Biden Administration ‘Must Act Swiftly’ to Change Course in Afghanistan, Former US Diplomats Say

By Venus Upadhayaya
Venus Upadhayaya
Venus Upadhayaya
Venus Upadhayaya reports on wide range of issues. Her area of expertise is in Indian and South Asian geopolitics. She has reported from the very volatile India-Pakistan border and has contributed to mainstream print media in India for about a decade. Community media, sustainable development, and leadership remain her key areas of interest.
August 11, 2021 Updated: August 12, 2021

Afghanistan is in a state of chaos, with the Taliban seizing nine provincial capitals, including two on the night of Aug. 10. As the terrorist group ignores peace negotiations and continues to kill civilians, prisoners, and government leaders, an outcry for a change in U.S. policy is growing.

“Given the Taliban’s behavior lately, U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to rapidly withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan appears increasingly questionable,” five former U.S. diplomats to Afghanistan—James Cunningham, Hugo Llorens, Ronald Neumann, Richard Olson, and Earl Anthony Wayne—wrote in an analysis published by the Atlantic Council on Aug. 6.

Whether the Afghan resistance to the Taliban wins, the outcome will be of catastrophic proportions, and the United States should continue limited engagement and prevent total state collapse and chaos, the former diplomats said.

“Abandoning courageous people as they attempt to fight back could leave millions of Afghans vulnerable to Taliban repression. That’s why we recommend a course correction involving redoubled efforts to support the Afghan security forces—particularly through airpower, which is immediately critical—as well as the vigorous implementation of U.S. promises of continued security, economic, humanitarian, and diplomatic support,” they wrote, urging that the U.S. government “act swiftly and resolutely in Afghanistan and in mustering global support.”

Rajiv Dogra, a former Indian diplomat and the author of the best-selling book “Durand’s Curse” about the division of Afghanistan by the British empire, said that while no situation in the world is so bad that it can’t be turned around, the principal thing is having the political will.

“America, for the past two years, has announced from rooftops that it’s withdrawing and it is leaving the Afghans to their destiny. This is a wrong approach, a wrong policy, and a wrong strategy,” Dogra told The Epoch Times, asserting that this is a defeatist attitude that can still be changed. “But the change must start from the top.”

The former U.S. diplomats pointed to the Taliban’s history of broken promises, including its return of freed Taliban prisoners to the battlefield and its flouting of commitments made during the Doha Peace Process.

“Failing to engage the Afghan government in good-faith negotiations, the Taliban has signaled that it is going for all-out victory. The terms the group seeks—control over the country’s police, military, and intelligence service, as well as the power to effectively remove and appoint the head of state and other top officials—amount to a demand for surrender,” they wrote, adding that the Taliban wants to restore a regime resembling the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, even as regular polling in the past two decades suggests that the public doesn’t want to live under the Taliban.

Epoch Times Photo
A woman with a child stands in a queue along with others to submit their passport applications at an office in Kabul, Afghanistan, on July 25, 2021. (Sajjad Hussain/AFP via Getty Images)

Dogra said U.S. President Joe Biden cannot be seen as a “quitter and must not be judged by history a failure.” There is still time for a course correction, he said.

“President Biden has to acknowledge that his messaging is extremely negative, not for his own sake but for the sake of the country that’s in need. America today is being considered a declining state strategically, a state which is being defeated by a bunch of fundamentalist tribals,” said Dogra, who served as India’s ambassador to multiple countries.

The most important message that Biden at this stage should give is that the United States is withdrawing but it’s not leaving the Afghans to be “slaughtered by the Taliban,” he said.

He said a change in policy would also mean recalling the representative the United States chose for the Afghan peace process, since Zalmay Khalilzad is widely disliked in Afghanistan and should be held accountable for the failure of the process.

“He is perceived as soft on Taliban’s interests and by his actions non-resistant to [the will of] Pakistan’s [Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s leading intelligence agency], rather than as the protector and promoter of American interests or the protector and promotor of Afghan people,” Dogra said.

Recalling Khalilzad would send a strong message that America isn’t there to be defeated, Dogra said. The hashtag #RecallKhalilzad has been trending, with 6,417 tweets and retweets between Aug. 7 and Aug. 11. The most viral tweets with the hashtag come from Afghan state broadcasters RTA World and RTA Pashto.

Jonathan Schroden, director of the Washington-based Center for Naval Analysis’ Countering Threats and Challenges Program, told The Epoch Times in a text message that the best thing the United States can do immediately is to ask the Taliban to stop.

“Pressure can be generated by getting the regional (and other critical) countries to speak with one voice to the Taliban and demand at least a reduction in violence on humanitarian grounds, if not a cease-fire. Whether or not the Taliban responds to pressure, it’s worth trying,” said Schroden.

Air Support Should Continue

The former diplomats said the United States should continue to provide air support to Afghan forces and should reconsider ending this support by Aug. 31. Biden administration should also help establish an Afghan air force of the size and the structure that the Afghans need.

“After all, the slow development of the Afghan air force—though it is now performing well—is partly a US responsibility: While corruption and mismanagement plagued the Afghan side, the United States also wasted $549 million on shoddy cargo planes and lost a great deal of time by switching from rebuilt Russian helicopters to more complicated American Black Hawks,” they said.

The Biden administration should also sort out the contract maintenance issues that plague the Afghan air force, according to Schroden.

Epoch Times Photo
Undated photo showing a Black Hawk helicopter over Kabul, Afghanistan. (Dan Kitwood/AP)

The five American diplomats said the United States created a system for the Afghan air force that was heavily dependent on support from foreign contractors. When the Biden administration decided to withdraw troops, it also decided to suddenly pull those contractors out of Afghanistan.

“Contract issues for the AAF are tricky because it requires the Afghan government to tender the contracts, companies finding it lucrative enough to bid on them, and individuals finding it lucrative enough to service them. All of that takes time. Meanwhile, the AAF can only get half or less of its aircraft in the air,” Schroden said.

The diplomats said the United States must help the Afghan air force urgently with training and maintenance and should appoint a senior Department of Defense official to oversee this assistance.

“The urgent work ahead must include adequate training and maintenance to keep the Afghan air force flying. Plans and timelines should be realistic and developed with NATO and other allied cooperation and funding. NATO should also renew its commitment to providing its own air support until the Afghan air force is fully built (or peace negotiations are successful). This will spread out the burden and risk,” they said.

Providing air support to the Afghan forces is however short-term tactical support to avoid defeat and it’s not a policy, said the five former diplomats.

“Nor is withdrawing U.S. and NATO forces without sufficient planning for what comes next.  Supporting negotiations is helpful, but only talking about negotiating while the other side is winning militarily and pushing for surrender is futile,” they said, adding that the Biden administration should prevent the defeat and the fall of the Afghan state until a “stalemate” can ensure sincere negotiations that so far have been missing.

“A deal that protects the broad spectrum of ethnic and tribal interests, including guarantees protecting the hard-fought gains of Afghan women, will only be possible through these kinds of talks. This is why negotiations should be constantly supported but not allowed to cripple military action, as was the case during the past year when the United States was largely on the defensive.”

Venus Upadhayaya
Venus Upadhayaya
Venus Upadhayaya reports on wide range of issues. Her area of expertise is in Indian and South Asian geopolitics. She has reported from the very volatile India-Pakistan border and has contributed to mainstream print media in India for about a decade. Community media, sustainable development, and leadership remain her key areas of interest.