On Friday, President Joe Biden will meet with Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, head the High Council for National Reconciliation, at the White House. White House Spokesperson Jen Psaki said the summit “will highlight the enduring partnership between the United States and Afghanistan as the military drawdown continues.” She reiterated U.S. commitment to support “to support the Afghan people, including Afghan women, girls and minorities” and “to ensure the country never again becomes a safe haven for terrorist groups who pose a threat to the U.S. homeland.”
Biden’s team may seek to project an image of order and optimism to America’s forthcoming withdrawal from Afghanistan, but it will not work.
President Donald Trump often shot from the hip in his efforts to craft foreign policy strategies. His aides then scrambled retroactively to apply logic or a doctrine to his efforts. Biden entered office as the anti-Trump, promising to return professionalism and process to American foreign policy.
While Biden promised a review of U.S. Afghanistan strategy, he then ordered a unilateral withdrawal before his team concluded their review. Essentially, he became Trump and his aides followed the path set by their own predecessors as they sought to imbue with logic a choice they understood bore none. That none of the Afghanistan, terrorism or Al Qaeda specialists in his inner-circle stood up to his decision to make 9/11 the deadline to withdrawal reflect both fear of National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken and a lack of awareness of the importance of symbolism. Biden and Blinken’s decision to keep Zalmay Khalilzad in his role as special envoy, meanwhile, was less an endorsement of Khalilzad’s diplomatic prowess and more a cynical move to tie blame for Taliban and Al Qaeda resurgence to his predecessor. Simply put, many in the White House, Pentagon, State Department, and Central Intelligence Agency understand that unilateral withdrawal now is a strategic disaster, but they prioritize perks and privileges over truth and responsibility.
The Taliban resurgence is in process. Every day, more districts fall to the group. Blinken may wag his finger and warn the group mistreatment of women, minorities, and city-dwellers will make them pariah, but the Taliban care little: They are the 21st century equivalent of the Khmer Rouge. Nor does Psaki’s statement offer Afghans reassurance when she implicitly suggests terrorists would be welcome in Afghanistan so long as they do not attack the United States at home. That this provides wiggle room for Biden to do nothing should the Taliban or groups they host kill Americans abroad should be the subject of broad debate.
A decade ago, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the woman whose coattails as a political aide Sullivan used to catapult himself into his current position, declared, “You don’t make peace with your friends. You have to be willing to engage with your enemies if you expect to create a situation that ends an insurgency.” It did not work, and it will not now.
Rather than a summit for peace, Biden’s meeting with Ashraf and Ghani should be seen in another context: On April 6, 1988, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev flew to Tashkent for a last-minute summit with Najibullah, the ruler of Afghanistan. Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Petrovsky told reporters the two leaders were in agreement, even as Soviet troops prepared to leave. “I can say in this connection that our position has been fully discussed and is in full accord with that of the Afghan government,” he stated. Soviet reporters no more challenged him than the White House Press Corps challenges Biden.
In reality, Najibullah was furious at his abandonment and, despite assurances that his alliance with Moscow would continue, he was soon fell from power as Afghanistan erupted into civil war. The Taliban would erupt onto the scene in 1994, and Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence agency would quickly co-opt them. As the Taliban rolled through the country, the Clinton White House also relied on international talks to seek coalition government. No side was sincere. For the White House and United Nations, negotiations were a means to save face and shirk responsibility; for the Taliban, they were an opportunity to regroup and prepare a final assault on Kabul. Biden and Ghani may seek the mantle of statesmanship but on Friday, they simply reprise the role of Gorbachev and Najibullah, enjoying one last waltz on the world stage.