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Finally after almost 18 years of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, the U.S. has now realized that there is no military victory in Afghanistan; therefore negotiating a comprehensive peace deal with Taliban is the key to ending the Afghan war. The Afghan war which has started after the 9/11under the ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ is now the longest war in the U.S. history. It is also called ‘the endless’ or ‘forever war’ of the U.S. The Afghan war has stretched for nearly two decades, taking the lives of tens of thousands of Afghans and more than 3,500 American and coalition forces, and costing billions of dollars.
The U.S has overthrown the Taliban regime in Afghanistan to eradicate militancy in Afghan soil, but on the ground we have witnessed the opposition’s enhancement in terms of military and worsening of security circumstances inside the country which has created certain doubts among Afghans and in the world about the U.S role in Afghanistan. The U.S. placed its foothold with clear objectives of fighting against the international terrorists groups. They promised to support Afghans in state and nation building and sign a treaty of partnership with Afghanistan, but in reality they have taken many actions and steps that were against Afghanistan’s national interests. This has raised doubts among Afghans on the U.S. commitment towards Afghanistan. Some critiques of American policies in Afghanistan believe that the U.S. never wanted to build a strong, peaceful and self-sufficient Afghanistan. They say Americans are in Afghanistan for their own obscure and vile interests.
While the U.S. policy was never reliable about Afghanistan, it has become more unpredictable and disruptive during the Trump’s Administration. The 2017 South Asia Policy of Trump’s Administration aimed at breaking the military stalemate in Afghanistan by sending an additional 4,000 soldiers, adopting a condition based policy with no predetermined withdrawal date, giving the U.S. forces a freer hand to go after Taliban, putting Pakistan on notice, strengthening Afghan capabilities, and a commitment to “never let up until the terrorists are dealt a lasting defeat ,”but within a year the U.S. has started a radical reversal of the policy and on December 21, 2018, President Trump has announced to pull troops from Syria and to reduce the 14,000 American troops in Afghanistan by half.
President Trump was never a supporter of Afghanistan’s war, but his doctrine for Afghanistan have changed early and often in his brief political career. Before taking office, Trump’s position on Afghanistan could be best summarized as “Get the hell out of Afghanistan!”, but when he took office and finally after eight months, announced a new policy on Afghanistan; it was similar to the Obama’s policy with some alterations. After two years of Trump’s Policy in Afghanistan, things got indisputably worse. The main aim behind authorizing of additional troops to Afghanistan was to blunt Taliban’s momentum and to convince them that a military victory was impossible, but it hasn’t worked, because of increased support to Taliban from Pakistan, Russia and Iran. Looking at this, the Trump administration decided to adopt a radical reversal of the policy and appointed Mr. Zalmay Khalilzad to begin direct talks with Taliban.
Khalilzad political savvy and the former U.S. envoy to Iraq and Afghanistan who has previously criticized Pakistan for harboring terrorists, soon realized that negotiating with Taliban without the Pakistan’s consent and support will be meaningless, because the fact remains that Pakistan has maintained strong influence on Taliban. He asked Pakistan to help him to get the Taliban to negotiating table in return of financial aids and guaranteeing Pakistan strategic depth in Afghanistan. The Trump’s Administration has clearly instructed Khalilzad that his negotiating time frame is ahead of Trump’s re-election in 2020; therefore any deal had to be concluded before the end of 2019. This time frame was also confirmed by the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when he said, “I hope we have a peace deal before September 1st. That’s certainly our mission set,”
The U.S. and Taliban held eight rounds of Doha Talks to cover four issues:
- a cessation of hostilities;
- an intra-Afghan peace dialogue;
- assurance from Taliban that Afghan territory would not be used for attacking US interests;
- and US troop withdrawal.
While Taliban made it clear that their priority was the last issue, a possible deal will not lead to full withdrawal of the U.S. troops at once. There are also chances that the U.S. would likely continue to operate out of several bases including Bagram, Kandahar and Kabul, in order to preserve the U.S. air power. Also, the U.S. would possibly like to maintain a few thousand troops for strengthening the Afghan capabilities. In the last round of talks, apparently both side have agreed, but the details of the deals are yet to be known. While there are many questions about the U.S. closed doors talks with Taliban, the main concern however is, what will be the consequences of a bad deal with Taliban or a what if Trump wants a troop drawdown only so that he can tell voters that he is ending America’s ‘forever wars’ before the 2020 election?
