Joe Biden on Afghanistan: Will it be Different from the Trump Years?

The swearing in ceremony of new USA President Joe Biden may have ignited hope across the world, but will it bring about substantial change in America’s relationship with Afghanistan? 

Joe Biden and Donald Trump AP/Julio Cortez

On the 7th of November, 2020, after a delay of a couple of days, finally the result of the election in the United States was announced. The result brought relief to millions, maybe billons of people. Many cheered and rejoiced, thinking, “Now we are back on the right track.” Many people around the world must have said, “Now we will have a world of tolerance and inclusiveness, more protection of the environment, more kindness and love.” But will this rejoicing in the hope of peace, love and kindness extend to the people of Afghanistan as well? Or are they the exception, not part of the world?

While the Americans were busy with elections and voting, the Shia minority community in Kabul was attacked brutally. A suicide bomber targeted an educational centre in the west of Kabul, killing about 30 young students and wounding over 70 others.  Just a couple of days later, on the 2nd of November, Kabul university was attacked. Three armed men entered the campus and started shooting students in their classes and around the campus. At least twenty-two students were shot to death and about forty more were injured. It was an attack such as the country had never seen before. The ISIL group took responsibility for the attack. Amrullah Saleh, the first Vice President of Afghanistan, has declared that they have arrested the architect of the Kabul University attack. When giving the information of the minds behind the attack, Vice President Saleh declared that the arrested terrorist is connected with the Haqani network. This refutes the idea that the attack was done by the ISIL. In other words, the attack was done by the Taliban. It is something that the Afghanistan government has declared many times—that most of the attacks done in the name of ISIL are actually done by the Taliban. If it is true that the attack on Kabul university was done by the Taliban, it is one of the ugliest crimes against humanity they have committed in the last two decades and especially after the “great deal of Trump”.

All this comes at a time when the Taliban team is busy negotiating peace with the Afghan government in Doha. It took almost two years for the Trump administration and the Taliban to come to a peace agreement. The peace agreement between the Taliban and the USA is not much different than the USA simply surrendering to the Taliban and leaving the country. Trump’s obsession with dictators caused him to be impressed by the Taliban, and led him to give them anything they wanted at the negotiation table.  The former US National Security Adviser HR McMaster went further and said that Donald Trump’s policy towards Afghanistan was in many ways partnering with the Taliban against the Afghanistan government. Ironically, this happened in a context where the Afghanistan government and the USA are allies and have bilateral security agreements, while the Taliban are terrorists which the USA went there to defeat.  On the other hand, Trump’s “Great Deal” has been more of one-sided promises. The Taliban has never fulfilled any of the promises they have given in agreements with the USA.  In the Taliban’s deal with the USA, the Taliban have given two promises. First, that the Taliban will not target Americans and their interests in the region, and second, that they will cut connections with terrorist groups such as Al Qaida. It is believed that the Taliban has not cut any connections with the terrorist groups.  When the Taliban and the Afghanistan government started peace negotiations, the Taliban were to accept a ceasefire. They refused the ceasefire, but they promised that they will decrease violence. In return, they asked the Afghanistan government to release their prisoners. The Afghanistan government released about five thousand Taliban prisoners, some of them very dangerous terrorists. In the exchange, the Taliban increased violence to the highest number in recent years. The Taliban see themselves as the winner of the war in Afghanistan. They see the deal with the Trump administration as surrender.  Therefore, they will not show any compromise. They want to conquer the country and they expect the Afghanistan government to surrender as well.  This attitude of the Taliban has become the barrier in the peace negotiations with the Afghanistan government. 

Now that the Taliban has been given the trophy by the Trump administration, and while they were waiting for the victory celebration, a big change happened. Donald Trump lost the election and therefore it can change the course of the Taliban victory. But, what will Joe Biden do with Afghanistan? Will his moral compass be any different than Trump’s? Or will he follow the path which Trump has started?

