“We have reached an agreement on 80% of the issues. The remaining 20% involves a timeline regarding withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan and one other issue. We remain optimistic. We hope to clinch an agreement in this round of talks,” said Sohail Shaheen, the Taliban’s Chief Spokesperson.
Before holding the eight rounds of talks in Doha with the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, the Taliban leadership made it clear that there was no question of holding intra-Afghan talks, including with the “illegal Kabul regime”, unless an agreement is reached with the US on the withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan. Unlike the USSR, which had around 100,000 soldiers in Afghanistan during the 80’s, the US currently has 14,000 combat troops. In its 18 years of military presence in Afghanistan, the US has lost around 2,400 forces unlike the Soviet casualties of 10,000 in 10 years. The American physical casualties in Afghanistan are not even comparable with its losses of 50,000 during the Vietnam War (1955-1975). Yet, the Trump administration wants America to safely exit from Afghanistan after spending approximately $1 trillion in its longest war.
Taliban’s determination to continue the war against foreign forces is questionable because a significant opposition against Trump’s ostensible exit strategy in Afghanistan comes from the American Department of Defense and the Congress. Both view the Taliban with suspicion, particularly its resolve to re-establish the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Their refusal to accept the Afghan Constitution and join a political process is a dangerous reality. If the Taliban are appeased and allowed to capture power, it will certainly lead to a fresh outbreak of civil war in Afghanistan with lethal repercussions for the region.
While the US exit from Afghanistan is problematic because of its deep-rooted suspicions of the Taliban, the choices for the Kabul regime are limited. Since 2001, Afghanistan has passed through a democratic transition, and the country is governed by an elected President and Assembly — despite the prevailing violence and the authoritarian nature of society. Before the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, political parties and institutions based on elections were non-existent. Now, the Taliban want to reverse the political process which was unleashed under Western patronage, and aimed to transform Afghanistan from a tribal and ultra-conservative region to a democratic and modern state. Yet, Afghanistan has a long way to go before establishing a culture of political pluralism, tolerance, rule of law and good governance. However, despite disruptions by the Taliban, elections were held and voters elected their representatives through the parliamentary elections of 2018, and presidential elections are expected to be held on September 28 this year.
Can the Taliban take part in the Afghan presidential elections and join the political process? On July 24, Chief Executive of Afghanistan Abdullah Abdullah told the Afghan media, “If the Taliban start negotiations with the Kabul regime, they can take part in the coming presidential elections.” Likewise, Afghan government spokesman Fraidoon Khwazoon said, “The door is open for the Taliban whenever they are willing to come and sit with the Afghan government and take part in democratic and national stages.” In his address to the USIP during his US visit last month, Pakistan’s PM Imran Khan said, “Now I will meet the Taliban … to get them to talk to the Afghan government, and so that the election can be inclusive.” But the Taliban rejected any possibility of holding negotiations with the Kabul regime before the withdrawal of American and foreign forces, and intended to continue their struggle for the emancipation of their country from foreign tutelage.
As The Economist pointed out on July 27, “Afghanistan explains the American President’s change of heart towards Pakistan.” As Trump expressed during his press conference with PM Khan, “I think Pakistan is going to help us out, to extricate ourselves. Pakistan is going to make a big difference.” He was referring to Pakistan’s ostensible influence over the Taliban to lure them for a face-saving political settlement that will enable the US to withdraw its forces. This brings us to the question: Has Pakistan not learned any lessons from past experiences of flattering the US, only to be ditched by this ally several times? And if Islamabad is ready to be used by its former ally again, one can only lament the shortsightedness of its foreign policy.
There are three hard realities when one tries to analyse the prevailing predicament of Afghanistan. First is the U-turn taken by President Trump on the US military’s presence there. Initially, he favoured the presence of the American military as a deterrent against the possible surge of al Qaeda in the event the US withdraws from Afghanistan. But now he wants American forces to be out before the 2020 US presidential elections. For this, he wants Pakistan to use its influence on the Taliban for a negotiated settlement ensuring peace in the post-American withdrawal period. That may be Trump’s wishful thinking, and his Afghan policy does not pragmatically consider the country’s historical landscape. American military presence, no matter how bad, is a sign of stability in that war-torn country. To visualise that there will be peace once American forces withdraw is nothing but a pipe dream.
Second is the contention that, “the US may militarily exit from Afghanistan but the war will continue in that country,” makes sense as was the case when the Soviet forces left Afghanistan after the Geneva accord of 1988, leading to a civil war. History will repeat itself as the Taliban will try to capture power, resulting in a fresh outbreak of civil war with fatal consequences for Pakistan, the region and the world. Even though the Afghan presidential elections are due in September, the Taliban has rejected it. This shows that democracy, political pluralism and tolerance will take decades to take root. The Kabul regime and several warlords contesting the elections as well as other stakeholders are incapable of sorting out their issues and pull their country out of the 41-year-long civil war, anarchy and violence.
Finally, if sanity prevails and warring groups agree to form a broad-based government inclusive of all the stakeholders, and run their country for an interim period till final elections are held, one can expect relative peace to develop. But it seems that both the Taliban and the US, through their talks in Doha, are more involved in flattery than finding a plausible solution to the issues that have destroyed two Afghan generations. It is easy to hope for peace to prevail after the perceived American withdrawal, but such a thing is impractical given the bitter realities of the past. Change in the Afghan mindset, particularly those representing the Taliban and the Kabul regime, is the need of the hour. A comprehensive agreement with the US by September 1, as wished by American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, may be a distant reality.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 9th, 2019.