February 26, 2021

The Power of Our Example

Guest Opinion
By Jack Segal | Feb. 20, 2021

Every new president faces a daunting array of problems, but 2021 will go down in the history books: Our country is under siege from a virus that has killed 485,000 Americans; Congress is locked in partisan struggles over the election, the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and another stimulus bill; and our people are deeply divided. These domestic challenges would have been plenty for President Biden to tackle.

But having been vice president for eight years, Joe Biden knows that disasters on the foreign policy front can quickly suck all the oxygen from the room. So pushed onto his already crowded plate are three overseas crises that have also required his immediate action: nuclear arms control, the Iran nuclear deal, and the future of Afghanistan.

One of President Biden’s first acts was to delay a confrontation with Russia by extending the “New START” nuclear agreement by an additional five years, just days before it was set to expire. That agreement limits both sides’ strategic nuclear warheads and bombs. While we still have many disagreements with Putin’s Russia, President Biden wisely decided to keep a treaty that both sides want and need while leaving the many other flashpoints for future negotiations.

The next wolf at President Biden’s door is Iran and its nuclear program. It will be far more difficult to turn President Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy into meaningful progress with Iran. Biden has said he intends to reverse President Trump’s 2018 decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal (the JCPOA) but not without conditions.

A short time later, Iran took steps that violated key provisions of that agreement. Each of Iran’s provocative actions are, according to their foreign minister, “still reversible,” but only if the U.S. withdraws all its sanctions first — a nonstarter. On Feb. 6, President Biden replied that Iran would have to stop enriching uranium before we would lift sanctions. 

This seemingly unbridgeable impasse can be overcome. Given our very long list of sanctions, it should be possible to offer to gradually lift those sanctions that harm the average Iranian in return for Iran reversing its violations of the JCPOA. The U.S. has partners still in the JCPOA who can play a helpful role in getting the Iranians to negotiate. We have applied maximum pressure — and while it won’t be easy, now we need to apply our diplomatic skills to find a solution.

The third challenge facing the Biden administration — perhaps the hardest — is our withdrawal from Afghanistan. In Feb. 2020, President Trump agreed with the Taliban to withdraw the last 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan by May 1, 2021, if certain conditions were met.  These were: 1) ending Taliban support for Al Qaida and other terrorist groups, 2) reducing violence against the Afghan people, and 3) negotiating in good faith directly with the Afghan government.

While it is very attractive to finally end our 20-year involvement in Afghanistan (and what, after all, can 2,500 brave Americans accomplish that our once-100,000 troops on the ground couldn’t?), it’s not clear we are ready to stomach what is likely to come next in Afghanistan: A return to power of the Taliban and their brutal authoritarian ways. The influential bipartisan Afghanistan Study Group has called for delaying our withdrawal until “conditions are right,” which would “honor the sacrifices that have been made.”

It should be no surprise that newly appointed Secretary of Defense Austin is studying the issue again.

Certainly, even with our greatly reduced numbers in Afghanistan, the continued presence of key “enablers” that we provide for Afghan troops — intelligence, airstrikes, drones, money — have prevented the Taliban from tilting the balance on the ground. What is our plan for when these last vestiges of support are removed? Will the situation become so intolerable that the U.S. is tempted to bring its military presence back up to pre-agreement levels? That is clearly a trap we should avoid.

But none of the alternatives are attractive. If the U.S. withdraws on schedule, before intra-Afghan talks have progressed, the entire process could collapse, resulting in renewed violence. If we decide to keep our troops on the ground beyond the May deadline, the Taliban could abandon the agreement and turn again to fighting the 2,500 U.S. troops still left behind.

While President Biden would love a foreign policy success in Afghanistan, his real challenge is to simply keep it from becoming an even greater disaster. Like with the examples of Iran and nuclear weapons outlined above, the answer must be intense diplomacy in order to find a political solution to this endless war — diplomacy that includes creative use of money, behind-the-scenes pressure on all sides, including Afghanistan’s neighbors, and even some arrangements for continued limited military support. But in the end, no number of U.S. troops can bring about peace.

These are just three of the many terribly difficult foreign policy challenges confronting the Biden administration. Most of all, the new team needs bipartisan support for our next moves in all the negotiations that lie ahead.  That recalls the maxim that used to be true: “Politics end at the water’s edge.” We may struggle to reach agreements here at home on what our policies should be, but once we embark on a course, we must all pull together. 

Jack Segal is a retired senior U.S. diplomat who served with his spouse, Karen Puschel, in Russia and the Middle East. He also served at the NSC and long ago in Vietnam. As a NATO official, he made 40 trips to Afghanistan. He now teaches aspiring diplomats online at Norwich University and offers ZOOM courses through Northwest Michigan College to his many friends here.

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