No change in Afghan policy By Zahid Hussain

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BILLED as one of the most momentous presidential elections in American history, the outcome of the 2020 race will have far-reaching implications for the world’s most powerful nation and beyond. If the opinion polls are to be trusted, Democratic candidate Joe Biden appears to be ahead of President Donald Trump. But nothing can be said with certainty until the last vote is counted.

Trump’s presidency has left the United States more divided and polarised than ever, creating almost a civil-war-like situation in the country. Whatever the result of the 2020 election, the existing Trumpism is not going to go away. For most Americans, it is a battle for the soul of the nation. But its effects will be equally consequential for the world at large.

Perhaps the most controversial American president in recent history, Donald Trump has disrupted the existing world order. Rejecting multilateralism, he has pursued a policy of unilateralism and American exclusiveness thus intensifying international conflicts. Victory for his Democratic rival would certainly change the course of American foreign policy and mark a return to multilateralism wherever it suits the broader American interest. The fall of Trump would at least restore some order to America’s relations with other countries, in particular its allies.

But there is no likelihood of any change in the American policy on Afghanistan no matter who wins the race for the White House. Interestingly, there is complete unanimity of views between President Trump and his rival Joe Biden on the issue of withdrawal of the American forces from Afghanistan notwithstanding some minor differences of approach. The same may be true for the policy towards South Asia generally.

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Whoever wins the US presidency, the withdrawal of troops is set to continue in Afghanistan.

In fact, Joe Biden as vice president in the Obama administration had strongly advocated for pulling out of the Afghan war. His views were not very different from the strategy that has been pursued by President Trump. The number of US troops in Afghanistan has already been reduced to a few thousands after the Trump administration signed a historic peace agreement with the Taliban in February this year raising prospects for an end to America’s longest war.

President Trump has recently announced that all American soldiers would return home by Christmas this year. The announcement was contrary to his administration’s plan linking the complete withdrawal of residual forces to an agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government on a political set-up.

While Joe Biden has publicly supported Trump’s Afghan withdrawal plan, he has also called for a clear strategy to deal with the militant Islamic State (IS) group. He wants a further reduction in the number of US ground troops in Afghanistan and for them to focus solely on their special operations against IS and other terrorist threats.

In fact, Biden had gone one step further than President Trump when in September he declared that America bore “zero responsibility’’ if the Afghan Taliban came back to power. “The responsibility I have is to protect America’s national interest and not put our women and men in harm’s way … that’s what I’d do as president,’’ Biden said in an interview to CBS.

Biden and Trump are determined to extricate America from a no-win war that has cost the superpower more than a trillion dollars and left thousands of soldiers dead. Biden’s statement has come as a disappointment to some Afghan leaders who had their stakes in a victory for him in the hope that the former vice president might reverse President Trump’s peace agreement with the Taliban.

Some analysts see this unanimity of opinion on the Afghan withdrawal plan between the two candidates as a wake-up call for those elements in the Afghan government who desperately want the American forces to stay in Afghanistan. But that has also raised concerns that America’s anxiousness to leave could give the Taliban a huge boost and ease the pressure on the insurgents to reach a political settlement with the Afghan government.

The intra-Afghan talks that started in Doha on Sept 10 have so far failed to make any breakthrough. There is still no agreement even on the framework for structured negotiations. The gap between the two sides is far too wide to bridge. A major hurdle in any progress in the talks that are shrouded in secrecy is the Taliban’s refusal to agree on a reduction in violence let alone consent to a ceasefire. In fact, the fighting has intensified with no sign of the insurgents halting their offensive.

It’s never easy for two sides involved in a prolonged and bitter war to agree on peace but ideological differences on a future political set-up make things more difficult. In Afghanistan’s case, a hasty withdrawal of the American forces without a political settlement could lead to a new and perhaps bloodier civil war in the divided country.

Meanwhile, the surge in IS terrorist attacks mostly targeting the civilian population has further complicated the situation in Afghanistan. The main objective of the militant group that has its origins in the Middle East seems to be to sabotage the Afghan peace process.

The latest terrorist attack on Kabul University that has left a number of students killed indicates the increasing capacity of the group to launch such a coordinated attack in the capital. Some recently published reports reveal emerging cooperation between the US forces and the Taliban in fighting the IS in parts of Afghanistan. But the rising threat of the militant group cannot be effectively countered without the end of hostilities between the Taliban and the Afghan government forces.

It is indeed encouraging that there is not going to be any change in the US plan to end its war in Afghanistan irrespective of whoever wins the race for the presidency. But there is certainly a need to pull out in a responsible way. A hasty exit will leave Afghanistan in a greater mess. One hopes that Joe Biden, if he wins, will show more maturity in dealing with the Afghan crisis than the whimsical Donald Trump. Both America and Afghanistan are at a crossroads as the US waits for the results of a messy election that is set to define the future course of world peace.