“We have hit our enemy harder than they have ever been hit before.”
- Donald Trump on the eve of the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 commemorations on September 11, 2019.
“This will lead to more losses to the US. Its credibility will be affected, its anti-peace stance will be exposed to the world, losses to lives and assets will increase.”
- Zabihullah Mujahid, a Talib spokesman criticising the US President for calling off the dialogue between the US and the Taliban.
One of the biggest concerns pervading global geopolitics in the second decade of the 21st century is the solution to what may be referred to as the “Afghanistan policy of the United States.” The peace process, a mediation attempt in what is regarded as one of the greatest standoffs of our times, has met a dead-end. Peace negotiations between the two sides were stalled off unexpectedly, with the US pulling from the expected accord using a proverbial reason too flimsy for most observers of global politics. Trump has pushed the reason that there has been an uptick in Taliban-inflicted violence all across Afghanistan as well the death of an American soldier along with 11 other people in a suicide bombing which shook the national capital of Kabul in the month of September.
To receive a better understanding of this more recent development, it is imperative to cast a glance at the intricacies that have led to the stalemate today.
The term Taliban can be literally translated as ‘students.’ It can be referred to as an attempt to construct an Islamic Empire in Afghanistan. The Sunni Islamic organisation rose to prominence in 1994, as part of an attempt to end the power vacuum that had exerted itself in the nation as an immediate after-effect of the Afghan Civil War. The Afghan Civil War had resulted in the drop of Kabul’s population from 2 million to 500,000 within a span of a year. It began when Hezb-e-Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar with the support of neighbouring Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had refused to be a part of the coalition government along with other Mujahideen Groups, establishing their sole authority over Kabul. It was only a year later in 1995-1996 that the militia of the Talibans, having secured sufficient support from Pakistan and ISI, established its supremacy and invaded Kandahar, followed by Herat, with their authority receiving a formal seal of suzerainty with the successful invasion of Kabul in 1996. Al-Qaeda had been granted sanction to operate by the Taliban on the condition that it would not indulge in any activity that could incur the wrath of the US. But the subsequent actions of its leader, Osama Bin Laden’s attack on the American embassies of East Africa, caused a rift between the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda. Many may sight that Al-Qaeda harboured a greater ambition - that of global jihad while Talibans had a restrictive operational base called Afghanistan.
Colin Powell had famously remarked, “You can be sure that the American Spirit will prevail over this tragedy.”
One of the greatest turning points of the new millennium had been the four coordinated terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 at three prime locations in the heart of the United States that killed 2,977 people, injuring 25,000 more. Truly, American foreign policy never remained the same with Islamic nations across the globe, and with Afghanistan, quite obviously, having to bear the brunt. The US demanded that the Taliban hand over Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind behind the tragedy, which was rejected by the Taliban as they demanded greater evidence of his involvement in the terror attack. In response, the US-NATO alliance launched Operation Enduring Freedom. George W Bush, the then President of the US had declared a “War on Terror,” as reported by the New York Times on September 20, 2001.
The success of the operation was clearly evident, with the Taliban being driven out of power by the Christmas of 2001. The United Nations Security Council later formed the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) with the aim of providing multidimensional training to Afghan Security forces, which would rebuild the social and political institutions which had been demolished by the Taliban regime. These institutions also included the establishment of the Afghan Transitional Administration with Hamid Karzai as the President. ISAF spread through four stages all over the Taliban-inflicted ruins of the nation. The Operation Enduring Freedom ended after 13 years in 2014, with Bush’s successor Barack Obama declaring its end with these words of significance:
“For more than 13 years, ever since nearly 3,000 innocent lives were taken from us on 9/11 our nation has been at war with Afghanistan……our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending, and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible end.”
However, he also stressed that in order to preserve the gains made by the US military (as also by the invitation of the Afghan government), a limited military presence would remain in Afghanistan.
It is widely stated that negotiations with the Taliban had always been in the pipeline, having been strongly endorsed by the former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai (2004-2014), but American efforts had never been either eager or decisive in the matter. Karzai, on returning from a foreign trip, had offered peace negotiations in 2007, but the Taliban insurgents citing the proliferation of foreign troops had squarely rejected the offer. The precondition that there be a withdrawal of 50,000 NATO troops and US military couldn’t be fulfilled. Karzai had offered to allocate government posts to the Taliban with Hekmatyar even being allowed to contest elections in 2009, but to no avail.
The 2009 Afghan Presidential elections had been widely contested on the issue of whether the war should come to an end or not. In one of his Presidential campaigns, Karzai offered “Loya Jirga” (a traditional Afghan Pashtun ceremony organised for choosing a new head of state). However, the elections, which were widely blood-splattered with the death of 59 Americans, resulted in the increase of the presence of American troops in the country.
2010 marked a significant turn of events, with Karzai stating that “the peace process will be with the Talibans and other militants who are not part of the Al Qaeda or other terrorist networks or ideologically against us.” The then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton supported the contention. The second-in-command of the Taliban, Abdul Ghani Baradar favoured talks with both the US and the Afghan government.
A change of political strategy of the US government took place in 2010, with the Taliban Quetta Shura (Taliban Leadership Commanders) leaving Pakistan and being escorted to Kabul by NATO aircraft for discussions, according to Reuters, only to be revealed that one of the leaders Akhtar Mansour was an imposter disguised as senior Taliban commander. A round of talks stood cancelled in 2012 and another stood cancelled in 2013 as a direct consequence of a dispute between the Taliban and Karzai, where the latter felt that the former were portraying themselves as a “government in exile.”
February 2018 marked an abrupt increase in violence, with Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan President offering the Taliban a full recognition as a legal political party and a release of Taliban political prisoners. The Los Angeles Times referred to this as “the most significant peace overture.” Surprisingly, in July 2018, American officials had reportedly met a few members of the Taliban at their political office in Qatar. Zalmay Khalilzad joined the US State Department as Trump’s Special Advisor on Afghanistan, with the sole aim of initiating an intra-Afghan peace process. Fuelling diplomatic speculation, Russia successfully held talks with the Taliban and officials of the Afghanistan High Peace Council. After the February 2019 talks, Khalilzad reported “this round of talk was more productive than they have ever been in the past.”
On August 12, 2019, the US and the Taliban completed the 8th round of negotiations, and US media had been abuzz with the news that the US had been close to reaching a peace deal with Afghanistan which would include the withdrawal of 5,000 troops from Afghanistan. The ‘agreement-in-principle’ was awaiting final approval by the President, which it fortunately or unfortunately did not get. Its cancellation, however, prompted the Talibans to remark that the “doors were open” for further discussions with Trump.
Conjectures are afloat that a peace agreement with the Talibans could result in their rise to power, replicating the defeat of the US-backed South Vietnamese government after the 1973 Paris peace accords. US Defence Secretary Mark Esper had visited Afghanistan in late October 2019. He stated that the US could reduce its force in Afghanistan to 8,600 without damaging its counter-terrorism capabilities. On a world diplomacy stage, war with Afghanistan is largely recognised as an unwinnable war. For a concrete conclusion of the war, it is imperative that the US gets rid of its mirage of a perfect deal and allure foŕ hard power. Otherwise, like the North Korean nuclear standoff, there seems no end in sight. Every month this stalemate claims thousands of Afghan lives and almost $4 billion from the US government.
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