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

Talks between the US and the Taliban have barely progressed. EPA
Talks between the US and the Taliban have barely progressed. EPA

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.

The site of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, one of Afghanistan's most important historical landmarks, which the Taliban destroyed in 2001. EPA
The site of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, one of Afghanistan's most important historical landmarks, which the Taliban destroyed in 2001. EPA

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.

Published: March 2, 2021 07:00 AM

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