Ground beneath US feet in Afghanistan

The Taliban today are at their strongest since 2001 and hold sway over more than half the country, and, equally, the US realises it can’t win this war — now or ever. Unlike Ghani’s government (or Trump’s administration), the Taliban also present a relatively common front.

MK Bhadrakumar 
Former Ambassador

As the debate stage for the Democratic presidential candidates in the November 2020 election in the US turns into a bare-knuckle affair, there is a key takeaway. The top three candidates — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — who spar with each other and are viscerally opposed to President Trump are in unison with him, nonetheless, on a solitary issue:  the imperative need to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan. Warren couldn’t care less whether there’s even a deal with the Taliban. 

This is an exceptional ‘bipartisan consensus’ in American politics, which otherwise approximate to civil war conditions. Surely, anyone in India who may estimate that Trump’s impetuous announcement calling off negotiations with the Taliban signals open-ended war is fantasising. The point is, Trump’s mood swings do not change ground realities. There is no alternative to negotiation. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hinted — with Trump’s tacit approval — at a more level-headed foreign policy position vis-a-vis the Taliban. If Trump walks away from talks, he risks the Taliban using deadly attacks on the American personnel to force him back to the negotiating table. In which case, with his re-election campaign gathering pace, Trump would be blamed for every US soldier killed. It’s a Catch-22 situation. 

No wonder, the US negotiators have resumed contacts with the Taliban through email and WhatsApp. “We have contacted them and they too have approached us,” Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban spokesman in Doha, confirmed in the weekend. “We have sought formal clarification from them about Trump’s decision. We are hopeful of a response and are waiting for their response.”

The US officials may be sounding reasonable that Taliban should not use violence to gain negotiating advantage during peace talks. But then, the Taliban have never called or promised a ceasefire during talks. Besides, both sides have been hammering each other on the battlefield. The US is dropping bombs on Afghanistan more frequently than at any time in the 18-year old war. The UN has recorded that there have been more civilian deaths at the hands of the US and/or the Afghan government forces than at the Taliban’s. 

Ironically, Pompeo, while explaining in an interview with the ABC on September 8 Trump’s cancellation of talks, himself admitted that “we have, in just the last 10 days alone, killed over a thousand Taliban. We have been fighting and talking in a way that America often doesn’t do. It’s what’s driven us to be able to have the success at the negotiating table that we were beginning to have.” 

Evidently, Trump has not been completely honest. The most plausible reason why Trump got cold feet about the negotiations with the Taliban could be that he sensed that concerns and opposition to the Taliban deal in Washington have been steadily mounting. One likely explanation for the Camp David meeting could be that Trump hoped to broker a grander bargain, including proximity talks between the Afghan Government and the Taliban. That is to say, the Taliban (and Pakistan) know the US can neither keep its soldiers in Afghanistan, like Roman legions, forever, nor entirely abandon Afghanistan. But the risk is there that the longer the present interregnum lasts, the more the chances of the US and the Taliban stepping up their military confrontation. 

While Trump’s move could be an opportunity for Washington to reset the terms of the planned peace deal — Taliban have signalled that they are not ruling out further negotiations, and Pakistan’s interest also lies in a negotiated settlement — but Taliban are unlikely to agree to lay down arms. Equally, it is difficult to see how the Taliban will ever accept the puppet regime in Kabul as their interlocutor. Nor will Taliban accept any role for the CIA-organised Afghan militias — who Bob Woodward calls the CIA’s “Afghan army” — such as the CIA-trained NDS Special Forces which are notorious for their brutality and human rights violations but constitute the mainstay of the Ghani government. 

In reality, those who demand immediate Afghan presidential election before an agreement with the Taliban is agreed upon, are interest groups which hope that by manipulating election result, the present calculus of power can continue. 

Clearly, an interim government that includes the Taliban is the only viable alternative. Yet, the “CIA’s army”, thanks to their high pay and privileged status, will not accept integration into the regular armed forces. Now, these well-trained and well-equipped CIA militias would be particularly valuable to any party — Afghan or foreign, Indians included — with means to pay them, thus generating new spirals of violence. How does the peace deal hold accountable the CIA’s “Afghan army” whose patrons include warlords in the Kabul set-up? There are no easy answers. 

Having said that, the Taliban today are at their strongest since 2001 and hold sway over more than half the country, and, equally, the US realises it can't win this war — now or ever. Unlike Ghani’s government (or Trump’s administration), the Taliban also present a relatively common front. Unsurprisingly, while the Taliban are open to renegotiating a troop-withdrawal deal, they are in no rush. Victory becomes an article of faith in their ‘jihad’ against foreign occupation. 

Thus, the deal that Khalilzad negotiated is probably the best that can be achieved. The Taliban hopes to instal Shariah rule; the scope for compromise is nil. The Taliban will remain the mortal enemy of the Islamic State, no matter what it takes, but will not renounce the al-Qaeda. Below that threshold, however, Washington can settle for a public declaration by Taliban not to allow terrorists to abuse their territory as a staging ground for international attacks.

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