The policies of the Biden administration will not be shaped only by his personal opinion, but one should still consider his previous comments about Afghanistan. As Vice President, Biden was very skeptical of the war in Afghanistan. He was frankly against sending more troops to Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009. In an interview earlier this year, Biden was asked if he will feel any responsibility if the Taliban will came back to the country and if women end up losing their rights. He replied with frustration, “No! I don’t! Look, are you telling me we should go to war with China because millions of Uyghurs are in concentrations camps?” In the context of women’s rights in Afghanistan, he added, “I have zero responsibility.” Anyone can see the poor analogy he makes. There is a totally different story behind why the Uyghurs and Afghans have ended up like this. This comment is very significant in another way as well. The United States is getting its first woman Vice President in its history. How will an American woman Vice President feel, hearing such comments about the situation of women in Afghanistan from the president of United States? Also, will having the first woman as Vice President of the United States be good news for Afghanistan women?  Apparently, she could be good for women anywhere in the world, but not for the women of Afghanistan. 

On other hand, Joe Biden has expressed in an article, “Why America Must Lead Again,” that he surely wants to lead differently than Trump. One of the differences will be that he wants to undo Trump’s isolationism. Biden would like to bring the USA back into the world in positive way. This would also require a different kind of moral leadership. How will this morality of Democrats be different from Trump’s when it comes to Afghanistan? In the interview mentioned above, he repeatedly used a very strong ultra-nationalistic tone, mentioning “national interest and national protection of the United States.” This does not sound very different than how Trump would explain his moral priority to the world.  The Afghans might also wonder if the United States wants to have some soldiers in our land for their “national security and national interest,” while at the same time the country will be given into the hands of terrorists like the Taliban for “national security and national benefit of the Americans”. What is good for Afghans in this? 

In the interview mentioned earlier, two times Biden made a mistake that he wanted to avoid. He wanted to say that our goal should be that we will not allow ISIS and Al Qaida to return and take over the country. Both times he used the word “Taliban,” but corrected himself, saying he meant ISIS and Al Qaida. These mistakes are very significant and they are not coincident. The Taliban are the terrorists. He is not making a mistake really. Though in the course of the time, as the Taliban showed more green lights for the US to make peace, and the US got tired of the war, they eventually made peace with the terrorists. In order to change public opinion, a distinction between the Taliban and ISIS started to appear in the last few years by US politicians and some media. The idea is to make the Taliban look like the good guys and show to the public that the real evil ones are the ISIS and Al Qaida. The fact is that the Taliban and ISIS are equally evil.  Mohammad Moheq, an Afghan Islamic scholar, has explained the similarities between the Taliban and ISIS in detail. Taliban and ISIS and Al Qaida have the same vision and the same goals.t is an illusion to believe that they are different, and one is better than the other. 

The Taliban are Jihadists who dream of establishing the caliphate in the world. Their priority is in Afghanistan, but they will not be satisfied with just having Afghanistan Flirting with them, and believing that they have changed, or that they are the good guys, is a dangerous illusion. Siding with them against the elected democratic government of Afghanistan will be a mistake that cannot be undone. 

On the other hand, 2021 will be a turning point for Afghanistan, just like 1989 was. When the Soviets left Afghanistan, the countries who won the Cold War there started celebrating the victory. They left Afghanistan into the hands of extremists and Jihadists. The consequences of it was the rise up of the Taliban, the death of millions of Afghans and millions of others becoming refugees. In that time the world did not listen to Afghans. Now, the same scenario is happening. It is time for the world to listen to Afghans on what they want. If the country is one more time given to the hands of the terrorists, the consequences will be severe. Possibility of civil war, destruction of twenty years of civil rights and democratic achievements, and a new wave of refugees flooding to Europe would be just some to name. 

It is also important to remember that the impact of submitting Afghanistan in the hands of the Taliban will be globally significant. When the Mujahideen took over the country in the 90s, the victory of Mujahideen became a model and inspiration around the world for the Jihadists.  The same way, surrendering to the Taliban, like Trump was going to do, will give hope for Jihadists around the world and the Taliban would become their model of Jihad.

Ershad Noorzai is a research scholar and an independent intellectual based in Afghanistan . 

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