By Mohammad Mazhari 

Biden following Trump’s policies in Afghanistan: analyst

July 19, 2021 - 18:9

TEHRAN - A geopolitical analyst says that President Joe Biden is pursuing the same approaches toward Afghanistan that his predecessor Donald Trump did.

“The Biden administration's policy towards Afghanistan is a direct continuation of former U.S. President Trump's,” Andrew Korybko tells the Tehran Times.

 “The incumbent is carrying through with his predecessor's promise to fully withdraw U.S. military forces from the country,” Korybko adds.

U.S. President Joe Biden is withdrawing all American troops from Afghanistan, completing the military exit by the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks that drew the United States into its longest war.

Political pundits say that Biden can't speak the obvious truths about his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan so rapidly. Like the Vietnam war, the U.S. war on Afghanistan will continue to haunt Americans. It lost much more than it gained in the 20-year war. 

The U.S. invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban regime for hosting al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden considered responsible for the 9/11 attacks. However, the Taliban have emerged stronger, forcing Washington to sit and negotiate with it.
To say any of those quiet parts out loud, Biden would undercut the political value of being the president who pulled the U.S. out of its longest war. 

Korybko argues the U.S. is pulling out its troops from Afghanistan to focus on China.

“He's doing this because the military, which when combined with the U.S.' permanent intelligence and diplomatic bureaucracies constitutes the so-called ‘deep state’, prefers to concentrate its resources on ‘containing’ China in the so-called ‘Indo-Pacific’,” Korybko notes.

Following is the text of the interview:

Q: How do you evaluate the Biden administration's policy when it comes to West Asia, especially Afghanistan? Is it a continuation of his predecessor Donald Trump’s policies?

A: Most experts don't regard Afghanistan as part of the Middle East/West Asia, but either as part of Central or South Asia, though some consider it as being within the U.S.' so-called “Greater Middle East” concept. 

Having clarified that, the Biden Administration's policy towards Afghanistan is a direct continuation of former U.S. President Trump's. The incumbent is carrying through with his predecessor's promise to fully withdraw U.S. military forces from the country. He's doing this because the military, which when combined with the U.S.' permanent intelligence and diplomatic bureaucracies constitutes the so-called “deep state”, prefers to concentrate its resources on “containing” China in the so-called “Indo-Pacific”.

The U.S. failed to achieve any of its strategic goals in Afghanistan. The government there remains very weak and unpopular, Western-style liberal-democracy never truly took hold in the country, and Afghanistan didn't turn into a base for destabilizing the rest of the region through Color Revolutions and terrorism. It's objectively a waste of time, money, and military resources for the U.S. to remain there. A scenario also exists whereby the U.S.' accelerated withdrawal at least temporarily increases instability in Afghanistan and thus creates fertile ground for ISIS-K to expand its presence there. It's unclear whether that will ultimately happen though since the Taliban actively fights against that terrorist group, but it might be the U.S.' last-ditch effort to destabilize the region.

Q: Don’t you think that the Taliban will take full control of Afghanistan in the near future? In that case, what will be the reaction of Russia?

A: The Taliban claims to control approximately 85% of the country but it's difficult to independently verify this assessment. The Kabul government remains popular in some of Afghanistan's largest cities, especially the capital of course, but the Taliban could theoretically cut off their supply routes and therefore try to force them to surrender if its nationwide offensive continues to succeed. Even if it doesn't, though, there's no doubt that the Taliban is probably the most powerful military force in Afghanistan right now. It's also wildly popular with many in the rural areas, especially among fellow Pashtuns, though it's recently begun to appeal to other groups over the past few years too.

Although Russia officially regards the Taliban as a terrorist group, it's cultivated excellent relations with it on the political level over the last couple of years through the Moscow peace process which saw the Eurasian Great Power even hosting the Taliban in its capital on several occasions, the most recent of which was earlier this month. Russia simply doesn't want the Taliban to threaten the Central Asian Republics (CAR), which the group promised not to do, nor host foreign militant groups. The latter point was already agreed upon as part of last year's peace deal with the U.S. Russia is also concerned that the continued intensification of the Afghan Civil War might create a regional refugee crisis as well as embolden ISIS-K.

Should the Taliban return to power whether in part due to a peace deal or in full through conquering Kabul, Russia is likely to retain its excellent political relations with the group provided that they keep their promises not to threaten the CARs or host foreign militant groups. Russia's long-term vision is to capitalize upon the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan (PAKAFUZ) railway that was agreed upon in February in order to finally connect with the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), which is the Eurasian Great Power's centuries-long strategic goal. It would also like to progressively incorporate Afghanistan into regional multipolar structures such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and perhaps also the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union.

Q: Is there any chance to launch initiatives like the Astana process to bring peace to Afghanistan?

