It is time for Washington to treat Kabul like a real partner again

The new US administration has a chance to re-invigorate the country's stalling peace process
epa09041861 Afghan man passes by a wall painted with a
photo of Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. special envoy in Afghanistan (L), and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the leader of the Taliban delegation, on the first anniversary of the agreement between the United States and the Taliban, in Kabul, Afghanistan, 27 February 2021 (issued 28 February 2021). Afghanistan marks the first anniversary of the agreement between the United States and the Taliban that was signed in Doha on 29 February 2020 for bringing Peace to Afghanistan, the withdrawal of US troops and launching intra-Afghan negotiations.  EPA/HEDAYATULLAH AMID

Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy to the Afghan peace process, is travelling to Kabul and other regional capitals this week to restart discussions with Afghan government officials and Taliban representatives in Qatar, among others. His aim, as it has been since he was appointed in 2018, is to secure a "just and durable political settlement", as well as a permanent ceasefire.

Mr Khalilzad will hope that a revitalised American foreign policy under a new president can break through months of frustration in Afghan peace talks. For the previous US administration, a swift withdrawal from Afghanistan mattered above all else, to the point where, in February of last year, Washington signed a bilateral agreement with the Taliban without including the Afghan government. The agreement a US withdrawal conditional on a non-specific "reduction in violence" from the Taliban and the commencement of intra-Afghan talks.

US soldiers in Afghanistan have been much safer since the deal was signed, but whatever violence the Taliban has drawn away from them has been redirected with a vengeance at Afghan forces and civilians. The intra-Afghan dialogue has faltered, to put it generously, with neither side conceding any key areas of disagreement.

epa09044158 (FILE) An Afghan Hazara man with his donkeys walks by the Buddha caves on Sunday, 14 August 2005 in Bamiyan,  Afghanistan 14 August 2005 (reissued 01 March 2021). The monumental Buddha statues of Bamyan were, until their destruction, one of the best-known historic and cultural sights of Afghanistan. Carved from the cliff in the early 6th and 7th centuries AD they date to an era when Buddhism was the dominant religion in the region, and when Bamyan was an important center on the network of trade routes between China, Europe, India, and central Asia. The eastern Buddha (38m high) was carved first, in the middle of the 6th century, and the western Buddha (55m) in the early 7th century. The hundreds of nearby caves were used by monks and were once decorated with elaborate wall paintings.    EPA/SYED JAN SABAWOON

If the mission for peaceful resolution is to be realised, the administration for which Mr Khalilzad works will need to reset the US logic on Afghanistan. Since the US-Taliban agreement was signed, the militant group has run rings around American negotiators by using US forces' holding pattern as an opportunity to widen its own leverage against Kabul. In 2020, the group won the release of thousands of its militants from prisons. In the same year, it killed nearly 3,000 Afghans and injured more than 5,000.

In 2021, Mr Biden has an opportunity to show the Taliban that he is wise to their game. Reconsidering and delaying a planned US troop withdrawal from the country is a vital step in halting an ever-building feeling of impunity among Taliban ranks.

Mr Biden must also show that two decades of American investment in a more diverse, free and equal Afghan society has not been for nothing. This relies on his administration treating the government in Kabul as a true partner, and ensuring that it has a loud voice in broader negotiations between the US and the Taliban.

A reset in Washington's approach will not occur without disruption. The Taliban will probably accuse the US of reneging on Mr Trump's promises. In the long term, however, it is far more important for Mr Biden to correct the false premise that peace can be found without Kabul at the table. With Afghanistan's government involved, the US could assume its correct and most effective role as a facilitator of talks and as a determined party in Afghan peace and stability.

The heart of Taliban strategy is a reliance on a weary America eventually giving up on Afghans. That sense of fatigue is understandable, even justified, but it does not compare to the desperate exhaustion that will be felt not only in Afghanistan, but also the wider world, should the Taliban take control of Afghan lives once more.