The U.S has overthrown the Taliban government to fight against the international terrorism including the Taliban and other militancy and help Afghans to build a stable state with a modern democratic government, but in the reality the security situation of Afghanistan has consistently worsened. Mafia, corruption, narcotics, warlordism and illicit activities have been greatly increased over the years. This created certain doubts among Afghans about the U.S peace building role in Afghanistan. Looking at this, why would Afghans trust the U.S. to decide their fate? What if in a bad deal, Trump surrenders the Afghan government to Taliban or what if the Taliban wouldn’t agree with the Afghan government?
So a bad deal is a deal which:
- Surrenders Afghanistan to Taliban and Pakistan and allowing Taliban to establish their medieval government in Afghanistan.
- Allows Taliban to win before negotiating with the Afghan government for a political agreement.
The U.S. peace talks with Taliban by sidelining the Afghan government clearly show that the Trump’s Administration is highly desperate for negotiating a withdrawal agreement with Taliban to tell voters that Trump is ending America’s ‘forever wars’. But the fact remains that a withdrawal agreement alone will not lead to a long lasting peace in Afghanistan. The reality is that there can be no peace unless Taliban and Afghan security forces de-escalate, and this will require talks between Taliban and the Afghan government for a comprehensive power sharing deal. However, Taliban wants to bypass this by entering government through the back door, using the interim government structure. The interim government will not only put the infant Afghan democracy at stake, but will also create strains within the Afghan national security forces. It should be noted that, there is a rise in ethnic and political polarization in Afghanistan; hence the political dynamics in the ‘New Afghanistan’ have been changed in many ways. The ‘New Afghanistan’ isn’t the Afghanistan of 1990s. Therefore, a move to establish a medieval style radical government in today’s Afghanistan doesn’t seem possible. Such a move will greatly increase the risk of fragmentation and the likelihood of a vicious ‘Civil or Proxy war’ in Afghanistan.
Though little details about the U.S. and Taliban deal has been shared, but it looks that in the last round of Doha talks the U.S. and Taliban have at least agreed on the following issues:
- Cancellation of presidential elections and formation of interim government;
- Withdrawal of the U.S. troops within two years or a little less, depending on the conditions and the success of Taliban talks with the Afghan government;
- Assurance from Taliban that Afghan territory would not be used for attacking the U.S. interests;
- Direct talks between Taliban and Afghan officials. This could be the most complicated part of the peace process. The talks will decide country’s future government and how power will be shared. Preparations are underway for those talks in Oslo and the Afghan government has said that they have finalized a list of 15 negotiators.
However, Taliban are reluctant to agree on comprehensive cease-fire. They say if they agree to a ceasefire initially and then the lengthy power sharing of the peace process hits a wall, they will struggle to remobilize their guerilla forces and lose the only leverage they have which is violence.
Whether the American peace deal with Taliban will actually bring peace and stability to a devastated Afghanistan will largely depends, firstly on the nature of peace deal, and secondly on the success of the Afghan government talks with Taliban.
Meanwhile, elections in Afghanistan have been postponed twice and will now be held on September 28 to give time for the Doha talks. But a deteriorating security environment makes it difficult for a credible election to be held. Now, the biggest question is, whether elections should be held or it should be postponed?
For the Afghan government, elections seem to be the priority, because it will give them the necessary power to negotiate from a stronger position with Taliban, but for the US, Taliban and some oppositions of current government, peace is the priority. They think if elections are held then it will be difficult to negotiate with the Afghan government. They say election can jeopardize the historical chance for the peace, because President Ashraf Ghani wants to extend his term for another five years. But President Ashraf Ghani says he has the responsibility to safeguard the national interests of Afghanistan, therefore he is standing firm to defend Afghan democracy, its constitution and values. It is important to mention that, the real motive of some opposition forces especially those who have lost their positions and power during President Ashraf Ghani’s Administration, isn’t actually the ‘peace’ but rather a chance to remove President Ashraf Ghani from the power.