A: Probably not since the situations in Syria and Afghanistan aren't all that comparable. In the first, Russia, Iran, and Turkey are the three most powerful military actors with literal boots on the ground while no regional country officially has such a military presence in Afghanistan. Furthermore, while Turkey occupies part of Northern Syria, no regional country occupies any inch of Afghan territory. The last point of relevance is that the Taliban is on the upswing and marching across the country while the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) never had such a lightning-fast offensive since the war there began. It was, therefore, easier for Damascus to at the very least temporarily compromise on its interests than it is to get the Taliban to do the same.

Nevertheless, there already exists the so-called “Extended Troika” between Russia, Pakistan, China, and the U.S. for facilitating the Afghan peace process. Islamabad recently said that it's difficult to get the Taliban to compromise nowadays after Washington set a clear date for its full military withdrawal. Even so, these countries could still work to encourage some positive political progress even if success is unlikely. The Taliban recently promised to unveil a written peace plan during the next round of peace talks in August so it remains to be seen exactly what it has in mind and whether the “Extended Troika” can convince Kabul to comply with most of the group's demands in the interests of peace.

It deserves mentioning that Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov floated the idea of broadening the “Extended Troika” last week to include India and Iran. It's unclear whether this initiative will succeed in full since Pakistan will likely remain opposed to having its hated rival join this peace format, though it might not even have much to worry about in the first place since New Delhi doesn't have official contact with the Taliban, at least not yet. Iran, however, might become a more important diplomatic player if its recent hosting of the Taliban in Tehran is any indication, even if the Islamic Republic remains outside the existing multilateral peace framework. It would be ideal though for Iran to have a more formal role if it wants to since it has a direct stake in the war's outcome.

Observers should remember that the “Extended Troika” is incapable of replicating Astana's relative successes due to the earlier mentioned differences between the situations in Syria and Afghanistan. Despite this, it can still function as a platform for coordinating the interests of regional stakeholders and enabling them to agree upon the role that they'll play thereafter the war finally ends. The best-case scenario is that Afghanistan serves as the crossroads of regional connectivity projects stretching from Pakistan to Russia (PAKAFUZ) and China to Iran (“Persian Corridor”). India can also continue to be one of Afghanistan's premier investors, though provided that it abstains from waging a proxy war against the Taliban and Pakistan like those two previously accused it of.

Q: Don’t you think superpowers like Russia and China have the desire to fill the power vacuum left by America in Afghanistan?

A: Neither Russia nor China has any desire whatsoever to fill the power vacuum left by America's withdrawal from Afghanistan in any military sense. They have excellent political relations with the Taliban and won't support any proxy war against it since this would only prolong the ongoing Afghan Civil War and therefore harm their respective regional connectivity visions that were described in the answer above. All that they're willing to do at this moment is coordinate their security strategies through the SCO, and in Russia's case, also through the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) mutual defense pact with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and especially Afghan-neighboring Tajikistan.

Instead of being guided by geopolitics like before, both they but also importantly Pakistan are now formulating their policies based on geo-economics. They don't want any zero-sum outcomes that harm regional countries' interests but would preferably like to bring everyone's said interests together in order for them all to mutually benefit through Afghan-transiting regional trade routes like PAKAFUZ and the Persian Corridor. The only vacuum that they have any interest in directly filling is the socio-economic one through those two projects. That requires sustainably stabilizing Afghanistan though, which is a lot easier said than done, particularly because peace continues to be a distant prospect there.

Q: America, after it invaded Afghanistan, preferred to follow unilateral policies. It only aligned with its Western allies in the country. Why has the U.S. been reluctant to collaborate with its rivals, including Russia and Iran, to tackle troubling regional crises?

A: It's true that the U.S. behaved unilaterally in Afghanistan, but it's not entirely accurate to claim that it hasn't collaborated with Russia there. Even before the fall 2001 invasion, the U.S. worked closely with Russia to secure regional military bases in Central Asia which were granted with Moscow's permission. Although that was initially the limit of their cooperation, they've recently begun consulting one another regarding the impending military withdrawal according to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov in comments that he made last week.

Regarding the Iranian angle, there have been unconfirmed reports over the years that the U.S. might have even discussed its invasion of Afghanistan with Iran, which really hated the Taliban around that time due to the group's terrible mistreatment of Shias, killing of Iranian diplomats, and the threat that it posed to the Islamic Republic. That, however, seems to be the extent of their contacts on the issue if those reports are even true that is. In general, the U.S. behaved unilaterally in Afghanistan because it wouldn't be able to attain the strategic goals enumerated in the first answer – especially encouraging regional destabilization - if it worked closely with Russia and Iran to those ends since neither of those two wanted to be destabilized by Afghan-emanating threats.

The very question being asked implies that the U.S. might have some kind of benign motives for its many military interventions abroad, including in Afghanistan, but that's arguably an inaccurate assumption. It doesn't invade other countries to bring peace, Western-style democracy, Western notions of human rights, and security, but to enhance its strategic position relative to its top regional rivals, which are Russia, Iran, and China in the Afghan case (and eventually expanded to Pakistan for some time too). As such, the question that should really be asked is, “What regional strategic goals did the U.S. want to advance against Russia, Iran, and China in Afghanistan?”