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Deal with Taliban will come at Afghanistan’s expense

Sep 17,2019 - Last updated at Sep 17,2019

The collapse of talks between the US and the Taliban, following President Donald Trump’s cancellation of a controversial summit at Camp David few days before the anniversary of 9/11, will trigger more violence in the war-torn country ahead of crucial presidential elections in Afghanistan next week. But the impasse might not last long and the White House will be forced to resume talks with its arch-enemy sooner 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, president George Bush Jr. 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 achieving these goals. Then in 2009 President 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 more fatal blows to hundreds of US and NATO soldiers, not to mention their deadly strikes against Afghan government soldiers and civilians.

And when President Trump took over in 2016, he announced that he will 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 so-called foreign contractors. But these figures pale in comparison to Afghan deaths; 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 the Taliban have been engaged in delicate negotiations in Doha, Qatar. The Kabul government has been involved although the Taliban, now controlling over 45 per cent of the country, does not recognise it. Two weeks ago US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad announced that the two sides had reached an agreement in principle. The Taliban confirmed it as well. The agreement needed the final approval of President Trump.

Then it all went south when Trump tweeted that he was planning to hold a secret meeting with Taliban leaders at Camp David. Hours later he tweeted that he had cancelled the meeting and that talks were now “dead”. His initial Tweet had shocked lawmakers from both sides of the aisle as well as the mainstream media. To host the Taliban, 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. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared on national networks to defend Trump’s actions while demanding that the Taliban prove a change of behavior. For their side the Taliban criticised Trump’s move and said it will lead to more loss of life.

But what is important here is the fact that the provisional agreement says little about the future of Afghanistan while focusing on US and NATO troop pullout. 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 are resumed. After 18 years and hundreds of billions of dollars spent it is clear to all that this war is unwinnable. Afghanistan, dubbed as the graveyard of empires, will once more face an unpredictable future. Civil war is almost certain and the chaos will create a dangerous vacuum for the entire region.

It is ironic that the Taliban and Al Qaeda owe much of their existence to US support of the Mujahedin 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. 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

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