NO country has absorbed so much of my professional and personal life as Afghanistan. For going on forty years now, as a correspondent I’ve covered its varying fortunes. In the 1980s I journeyed with those mujahideen guerrillas fighting the Soviet occupiers.

Later, I was to witness the rise of the Taliban and the cadres of al-Qaeda they hosted before embedding with US and UK troops combatting their presence in the country.

Afghanistan is a beguiling place, beautiful and harsh. Those who visit invariably love it or loath it. Like myself some are either hypnotically locked into its long-term embrace while others become doggedly determined to leave and never return.

Just as with individual visitors so it is with those myriad powers that have become fixated with the country, some often venturing unwisely into its clutches seeking to pacify or conquer. Most have paid dearly. Not without good reason has Afghanistan been dubbed the “Graveyard of Empires.”

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The United States is only the latest in a long line of military powers over centuries that goes back through Russia and Britain to Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, that have learned the bloody toll Afghanistan can exact.

America has now been at war in Afghanistan for almost two decades, making it the longest war in the nation’s history. Right now, there are some 2,500 American service members still in the country supporting Afghanistan’s beleaguered army and security forces.

But under the deal struck by former US President Donald Trump with the Taliban last year, all foreign troops, including those remaining Americans are scheduled to leave by May 1. Given the currently dire security situation now gripping the country, the departure of these forces would leave Afghanistan in a perilous state, presenting recently inaugurated US president Joe Biden with the unenviable decision of whether to withdraw or to stay.

On the face of it, Mr Biden would seem to be the guy to bring America’s ‘boys and girls’ back home. Long before he was president as far back as 2009, he was describing Afghanistan from a US perspective as a “very heavy lift,” part of the “forever wars” that he wanted to end.

More than once he compared Afghanistan to the “quagmire” of Vietnam and was a persistent critic of US General Stanley McChrystal and General David Petraeus’ counter-insurgency approach, arguing instead for a light footprint, counter-terrorism policy.


Given this track record and the number of crises Mr Biden already faces at home and elsewhere one could be forgiven for thinking that Afghanistan wouldn’t figure high on the US leader’s list of priorities right now. But it’s far from that simple.

To begin with, whatever Mr Biden’s decision, it could well be one that in foreign policy terms at least, will define his presidency. It could also determine the legacy of a long and costly war in which America has sacrificed and invested so much blood and treasure.

Does America having committed so much really want to walk away leaving the situation worse than it was when they responded after 9/11?

The options facing the president are not good. As CNN quoted one US official as saying last week after the US National Security Council (NSC) convened a meeting to discuss the way forward on Afghanistan, Biden’s choices amount to a “s*** sandwich.”

Which brings us to that crux question of just what Mr Biden’s decision is likely to be? Many observers including experts at the US think-tank Council on Foreign Relations say he has three options.

The first is to withdraw US forces as scheduled by May 1.

The second is to cite Taliban violations – of which there is no shortage – as justification for pulling out of the peace accord and maintaining an indefinite US presence.

The third is to ask the Taliban for an extension of the withdrawal deadline, citing the Taliban’s violations and delays in peace talks between the militant group and the Afghan government.

The last of these would most probably be Mr Biden’s preferred option.

When viewed from a Taliban perspective, however, Mr Biden’s dilemma is clear cut. All foreign troops including US must be withdrawn from Afghan soil. This has been and remains the Taliban’s top priority and demand.

Last year while in Afghanistan I interviewed top Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, who reiterated again to me those very terms and conditions.

“The obstacles to peace and security need to be removed and those obstacles are foreign troops,” Zabihullah told me unequivocally. On this the Taliban position will not change he insisted and to date is hasn’t.

Tomorrow NATO defence chiefs are due to consider setting aside the May 1 deadline for the 10,000 or so international troops – including US – to leave Afghanistan, according to the alliance’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. Should they agree to do so the pressure will only mount on Mr Biden to do likewise.

With Washington keen to start a new chapter in transatlantic relations after the departure of Mr Trump, it’s unlikely there will be little disagreement between NATO and the White House on Afghanistan.

What is more certain is the Taliban’s response. Recently there has been a dramatic escalation of targeted killings of Afghan civilian officials in Kabul for which the Taliban are thought responsible. Among the Afghan security services morale is already low with the Taliban having spent months now capturing military bases and police outposts and installing highway checkpoints.

There is a growing feeling among the civilian population, already evident when I was there last year, that the Taliban noose is tightening. Any dwindling of US support would only add to those fears among many who have long felt that without the presence of international military support, Afghan government forces would collapse, and the country again slip into civil war.

So, will Joe Biden decide that US troops should stay or leave? My gut feeling is that they will stay for now, whatever the reaction from the Taliban. From Washington’s perspective there is just too much at stake to do otherwise.

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The consequences of a total US troop withdrawal would also not sit well with a Biden foreign policy that’s meant to be based on reviving diplomacy and repairing damaged alliances.

Whatever his past reservations over US involvement in Afghanistan, Mr Biden in his first major speech on US foreign policy has already declared that “America is back".

When it comes to Afghanistan though, it’s a fair bet that under his presidency, America was never going to leave in the first place.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

David Pratt is Contributing Foreign Editor for The Herald