President Joe Biden is testing whether he can bring sweeping changes in Afghanistan, including a potential government involving the Taliban, in a high-risk strategy as he weighs whether to honour a May deadline to end America’s longest war.
In a letter leaked to the Afghan media over the weekend, Secretary of State Antony Blinken encouraged Afghan leaders to consider a “new, inclusive government” and proposed that talks take place within weeks in Turkey to seal a peace deal with the Taliban.
The behind-the-scenes but dramatic diplomacy comes as Mr. Biden completes a review on one of his first major foreign policy questions — whether to abide by an agreement with the Islamist insurgents negotiated by former President Donald Trump to pull the final U.S. troops out by May.
“I think the objective here seems to be, let’s see if there’s some other option that we have other than simply leaving on May 1 or overstaying. Is there some short-cut to a peace process?” said Laurel Miller, the former U.S. envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“I see this as just trying stuff and looking to see if something sticks,” said Ms. Miller, Asia director at the International Crisis Group.
In the letter to President Ashraf Ghani, reprinted by Afghanistan’s TOLOnews, Mr. Blinken said with uncharacteristic bluntness that the U.S. feared the “security situation will worsen and the Taliban could make rapid territorial gains” if the U.S. ends its two-decade military involvement.
While saying the U.S. did not want to dictate terms, Mr. Blinken encouraged Mr. Ghani to “move urgently” on ideas from Zalmay Khalilzad, the veteran U.S. negotiator kept on from the Trump administration.
Mr. Blinken proposed a 90-day reduction in violence that would avoid the Taliban’s bloody annual spring offensive.
In addition to the meeting in Turkey, Mr. Blinken said the U.S. was asking the United Nations to convene a meeting of Foreign Ministers from Afghanistan’s neighbours on ensuring future stability that would notably include Iran — in what could turn out to be a first diplomatic encounter with the Biden administration.
Saleh rejects ideas
Afghan Vice-President Amrullah Saleh denounced the ideas in the letter, saying that the Taliban could enter elections but that the country’s fate would not be decided by “20 people in a room”.
“We thank the U.S. for their support. They have the right to decide on their 2,500 troops,” he told an event in Kabul. “We also have the right to decide on the fate our 35 million people.” “We will never compromise our dignity. Our dependency on the outside world does not mean we obey illegitimate demands,” Mr. Saleh said.
The State Department did not confirm or deny the letter, saying it would not discuss Mr. Blinken’s correspondence. But spokesman Ned Price said the administration was pursuing diplomacy aimed at permanently ending the fighting and bringing a political solution.
“We have continued to encourage all sides to take part constructively, and with a degree of alacrity, knowing that this is a moment in time where progress is possible,” Mr. Price told reporters.
First Lady Jill Biden also promised on Monday that the President will factor in women, who faced extreme restrictions under Taliban rule, telling an event: “The United States will stand with you.”