U.S. Can Show Nuclear Negotiators it Keeps its Word With Afghanistan Exit | Opinion

The Biden administration faces two foreign policy priorities hanging in the balance. In Afghanistan, President Joe Biden seems poised to leave troops in the country past last year's negotiated May withdrawal deadline. At the same time, Biden is attempting to revive the Iran nuclear deal, a goal with added urgency following Iran's decision to enrich uranium to pre-deal levels and Tehran's February 21 deadline to remove sanctions.

As it re-engages Iran, Biden's team might think staying in Afghanistan past the withdrawal deadline is not politically risky. But if reviving the nuclear deal is a priority, now is the worst time for an American president to tear up another agreement.

Reviving the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in order to reduce the risk of war with Iran is rightfully a major focus for Biden.

Despite the JCPOA's limited scope, the Trump administration's withdrawal in favor of the maximum pressure policy was an abject failure. Iran wasn't forced back to the table for broader negotiations, it simply got more aggressive and now has over eight times the uranium stockpile the JCPOA allowed.

The clock is also ticking. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is ineligible for re-election—and without a diplomatic victory, a more moderate candidate in Iran could lose ground to a hardline rival in their June presidential elections, making future attempts to reboot the JCPOA far more difficult and costly for the U.S.

Right now, the biggest problem for reviving the nuclear deal is who moves first. Iran still seeks relief from sanctions before it returns to compliance. The U.S. wants Iran to reduce its uranium enrichment to JCPOA-authorized levels before it removes sanctions.

A series of gradual confidence-building steps could be the solution to bridging this gap. But Biden's choice on Afghanistan withdrawal should remind his team of America's deeper diplomatic credibility crisis.

Iran's Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose support is paramount for the entire renegotiation effort, expressed skepticism of U.S.-led diplomacy in late November: "We once tried the path of having the sanctions lifted and negotiated several years, but this got us nowhere."

If President Biden does the same thing in Afghanistan that President Donald Trump did in Iran, he will give the impression that the United States' unwillingness to live up to its word is a feature, not a bug.

Afghanistan mural
A man wearing a face mask as a precautionary measure against the COVID-19 novel coronavirus walk past a wall painted with images of U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (L) and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (R), in Kabul April 5, 2020. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

Since December, Khamenei has shown more openness to negotiations, based on Iranian preconditions, which are non-starters for the United States. In order to give his support for the middle path of small confidence-building compromises overtime, Khamenei has to believe the entire process is worthwhile.

Biden can give Khamenei the opportunity to bend on JCPOA preconditions without losing face by completing an Afghanistan withdrawal by May, offering evidence through action of the U.S.' renewed commitment to its agreements, which Khamenei can point to publicly.

Moreover, leaving Afghanistan would be good for the United States even if the JCPOA wasn't on the line. The original objectives of the U.S. invasion—decimating Al Qaeda after 9/11 and punishing the Taliban for harboring them—were long ago achieved.

Continuing open-ended nation-building and security assistance doesn't make the United States safer, but sticking around drains America's resources, distracts it from bigger threats and makes U.S. troops softer targets for adversaries (like Iran). Staying in Afghanistan also lets America's rivals free ride on U.S. regional security. Underwriting local stability for U.S. rivals opens up more of their resources to cause mischief elsewhere (through activities like backing proxy groups) and removing a potential source of regional competition that could divide U.S. foes.

Most importantly, the United States doesn't need to rely on the Taliban's word for its safety after it leaves. America's unparalleled over-the-horizon strike capabilities have demonstrated time and again that it can eliminate terrorists anywhere in the world that credibly threaten its homeland, without needing a permanent ground presence to do so. President Biden should not insist on protracted withdrawal timelines based on security conditions that haven't materialized for the past 20 years and won't for the 20 to come.

Finally, Biden should consider that keeping troops in Afghanistan past May is by no means politically safe. Over two-thirds of veterans, along with the majorities of military families and the public, oppose continuing the conflict, according to 2021 polling.

The withdrawal timeline offers Biden a rare opportunity to immediately cement his legacy and build domestic goodwill by ending the wildly unpopular war he inherited. As Biden contemplates what parts of his domestic agenda are feasible given his narrow congressional mandate, this domestic capital is crucial.

Should he keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan past May, Joe Biden, like the three previous presidents before him, will own America's longest war and find it harder to withdraw in the future.

President Biden should act in America's national interest by ending its longest war and showing his commitment to past diplomatic agreements. Breaking one's word again while trying to show you can be trusted with a second chance, on the other hand, well that's malarkey.

Tyler Koteskey is a fellow at Defense Priorities. Previously, he was a Marcellus Policy Fellow with the John Quincy Adams Society and an analyst at the Reason Foundation. His writing has appeared in The Hill, the Orange County Register, Reason Magazine, Capx, Rare and other outlets.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.