Are US talks with Taliban an admittance of failure?
There is something very hurried and sudden about the planned US withdrawal from Afghanistan, despite the 17-year war being America’s longest conflict overseas. Perceived as an irresponsible policy decision, President Donald Trump recently received a bipartisan rebuke, as the Senate voted overwhelmingly to oppose his planned withdrawal of US military forces from Syria and Afghanistan.
When the US originally sought a “coalition of the willing” to invade Afghanistan in 2001, the war’s public aims were to dismantle Al-Qaeda and deny it a safe base of operations in Afghanistan by removing the Taliban from power. Should the US and NATO pull out today, conflict in Afghanistan will not end. The Taliban, whose numbers are now much higher than in 2001, will face no obstacle in increasing their attacks on Afghan civilians, leading to a conflict infinitely more ferocious than the civil war of the 1990s, which created the conditions for Afghanistan to become a haven for terrorists.
In a conflict that has gone on longer than the First World War, Second World War and Korean War combined, the US military is at an impasse. Unable to either dislodge entrenched Taliban forces or leave the Afghan authorities in a position where they may comfortably retain control, Trump plans to negotiate an exit from Afghanistan without the US having achieved its objectives. For the second time in two months, the Republican-led Senate is challenging the White House on foreign policy decisions that are seen to “put at risk hard-won gains and United States national security,” according to Senator Mitch McConnell, normally a reliable ally for the president.
Unable to either dislodge entrenched Taliban forces or leave the Afghan authorities in a position where they may comfortably retain control, Trump plans to negotiate an exit from Afghanistan without the US having achieved its objectives.
Zaid M. Belbagi
However, to the White House, the “forever war” increasingly seems an intractable conflict. The carte blanche that Congress accorded President George W. Bush in 2001 resulted in a sprawling set of military engagements. Today, the US is involved in counterterrorism missions in 80 nations over six continents. By the end of this year, the cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with spending on related veteran care, will reach almost $6 trillion — a financial hemorrhage that even the world’s leading superpower cannot sustain. Militarily speaking, mission fatigue has set in not only in the Pentagon and White House, but across the security establishment. With such concerns, it is little surprise that the president, with an election on the horizon, is seeking an exit from a conflict that he did not start.
More importantly, there is also the human cost. Since 2001, almost 7,000 service members — and nearly 8,000 private contractors — have lost their lives. Of those who returned home, more than 53,700 bear physical wounds and countless others are psychologically scarred. Today, the Department of Veterans Affairs supports more than 1 million American servicemen and women who saw action in the war on terror, exposing the very real effects of America’s dalliance in Afghanistan.
Countless studies show that young men who have seen active combat are more likely to commit violent crimes than their civilian counterparts. Given the stresses of fighting a drawn-out conflict against an incessant insurgency, some 43 percent of veterans have screened positive for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depression or alcohol misuse. Rather than making America a safer place, the experiences of Afghanistan will continue to haunt US forces. And, once they have withdrawn, the ensuing vacuum will inevitably allow another extremist terrorist phenomenon to emerge under Taliban rule.
Almost 40 years of conflict has left Afghanistan one of the poorest and most fragile countries in the world. More than 104,000 people have been killed in the Afghanistan war since 2001, 31,000 of them being civilians. Even though the longest war in American history may soon be coming to an end — following the agreement between the US and the Taliban that was recently concluded in Doha — Afghanistan is in no way ready to be abandoned. A weak and corrupt central government has allowed Afghanistan to re-emerge as one of the world’s largest opium producers, while it also has one of the lowest life expectancies in the world.
Despite Trump’s troop surge and increased bombing campaigns over the Afghan countryside, American efforts to seek an accord with the Taliban are in many respects an admittance of failure. George Orwell once said that “the quickest way of ending a war is to lose it,” and the US intelligence community’s most recent Worldwide Threat Assessment is indicative of this sentiment, referring to the country’s longest-standing conflict simply as a “stalemate.”
As the US seeks to withdraw in adverse circumstances, comparisons with the Paris Peace Accords that ended the Vietnam War are commonplace. However, perhaps a more relevant comparison concerning the Afghan quagmire is the Soviet Union’s withdrawal in 1989. Just as the US today, the Soviets could no longer shoulder the responsibility and expense of Afghanistan at a time of declining power, leaving the country in a worse state than they found it.
- Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid