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How The Biden Administration Can Tackle America's Longest War


The Biden administration is reviewing its options in many areas of foreign policy, including Afghanistan. It is America's longest war. And in a deal with the Taliban last year, the Trump administration agreed to withdraw U.S. troops by May. But the new administration says the Taliban is not keeping its end of the bargain, hinting that U.S. troops will likely stay longer. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: A former U.S. government and U.N. expert on Afghanistan, Rina Amiri, knows that Americans are tired of fighting endless wars.

RINA AMIRI: Now we're trying to win the peace.

KELEMEN: But she says the Trump administration left a complicated hand. Amiri, now with New York University, says the U.S. emboldened the Taliban by negotiating a withdrawal schedule and keeping to it even as violence spiked and Afghan peace talks faltered.

AMIRI: And now what we have is a situation where the Taliban feels very much that they have won this war, that they are winning this war, that the peace agreement is simply a cover for withdrawal for the U.S.

KELEMEN: The U.S. still has 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. Under the deal with the Taliban, they're supposed to be gone a few months from now. But Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, says the administration is taking a hard look at whether the Taliban are meeting their commitments to break ties with terrorists, reduce violence and negotiate in a serious way with the Afghan government.


JAKE SULLIVAN: And in that context, we'll make decisions about our force posture and our diplomatic strategy going forward.

KELEMEN: That's welcome news to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. He told the Aspen Institute last week that he expects a U.S. team in Kabul soon, and he's gotten good signals from Secretary of State Tony Blinken.


ASHRAF GHANI: He promised me robust diplomacy in the region, full coordination with us and a focus on ending 40 years of violence.

KELEMEN: The Biden administration may be promising too much, though. Laurel Miller of the International Crisis Group says it's signaling that it wants to keep some U.S. troops in Afghanistan for counterterrorism purposes and wants a peace deal that protects the democratic and human rights gains of the past two decades.

LAUREL MILLER: Those are all perfectly fine and understandable things to be saying again in the very first days of the administration. But ultimately, you can't have all of the above.

KELEMEN: Miller says the Biden administration will have to prioritize.

MILLER: There cannot be both a negotiated peace and keeping some troops, even a small number, in Afghanistan for counterterrorism or any other purposes because the Taliban won't agree to that. There can't be a negotiated peace and no change in the nature of the system of governance and rights in Afghanistan.

KELEMEN: U.S. officials have long said they would protect women's rights in Afghanistan. Rina Amiri says not following through on that could send the wrong signal to Islamist groups elsewhere. So she thinks the U.S. needs to get the diplomacy right. And she'd like to see a third party, perhaps from the U.N., manage the peace process.

AMIRI: It'll also be more helpful for the U.S. because right now, everything rides on the U.S. You need a manager of this peace process. Right now, we do not have a manager.

KELEMEN: A State Department spokesperson says the U.S. will support the Afghan peace process with a, quote, "senior and robust" American diplomatic effort. The Trump administration's envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, remains on the job even as Secretary Blinken builds out the team.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.