows that it is still very interested in the developments in Afghanistan with the talks it hosted between the Kabul administration and the Taliban on March 18, 2021.

Russia wants peace in Afghanistan and withdrawal of the U.S. from this country. There are two reasons for this. First, the Moscow administration perceives the American soldiers in Afghanistan as a threat to their influence in Central Asia, which they see as their immediate surroundings. The second is the Kremlin’s belief that it can reach the Middle East via South Asia by taking advantage of the power gap in Afghanistan. Both situations will have consequences that are not desired by the U.S. In parallel with Washington’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russia’s filling the power gap in this country may interrupt the U.S.’ ambitions in Central Asia and the Middle East.

China is one of the actors that would want to fill the power gap in Afghanistan if the Biden administration withdraws on schedule. Afghanistan is in a strategic position in China’s Belt and Road Project. Therefore, the increase in Chinese influence in Afghanistan is a scenario that can be described as a “nightmare” for the U.S. Perhaps that is why the U.S. will change the schedule of its withdrawal plan, and will be pleased in case the Taliban increases its acts of violence. The escalation of violence in Afghanistan would mean the destabilization of the Belt and Road Project route.

On the other hand, it is known that Iran is looking for ways to be effective in Afghanistan. Tehran administration, currently having close relations with two of Afghanistan’s three major identity groups (Hazaras and Tajiks), wants to develop close relations with the Hazaras through Shia identity, with the Tajiks through the Persian identity, and also with the Taliban by using anti-Americanism. Indeed, this request has positively reflected in Iran-Taliban relations in recent years. This means that Iran will be able to establish close ties with Afghanistan’s three biggest identity groups, including the Pashtuns. The U.S., besieging Iran through its presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, withdrawing from Afghanistan and opening up space for Iranian expansionism would not be a rational choice for Washington.

Pakistan is one of the actors that can increase its capability in Afghanistan in case of the Taliban’s return in the regional equation. The Islamabad administration has been subjected to heavy criticism for many years due to its support for the Taliban. Considering that the Taliban can seize power by using violence in case of a full withdrawal, it can be suggested that Pakistan can gain a strategic depth over Afghanistan against India. This is to the detriment of India, which the US sees as an important ally in its strategy against China. Therefore, this possibility is also disturbing for the White House. Moreover, when the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is also considered by the U.S., this uneasiness increases even more.

Because of all these geopolitical concerns, the U.S. is looking for ways to stay in Afghanistan. At this point, the Biden administration tries to prevent the Taliban from turning its anger into American elements by “acting like it will withdraw.” As a matter of fact, it was seen that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote a letter to Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani asking the Afghan leader to quickly complete negotiations and reach an agreement, and even Blinken approved the idea of ​​establishing a transitional government with the Taliban. Undoubtedly, the U.S. is aware that this proposal will not be accepted by the Kabul administration. The main point of disagreement in the negotiations between the Kabul administration and the Taliban is that the Taliban wants to establish a transitional government in which it is in the coalition; but Kabul rejected it. In this situation, the Biden administration, which did not approach the idea of ​​withdrawal, made such a maneuver through Blinken’s letter to be able to say “if they could compromise, we would withdraw” to the parties and kicked it into touch.

One of the disagreement points between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban is the presence of foreign troops in the country. The Taliban demands that the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops end their presence in Afghanistan. On the other hand, the Kabul administration believes that the power gap would be filled by the Taliban; in other words, the Taliban would try to seize power by using violence and therefore it could mean civil war. For this reason, Ghani refers to the civil war that broke out in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union and tries to persuade the Biden administration to stay in Afghanistan.[1]

It should be noted that although Ghani is in favor of the US staying in Afghanistan, the statements coming from Washington to deceive the Taliban cause discomfort in Kabul. In this context, Ghani’s words, “Statements, rumors and plans are coming, but Afghanistan will remain independent”[2] can be interpreted as the reaction of the Afghan leader to the Biden administration. Therefore, while the U.S. is trying to decide to stay in Afghanistan and to leave the dispute between Kabul and the Taliban; Ghani reacted to this attitude of Biden. In short, the White House, trying to look cute on both sides of the peace process in Afghanistan, may not benefit from either side at the final stage.

Although the Biden administration gives sympathetic messages to the Taliban, it also pays attention to the approach of European countries. Biden, trying to repair the damage in the Trans-Atlantic relations during the Trump era and seeing this repair as indispensable for the sustainability of the US’ global hegemony, is under pressure from its European allies to stay in Afghanistan.

As it is known, Germany extended the term of duty of its soldiers in the country for 10 months, considering that NATO had not completed its mission in Afghanistan.[3] Similarly, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that the organization did not make a decision on withdrawal, and showed that the allies were against the possibility of the US withdrawal. [4] Thus, American decision makers have stated that they will decide on Afghanistan together with their NATO allies. Blinken’s words on how they are acting together with NATO in Afghanistan, “We went there together, worked in harmony and we will go back together when the time comes,”[5] show the situation as well.

As it can be understood, the Biden administration thinks that Afghanistan is an indispensable region in geopolitical terms and seeks the ways to stay in this country. However, within the framework of the Doha Agreement, the Taliban expects American elements to withdraw from the country by May 1, 2021. Moreover, the Taliban considers the opposite decisions as a “reason for war.” In this perspective, the U.S. encourages negotiations and declares that it will withdraw if Kabul and Taliban reach an agreement. In essence, the White House is aware that the parties cannot compromise. Therefore, the statements about withdrawing from the Biden administration and the pressure to Kabul are actually aimed at preventing the Taliban from targeting American elements as of May 1, 2021.

Based on all this information, it can be predicted that the U.S. will delay the withdrawal schedule and try to renegotiate the Doha Agreement with the Taliban. However, it can be argued that violence in Afghanistan would increase as of May 1, 2021. If the agreement is not implemented, the Taliban may intensify its attacks targeting both state institutions, civilians, and American elements. Therefore, the decision of the Biden administration to withdraw from Afghanistan will have a serious geopolitical cost, as well as its the decision to stay.

[1] Carl Bildt, “Ending the Forever War in Afghanistan”, Arab News, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1813906, (Date of Accesion: 30.03.2021).

[2] “Afghanistan will Stay ‘Independent’ Despite ‘Rumors’: Ghani”, Tolonews, https://tolonews.com/afghanistan-170940, (Date of Accesion: 30.03.2021).

[3] “آلمان حضور نیروهایش در افغانستان را تمدید کرد (Germaniae porrigitur agmen praesentia in Afghanistan)”, Tolonews, https://tolonews.com/fa/afghanistan-170981, (Date of Accesion: 30.03.2021).

[4] “No Decision on Any NATO Withdrawal from Afghanistan, Stoltenberg Says”, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-nato-afghanistan-idUSKBN2AI2E7, (Date of Accesion: 30.03.2021).

[5] “Secretary Antony J. Blinken at a Press Availability”, U. S. Department of State, https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinken-at-a-press-availability-3/, (Date of Accesion: 30.03.2021).

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Doğacan BAŞARAN
Doğacan BAŞARAN
ANKASAM Uluslararası İlişkiler Uzmanı

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