As expected, US president Joe Biden has spent much of his first months in office focusing on domestic challenges such as the coronavirus pandemic and, more recently, migration. But a key foreign policy decision is imminent.
Under the terms of a peace agreement negotiated by the Trump administration last year, the United States is due to withdraw its remaining troops from Afghanistan on May 1st.
As the US prepares to mark the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks this year, Afghanistan has become known as its “forever war”.
The terrorist attacks propelled the country’s involvement in Afghanistan in 2001 as it sought to root out Osama bin Laden, the Saudi terrorist and al-Qaeda leader who plotted the attacks on the US from Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban.
For almost two decades the US presence there has ebbed and flowed, peaking at 100,000 troops during the first Obama term. Successive administrations have tried – and failed – to extricate the country from the war-torn country.
Now the task falls to Joe Biden. The president is well-versed in Afghan issues. As vice-president, he disagreed with Barack Obama’s decision to ramp up US military presence as a way of solving the conflict once and for all. He was one of the few dissenting voices in the administration, arguing that the US should keep its troop numbers to just a few thousand and focus on limited, targeted strikes.
The president inherits an Afghan policy formed by his predecessor Donald Trump. In February 2020, the Trump administration signed a peace deal with the Taliban in Doha following months of talks. Under the terms of the agreement, the US promised to reduce its troop presence culminating in complete withdrawal by May 1st, 2021, in exchange for a ceasefire by the Taliban and a pledge to work with the Afghan government.
More than a year later, targeted attacks by the Taliban are on the rise. Peace talks in Doha have stalled – mired in mutual distrust between the Taliban and the Afghan government led by president Ashraf Ghani.
Earlier this month, US secretary of state Antony Blinken wrote to Ghani with a proposal to kickstart the Afghan peace talks. These included plans for a transitional government and a summit in Turkey. The intervention was largely seen as an effort by Washington to increase the pressure on Ghani, who is resistant to the idea of a transitional government.
Afghanistan was top of the agenda at this week's meetings between Blinken and Nato members in Brussels. Alongside the estimated 3,500 US troops stationed in Afghanistan – the New York Times recently reported that 1,000 more troops were present in addition to the widely-cited figure of 2,500 – there are more than 7,000 Nato troops deployed in the country.
During his press conference with Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, Blinken indicated that the US would make its decision with its European allies. "We went in together, we have adjusted together, and, when the time is right, we'll leave together," he said of the joint troop operations.
There are further signs that Washington is close to an announcement. Defence secretary Lloyd Austin made an unscheduled trip to Kabul last weekend where he met military commanders and senior Afghan government officials including Ghani.
While he said that a final decision about the May 1st deadline would fall to Biden, his talk of bringing “a responsible end” and “a negotiated settlement” to the war fuelled speculation that the US was considering delaying withdrawal.
This was underscored by comments made by the president at his press conference on Thursday. Biden said it was “going to be hard” to meet the May 1st deadline, adding that “if we do, we’re going to do so in a safe and orderly way”. But he emphasised that the US would not remain in Afghanistan in the long term.
“We will leave; the question is when we leave,” he said, adding that he “can’t picture” American troops still being there next year.
Despite Biden’s impulse to withdraw from ill-conceived foreign wars, he is unlikely to abandon Afghanistan in its current state. Washington has been warned that a vacuum left by the withdrawal of US and Nato troops could allow the Taliban to resume control.
Many Democrats still remember Donald Trump's ruthless decision to abandon the US's Kurdish allies in northern Syria in 2019 at the request of Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As he faces a decision on ending the US's "forever war", the 46th president may discover that a straightforward solution to Afghanistan's conflict will elude him.