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Biden and Afghanistan

President Donald Trump wanted to end the longest war in the United States. So somehow at least. Trump began talks with the Taliban and continues to push for a troop withdrawal these days. At the same time, however, he had bombs, drones killed and US special forces deployed. There is a possibility that his successor, Joe Biden, will do the same.

With Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election, another narrative has also won, namely that Biden is a “war-weering hawk” compared to Trump, who will put the US back on the path that Bush and Obama had previously taken: intervention, war, and dominance. Trump is a mad sexist and a racist, but somehow he has shaken up the system and “at least” not started a new war, an idea that has now become established in many left-wing circles and which I have heard regularly over the past four years. Observers who come to such a conclusion may have slept with Trump’s tenure. The best example of this flawed observation is the Afghanistan war, which Trump escalated shortly after his inauguration.

In Afghanistan, Trump dropped more bombs than he has in a long time, possibly as never before since the end of 2001. In addition to all the normal American ieds that have been polluting the country for nearly two decades, the so-called “mother of all bombs,” the largest non-nuclear bomb in the Us military, was added in April 2017. It is not yet known how many people were killed in this devastating attack, as the Trump administration reduced all transparency almost simultaneously. Meanwhile, the CIA, which continues to be run by the Trump-installed torture chief Gina Haspel, received a free pass in all respects. This, too, was quickly felt in Afghanistan, as more and more local secret militias acted more unrestrainedly against civilians. The number of nightraids, the consequences of which have often been whole massacres, increased rapidly.

Of course, none of this is new in Afghanistan. But much got worse under Trump. The paradox, however, is that it was Trump, unlike his predecessors, who wanted to talk to the Taliban – and ultimately actually brought them to the negotiating table. In late February, Washington signed a withdrawal deal with the militant group. The deal also includes the withdrawal of U.S. troops, and that’s exactly what Trump wants to do quickly, at the end of his term. There are currently about 4,500 U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan. The number of troops is to be reduced to 2,500 “boots on the ground” by January. Afghanistan expert Thomas Ruttig states in this context: “This step weakens the government and strengthens the Taliban.”

Some observers, both inside and outside Afghanistan, continue to believe that Biden will also reverse Trump’s move. In particular, the Afghan government in Kabul, which is under massive pressure and of which Trump does not really think much, hopes for a return to the “classic relationship”, that is, American troops secure the power of corrupt elites while preventing a possible Taliban conquest. But, despite the fact that Biden once advocated the war in Afghanistan, his current stance is not dissimilar to that of Trump. Even Ruttig points to a 2010 statement by Biden in this context. The then vice president said he would not send his son to Afghanistan “to risk his life for women’s rights.”

It is true that Biden is a man who in no way doubts Washington’s supremacy. American exceptionalism is the buzzword (but that was also the case with Trump, because the basic system and political orientation of the US is not questioned by any president). In an essay for the elite political magazine Foreign Affairs in the spring, Biden described why America “must lead again.” Afghanistan has only been mentioned twice in this long text. At one point, Biden writes explicitly about the “forever wars” that need to end.

Both in this essay and in an interview with the US medium “Stars and Stripes” Biden makes clear what he is about – and thus destroys the hopes of some who continue to hope for a massive US deployment in Afghanistan: Yes, the “forever wars” must end. The “troops” have to get out. “But there is also a problem here. We must continue to worry about terrorism and ISIS.”

Two important points need to be considered in this context.

  1. The head behind the US-Taliban deal is Zalmay Khalilzad, a Republican US chief negotiator with Afghan roots. Khalilzad has been involved in the war in his parents' homeland for years. He is a big thorn in the side of the Afghan government in Kabul, which has felt excluded since the deal. But it is extremely unlikely that Biden will sack Khalilzad and appoint a new negotiator. Khalilzad is regarded as a cunning fox who manages time and again to woo various sides for his interests. If that were not the case, the Taliban would hardly have signed. Despite the fact that the deal is primarily seen as a staging of the Trump administration (“We end the longest war in our history”),Khalilzad will continue to spin the strings, meaning that a change of course after a Biden takeover is unlikely to be in sight.

  2. Joe Biden was not just an official, but vice president of the Obama era. Barack Obama’s Afghanistan policy was dominated on the battlefield by two things: drone operations and clandestine counter-terrorism units. This move satisfied the American public at the time, as the number of troops (and thus also the fallen soldiers) was massively reduced (while Afghan civilians continued to be en masse victims of such operations). It is obvious that Biden will resort to those same steps.

In sum up, the “war on terror” in Afghanistan continues. The Trumpian path continues, albeit with a decent pinch of Obama. As soon as Biden moves into the White House, all the romanticizing transatlantics will be back and forth anyway, so that the war in Afghanistan will be forgotten for a while. Meanwhile, drones and shadowy elite units will continue to kill. And it is possible that other actors are also involved, who want to direct the war according to their interests and let it escalate again.