The potentially mortal imbroglio in Afghanistan might linger if Thursday’s statement by President Biden is any indication. This was exactly 20 years after US troops entered the embattled country in search of Osama bin Laden, post the outrage of 9/11.
For one thing, he scarcely appears to be firm on abiding by the 1st of May deadline for the withdrawal of US troops. The boots may not be off the ground quite yet. Admittedly, the vulnerability of the country to yet more sectarian strife is dangerously real.
Yet the latest bout of uncertainty has left military officials frustrated; they want the US President to take a decision. Mr Biden is said to be dithering, almost a prisoner of indecision. Indeed, the Pentagon wants him to “tell us what we’re doing here.”
Whether to abide by the May 1 deadline, and if not how to proceed with a war that began 20 years ago this fall, is among the high-stakes foreign policy decisions Mr Biden has faced since assuming office three months ago. His apparent indecisiveness on Afghanistan has raised questions about what it portends for future foreign policy decisions, given his extensive knowledge of the dynamics of this issue and its key players. And the indecision has been pronounced barely three weeks before the scheduled pullout.
It will be ‘hard to meet’ the May deadline of withdrawing troops, the President is reported to have said, thus virtually ruling out an outward march in another three weeks. According to the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, President Biden is consulting his national security team on the issue and “wants to take the time to make the right decision.” For the first time since he stepped into the White House, Mr Biden made it explicit on Thursday that it would be “tough” to fully withdraw all troops by May 1, thus virtually guaranteeing there will be an extension.
However, any frustration among Pentagon officials with the lack of a decision does not include Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin who has not expressed any concern about the pace of decisionmaking on America’s terribly critical military and foreign policy issue.
The White House has chosen to defer a final decision on troop withdrawal primarily to give more time to a diplomatic initiative by Washington, hoping that the Taliban and the Afghan government can conclude an agreement on a power-sharing arrangement and a possible ceasefire that would set the United States on the path for withdrawal. Unfortunately for Afghanistan and the stakeholders, this is easier contemplated than achieved. Hence arguably the speculation that the US administration can use the uncertainty about the exit of its soldiers as leverage to persuade the Taliban to compromise and forge a deal that would open the way for longer-term peace negotiations. The US military mission in Afghanistan is poised to be prolonged.