When President Joe Biden made his first foreign policy address two weeks ago, he didn't even mention the words "Iraq" or "Afghanistan". But the events in these two countries over the past 24 hours have strongly reminded the government that it cannot ignore America's eternal wars forever.
In Iraq, missiles apparently fired on Monday by an Iran-backed militia killed a non-American civilian contractor at a military base in Erbil. Nine others were injured, including four US contractors and a service member, according to Col. Wayne Marotto, spokesman for the US-led anti-ISIS coalition.
And in Afghanistan, only a few months before the planned withdrawal of US forces on May 1, the Taliban moved closer to the big cities. The insurgent group released an open letter to the Americans on Tuesday calling on the Biden government to trust the Taliban to lead the nation and respect human rights after the withdrawal of troops – a dubious claim at best.
While Biden would prefer to spend most of his time dealing with the coronavirus, China and climate change, it is clear that, like every president since George W. Bush, he will continually turn his attention to Afghanistan and Iraq.
It's not that he and his team have neglected these countries. Defense chiefs from NATO countries will meet mostly over the next two days to discuss plans for Afghanistan and Iraq. The government is also reviewing its policies in both countries, weighing what to keep and what to change over the past four years.
However, recent events have added urgency as U.S. forces are threatened in an increasingly unstable Iraq and a tough decision is imminent for the president in Afghanistan: leave the country to near-certain ruin, or stay and face one Another deadly fighting season for the Taliban?
In normal times these would be difficult problems for any administration. During this time they are particularly difficult.
"It appears that the bandwidth is limited for Afghanistan and Iraq," said Andrew Watkins, senior analyst for Afghanistan at the International Crisis Group. "It's not that there's no interest. There are just other priorities."
Iraq "will be on the agenda"
Iran has long used its ties to Shiite militia groups in Iraq, many of which are funded and directed by Tehran, to expand its influence over the country and thwart the US war effort there, including attacks against US Iraqi ones and other international troops. So Monday's attack was a fatal continuation of that stalemate.
A worker cleans broken glass outside a damaged shop on February 16 following a missile attack in Erbil, Iraq. Safin Hamed / AFP via Getty Images
It is unclear why the missile attacks took place now. The most likely explanation experts have offered is that Iran is trying to pressure the US to lift sanctions and resume the nuclear deal. Whatever the reason, the attack makes it clear that Iraq remains a battlefield between the US and Iran – which means it will continue to be a problem for the Biden administration as long as US forces remain in the country .
"Iraq will continue to straighten its head," said Randa Slim, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC. "It will be on the agenda."
Some analysts I've spoken to said they hope the Biden team doesn't see its Iraq policy as just an extension of Iran policy. Beyond the Iranian proxy problem, Iraq is suffering from a deep government crisis as millions starve from a collapsing economy. Experts fear that an Iraq in decline could be fertile ground for ISIS resurgence.
Right now, however, experts are not particularly happy with what they see of Biden's team.
"During the Obama administration, the (Iraq) policy was designed in such a way that Iran is not complicated and sometimes indirectly cooperates to protect the nuclear deal or to fight IS, regardless of Iraq itself," said Rasha Al Aqeedi, Senior Analyst at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in DC. “Under Trump, Iraq was just a front to confront Iran. It appears that the Biden government is reformulating its policy. "
"Not to consider that an independent Iraq policy had a terrible outcome," she concluded in the past.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment. But the government has said the right things at least so far. A summing up of a call made Tuesday between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Iraqi counterpart stated that "the United States remains committed to assisting our Iraqi partners in their efforts to defend Iraqi sovereignty" and the "strategic partnership" between them both countries to reaffirm.
However, whether Biden can maintain the necessary time and attention to such complex, long-term problems in Iraq – with all that is already going on in the world – remains an early question.
The deadline for the withdrawal of US troops in Afghanistan is approaching
Biden has to make a decisive decision by May 1st: withdraw all 2,500 US troops from Afghanistan or remain involved in the 20-year war?
Such a choice was forced upon this government by the last one. The US and Taliban reached an agreement last February: All American troops would leave the country by early May, and in the meantime the Taliban would not attack US or NATO coalition forces. Both sides made their deal as around 10,000 service members left the country while the US suffered no combat deaths.
The Afghan National Security Forces take part in a military operation against Taliban fighters in Shirzad, Afghanistan, on February 9. Xinhua / Saifurahman Safi via Getty Images
Biden has promised to bring US combat troops home from Afghanistan, but he never made a commitment and surrendered until the end of his first term. He also said that he may still keep a small US military presence in the country to continue the fight against terrorism against ISIS and al-Qaeda. That meant it was always possible that Biden would not stick to the terms of the Trump deal.
His government has signaled this. In January, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Taliban's violence against Afghans and continued ties with al-Qaeda had cast doubt on America's planned departure in May, and the New York Times reported this week that the Department of Defense was more military Options for the country have called for – including an increase in troops.
Administrators and experts tell me that Biden's team is deeply involved in reviewing Afghanistan policy. Some fear it is a deadlock process that could last until May 1st. "You seem pretty determined to take your time," said Watkins of the International Crisis Group. Meanwhile, two US officials told me the review was almost complete, well ahead of schedule.
The ongoing review could explain why the Taliban issued a letter on Tuesday pressuring the US to get out sooner rather than later. "The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is aware of its obligations, other parties also have to fulfill their own obligations," said Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar Akhund, head of the Taliban's political bureau, using the group's preferred name for their political one Organization.
Of course, Biden faces an almost impossible decision. If he agrees to withdraw, many analysts fear that the Taliban will use the resulting vacuum to push for another full takeover of the country. The New York Times reports that the insurgent group has taken military outposts outside of major cities such as Kunduz and Kandahar, perhaps in preparation for such a fight.
However, if Biden chooses to keep US troops in the country, more Americans will likely be killed in the US, adding to the 2,400 Americans already lost since the US invasion in 2001. In addition, it violates the provisions of the US-Taliban agreement could end any short-term chance for peace. "It could be a generational moment in the Taliban where they decide that talking is not worth it," Watkins said.
There are other topics that will come up during the NATO meeting this week, and discussions there might inform about what Biden will do. However, the upcoming deadline could lead the government – and especially the president – to give Afghan politics more priority than it has done so far.