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Blinken to Afghan president: play ball or get out of way

A leaked letter shows growing frustration with Kabul and a desire to move around the government there to get a peace settlement.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

An undated letter from Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was leaked over the weekend and reveals that Biden is fully aware that some powerful stakeholders in Kabul lack an interest in seeing the United States military leave — and as such, tying a U.S. withdrawal to Kabul’s actions makes no sense. 

Public statements in addition to the letter reveal that the Biden administration has proposed a dialogue to be held in Turkey involving regional actors, various representatives of the Afghan government, and the Taliban to finalize a peace agreement and establish an interim government. 

The letter, leaked by Afghanistan’s Tolo News and confirmed by the New York Times, also sheds light on the disunity and lack of inclusivity in the Afghan government as a significant barrier to peace, along with Taliban-led violence. Biden’s recognition of this reality should make keeping U.S. troops in the country until a political settlement is found a non-starter — even though Blinken acknowledges in the letter that the administration has not yet decided whether to withdraw troops by the May 1 deadline.

Blinken also urges President Ashraf Ghani to join “other representatives” of the Afghan government in Turkey to finalize a peace agreement. This language is significant because it undermines Ghani as the elected and therefore sole representative of the Afghan government. The message to Ghani and his circle is clear: play ball and accept an interim government or get out of the way. But Ghani insists that executive power can only be transferred through elections and said as much to the Afghan parliament over the weekend. He also knows that participating in the proposed talks in Turkey will spell the end of his political career. 

Feeling backed into a corner, it is quite possible that Ghani himself is the source of the leak as he tries to create a rally around the flag — or in this case the president. Ghani’s critics in the government and Afghan civil society may still believe the integrity of the office of the president demands elections rather than a transition to an interim government. 

An interim government that pushes Ghani out of power may also be viewed by some prominent Afghans as a premature concession to the Taliban since violence remains high. However, the 2020 Asia Foundation’s Survey of the Afghan People found that priorities differ among the general Afghan population and 65.8 percent of respondents support a peace deal even if it leads to a system under Taliban majority influence while 34.2 percent oppose it. This should not be conflated with support for the Taliban which the majority of Afghans oppose. 

According to the letter, Washington also asked the United Nations to convene foreign ministers and envoys from Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, and India to “discuss a unified approach to supporting peace in Afghanistan.” This aspiration ignores the fact that regional actors are not unified in their interests in Afghanistan. It is important for President Biden to remind Afghanistan’s neighbors that the country’s stability affects their collective future far more than America’s. 

But bringing them to the table and leaving the room with a consensus on how to cooperate in Afghanistan are two very different things. The inclusion of India in the process will only fuel paranoia in Pakistan which remains the single most important country for influencing the Taliban to reduce violence or accept a settlement. Other ideas floated by Washington include the convening of a “Bonn 2” conference inclusive of the Taliban. But some analysts have criticized this proposal as better on paper than in practice. 

The reality on the ground is that Afghanistan’s security situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. An analysis of the relative military capacity of the Taliban versus Afghanistan’s security forces (ANDSF) concluded that the latter is unlikely to hold territory long-term without a U.S. presence. The leaked letter appears to agree with this finding and implores the Ghani administration to accept the urgency of achieving a political settlement. Ghani may have to embrace a settlement at the cost of his own political power or risk losing all U.S. support.

Washington should not disengage from Afghanistan but the leaked letter demonstrates just how many conflicting stakeholders affect conditions on the ground in Afghanistan, and why it is a profound mistake to hinge a U.S. troop withdrawal on a settlement that may never come.

Ashraf Ghani, President of Afganistan, during NATO SUMMIT in 2018. (Gints Ivuskans/Shutterstock)
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