If elections are cancelled, an interim government will be formed to prepare the ground for fresh elections after constitutional amendments and electoral reforms that would be decided by the traditional Loya Jirga process over two years. However, this approach is strongly opposed by the educated and liberal Afghan groups, including women, who see it as a step back from the democratic rights and principles enshrined in the 2004 Constitution. There is a deepening sense of unease and betrayal in the Afghan government which feels that its legitimacy is being eroded by the U.S. tacitly making deals and leaving it in the lurch.
It should be mentioned that Taliban are viewed with intense hatred by a wide cross-section of the Afghanistan population, due to their earlier barbaric medieval subjugation of Afghanistan spearheaded by Pakistan Army. Therefore, if the U.S. compromises to install a Taliban regime in Kabul, it will provide the possibility of a ‘Civil War’ in Afghanistan and the portents suggest that, it will be more vicious than the last one in view of the ongoing geopolitical churning. It is also very crucial to understand that Pakistan upper hand in the peace process is a portent for raising doubts on the peace process by Afghans. Afghans will never forget that it is Pakistan and their protégés that have been destabilizing and brutalizing Afghanistan ever since the 1970s; therefore patriots, educated and liberal Afghans have a little trust on the current peace talks. While they strive for peace, they see the current development as a plan of surrendering Afghanistan to Taliban and Pakistan and or a conspiracy to putting Afghanistan Army and constitutional values at stake.
Anyhow, if the U.S. negotiates a bad deal, it will not only risk Afghanistan’s future, but will severely dent the American global reputation and hegemony. Globally, the U.S. image will be badly dented as it will be viewed as U.S. power on decline temporizing with Taliban as a terrorist militia and together with Pakistan Army who for the last 18 years has been undermining U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. It is important to note that geopolitically, the U.S. mere withdrawal from Afghanistan, without a long lasting peace, will create a power vacuum in Afghanistan with China, Russia and Pakistan ready to jump into Afghanistan. Also if the U.S. fails, another costly military intervention will not be easy. Such a move then will further deteriorate the situation in Afghanistan, because, majority of Afghans will not support the U,S. Afghans will start fighting against the U.S. because they will realize that this was the U.S. who supported Taliban and risked Afghanistan’s future. If this happens, the U.S. will lose its credibility and strategic depths in the south and central Asia.
It is important to note that, all Afghans are tired of war, want peace, and accept that this requires reconciliation. But not all Afghans want peace on the terms of reconciliation dictated by Taliban. Today majority of the Afghan population is below 30 years and has lived for most part in a conservative, but open society. That is why there is no national consensus on reconciliation. In the absence of a national consensus, external actors are able to intervene to support their own favorites. Consequently, the output could be that prevailingly all the major stakeholders in Afghan conflict has reached the consensus that peace with Taliban is a major step for stability in Afghanistan and the region, for which U.S and foreign troops withdrawal is for sure.
Meanwhile, the regional states like China, Iran and Pakistan are also on the notion that it’s time for U.S to withdraw from Afghanistan. Russia as a global power is also on the same page with these states; therefore, it fully supports the U.S. efforts in the reconciliation process of Afghan Taliban and recently hosted rounds of dialogues between Afghan political leaders and Taliban leadership.
The people inside Afghanistan assume the foreign troops are in their land for their own sake and proxies which could reversely affect their future because the security conditions are worsening day by day due to contradictory interests of regional and global powers. Afghan government has also claimed several times the support of neighbor and global powers for the insurgency in Afghanistan. On the national level in Afghanistan some prominent political leaders are also either in opposition to U.S and foreign troop’s presence or calling them responsible for the insecurity in Afghanistan. .
Concluding, now luckily, there is a solid national, regional and international consensus on the fact that Afghan war doesn’t have a military solution. Therefore, the only solution to end the Afghan war will be a comprehensive peace deal with Taliban and a separate inclusive political agreement of Afghan government with Taliban over future government structure and power sharing based on Afghanistan key constitutional values. Any bad deal from the U.S. will not only be inglorious for Americans, but more importantly will put the infant democracy and fragile stability of Afghanistan in the great stake. A bad deal will throw Afghanistan into the pyre and will increase the chances of ‘Civil and Proxy War ’in Afghanistan. If the Trump’s Administration tries to negotiate an exit instead of a peace deal, the American hegemony will be severely dented around the world.
Zarif Aminyar is an Afghan professor, author and politician. He is an Alumni of Harvard Kennedy School EXED and Columbia Business School. He can be reached via [email protected].