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Biden Must Reckon With the Failed Doha Deal
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Biden Must Reckon With the Failed Doha Deal

Leaving U.S. troops in Afghanistan past May 1 threatens their safety. Withdrawing all of them would further weaken the Afghan government.

The Biden administration is currently evaluating the agreement struck by the U.S. State Department and the Taliban last year. The new president’s advisers will quickly learn, if they haven’t already, that there is not much to the accord. In return for America’s complete withdrawal, the Taliban agreed to empty counterterrorism assurances. There’s really nothing more to it. 

President Biden has long been skeptical of the U.S. military presence in the country, and he has other priorities for his administration. Regardless, a decision point in America’s longest war is quickly approaching. Most of America’s forces have been withdrawn. Sometime in the coming weeks, Biden has to decide whether he wants to complete the exit by withdrawing the remaining 2,500 or so U.S. service members and other American personnel.

Speaking at a virtual event hosted by the United States Institute of Peace late last week, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan noted that the deal with the Taliban calls for a full U.S. withdrawal by May—meaning a decision has to be made soon. Sullivan also said the agreement “imposes a set of considerable conditions on the Taliban.” He listed three and said the administration is weighing its options while evaluating them. 

Let’s briefly consider each of three conditions mentioned by Sullivan. 

First, according to Sullivan, the Taliban must, “in a bona fide and sustainable way, cut ties with terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda.” Nearly one year after the agreement was signed in Doha on February 29, 2020, there is no evidence of a break between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. None. 

In early January, the U.S. Treasury Department reported that al-Qaeda is “gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under the Taliban’s protection.” Al-Qaeda “capitalizes on its relationship with the Taliban through its network of mentors and advisers who are embedded with the Taliban, providing advice, guidance, and financial support.” The infamous Haqqani Network, an integral part of the Taliban, has discussed “forming a new joint unit of armed fighters in cooperation with and funded by al-Qaeda.” Treasury added that al-Qaeda leaders maintained “close contacts with the Taliban, providing advice, guidance, and financial support” months after the deal in Doha. 

Separately, U.S. and Afghan forces continued to hunt down al-Qaeda leaders and operatives in Taliban strongholds throughout 2020. And al-Qaeda also continued to quietly acknowledge its role in the Taliban’s insurgency. Thabat News Agency, an Arabic-language online publication that reports on al-Qaeda’s global network, recently released an infographic claiming that 72 “martyrdom operations” (suicide attacks and bombings) were carried out in Afghanistan in 2020. Thabat’s figures cannot be independently corroborated, and it’s difficult to separate al-Qaeda attacks from those conducted by others. The jihadis also tend to exaggerate the efficacy of their operations. (Thabat claimed that more than 10,000 people were killed and wounded in jihadists’ attacks last year.) But the media group’s statistics do lend credence to the Treasury Department’s independent conclusion that al-Qaeda is “gaining strength” under the Taliban’s protection.  

When attempting to justify the deal last year, then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that the Taliban had agreed to “work alongside of us to destroy” al-Qaeda. That hasn’t happened. Publicly, the Taliban doesn’t even concede that al-Qaeda is present inside Afghanistan. The Taliban has lied about the presence of its comrades-in-arms for years and continued to do so in the months since the two were supposed to divorce. 

Some U.S. officials are now stating the obvious—the Taliban hasn’t betrayed its longtime allies. During a press briefing on January 28, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby bluntly stated that the “Taliban are not meeting their commitments to reduce violence and to renounce their ties to al-Qaeda.” 

Second, according to Sullivan, the Taliban agreed to “meaningfully reduce levels of violence and contribute towards ceasefires.” Other U.S. officials have made this same claim—that the Taliban had pledged to “reduce violence.” But there’s nothing in the written text of the U.S.-Taliban agreement, which is just three and one-third pages long, indicating that is the case. In fact, the Taliban only agreed to “discuss” a “permanent and comprehensive ceasefire” during “intra-Afghan negotiations.” There have been reports of secret annexes to the terse text that was released to the public, but it is doubtful that there is anything in there about a reduction in violence either.

In my view, the language about “reducing violence” was an attempt to get around a basic problem: The Taliban wouldn’t agree to a ceasefire. Some U.S. officials have implied that the Taliban agreed to a reduction in fighting as part of verbal negotiations in Doha. Maybe so—but that obviously wasn’t binding. And if Taliban officials were willing to agree to it, then why wasn’t it put in writing? 

The Taliban went on the offensive immediately after the Doha deal was signed last February and the violence has remained high ever since. The Taliban regularly launches suicide bombings, while hollowing out Afghan civil society with targeted assassinations. Journalists, activists, judges and other civilian officials have been hunted with alarming frequency. (Though ISIS has accepted responsibility for some of the assassinations, most of the killings have gone unclaimed. In many instances, the U.S. has blamed the Taliban, which is the most likely culprit.) 

Finally, Sullivan says that the Taliban agreed to “participate in a real way, not a fake way, in negotiations with the Afghan government.” But take a look at the text of the agreement once again. The Taliban merely agreed to participate in “intra-Afghan negotiations,” a deliberately amorphous framing for the talks. 

The Taliban has not accepted and will not accept the legitimacy of the Afghan government, which is merely among the participants in “intra-Afghan negotiations.” Instead, the group continues to hold up its own authoritarian Islamic Emirate as the only righteous government. The Taliban’s Islamic Emirate was toppled in 2001 and the jihadists, including al-Qaeda, have been waging jihad to resurrect it ever since. There is no real evidence showing that the Taliban is willing to abandon this longstanding political goal, which renders “intra-Afghan negotiations” moot. 

Sullivan said the new administration is “taking a hard look at the extent to which the Taliban are, in fact, complying with those three conditions, and in that context, we will make decisions about our force posture and our diplomatic strategy going forward.” 

The truth is that only one of the three conditions—the Taliban’s supposed counterterrorism assurance—was explicitly addressed in the Doha deal, and there is no reason to think the Taliban is living up to it. 

The real question is this: Will President Biden leave 2,500 American service members, plus associated civilian personnel, in Afghanistan beyond May 1? If Biden decides to do so, then it is likely that more Americans will suffer casualties in an already unpopular war.  There have been some attacks on American forces in Afghanistan since the Doha agreement was signed, but no Americans have been killed. For the most part, the Taliban and its allies have been willing to let the Americans simply leave. If the U.S. decides to stay past May 1, then the jihadis could easily start regularly targeting U.S. forces once again, claiming that the West has violated the agreement’s terms. 

If President Biden decides to complete America’s withdrawal, then the Afghan government’s weak grasp on power will become only more tenuous. The Taliban is laying the groundwork for the return of its Islamic Emirate. So is al-Qaeda. The U.S.-led foreign presence has prevented the Taliban and al-Qaeda from seizing and holding Afghanistan’s provincial capitals, confining the insurgents to mostly rural ground. That could quickly change post-withdrawal, as several cities are surrounded. The Afghan capital itself is currently under siege, with near-daily terrorist attacks against civilians. 

Whatever President Biden decides, he and his advisers should be clear-eyed when it comes to the Doha deal. The agreement failed to secure peace for Afghans. It has not led to a “peace process” either. It also failed to assuage America’s counterterrorism concerns. Like his predecessor, Biden has decried the “endless wars.” He can end America’s presence in Afghanistan. But the jihadis will fight on. 

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.