Any US-Taliban deal would be at Afghanistan’s expense
The collapse of talks between the US and the Taliban, following President Donald Trump’s cancellation of a controversial summit at Camp David a few days before the anniversary of 9/11, will trigger more violence in war-torn Afghanistan ahead of crucial presidential elections next week. However, the impasse might not last long and the White House will be forced to resume talks with its archenemy sooner rather than later.
Trump, who fired his hard-line National Security Adviser John Bolton last week apparently over differences on Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea, is eager to claim credit for ending America’s longest and costliest war as he seeks a second term in office next year.
Three US presidents have tried and failed to win the war in Afghanistan. Eighteen years ago, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, George W. Bush launched a major military campaign to topple the Taliban, eliminate Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and bring democracy to that country. He left office seven years later without fully achieving these goals. Then, in 2009, Barack Obama ordered the so-called surge, increasing the number of US soldiers from 30,000 to almost 100,000. By the time he left the White House, the Taliban had gained more ground and inflicted fatal blows to hundreds more US and NATO soldiers, not to mention their deadly strikes against Afghan government soldiers and civilians.
When Trump took over in 2016, he announced that he would soon pull US troops from Afghanistan. But that was more an admittance of defeat rather than a celebration of victory. Since 2001, more than 2,400 US soldiers have been killed, in addition to at least 1,000 NATO personnel and hundreds of foreign contractors. But these figures pale in comparison to Afghan deaths, which are estimated at 30,000 since the surge, mostly in insurgent attacks. Under Trump, more civilian deaths have been attributed to US and NATO strikes than the Taliban.
For the last 10 months, the US and Taliban have been engaged in delicate negotiations in Doha, Qatar. The Kabul government has not been involved, as the Taliban, which now controls more than 45 percent of the country, does not recognize it. Two weeks ago, US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad announced that the two sides had reached an agreement in principle, which was confirmed by the Taliban. However, the agreement needed the final approval of President Trump.
While talks are on hold for now, it is only a matter of time before they resume.
It all went south when Trump tweeted that he had been planning to hold a secret meeting with Taliban leaders at Camp David. He tweeted that he had canceled the meeting and that talks were now “dead.” His tweet shocked lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, as well as the mainstream media. To host the Taliban a few days before the anniversary of 9/11 and at Camp David of all places was simply unthinkable and insulting.
Trump wanted to appear as the chief dealmaker who would claim credit for bringing the troops back home. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared on national news networks to defend Trump’s actions, while demanding that the Taliban change their behavior. The Taliban, meanwhile, criticized Trump’s move and said it would lead to more bloodshed.
But what is important here is the fact that the provisional agreement says little about the future of Afghanistan, while focusing on the withdrawal of US and NATO troops. It is not clear what the Taliban would provide in return. Al-Qaeda and Daesh continue to operate in Afghanistan and their presence and influence will likely increase as foreign soldiers leave.
It is not surprising that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is worried that the US is abandoning him. The Taliban refuse to negotiate with the Afghan government, which it describes as a “puppet” regime.
While talks are on hold for now, it is only a matter of time before they resume. After 18 years and hundreds of billions of dollars spent, it is clear to all that this war is unwinnable. Afghanistan —long known as the “graveyard of empires” — once more faces an unpredictable future. Civil war is almost certain and the chaos will create a dangerous vacuum affecting the entire region.
It is ironic that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda owe much of their existence to the US support of the mujahedeen insurgency against Soviet occupiers back in the 1980s. Following 9/11, the US found itself sucked into a deep ethnic and sectarian quagmire. Its attempt to transform Afghanistan into a democratic and secular state has been challenged by fundamentalist groups. The drawing of similarities between what could happen in Afghanistan and what took place on the eve of America’s hasty withdrawal from Vietnam decades ago cannot be avoided.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010