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The Taliban return

Having fought for over 17 years, the US and the Afghan Taliban are well on course to finally turning swords into ploughshares. Only a cataclysmic event can bring the current dialogue to a grinding halt. Ousted from power at the end of 2001 by the US/Nato-led Operation Enduring Freedom, the Taliban now seem set to recapture their past glory.

Who blinks first has for years been the million-dollar question in the Afghan war, which is arguably the costliest and the bloodiest conflict in the contemporary world. The war has soaked up close to a trillion dollars from Washington’s kitty while more than 2,000 American troops have been killed and over 20,000 have sustained injuries. Likewise, nearly 60,000 Afghan military and police personnel, and more than 38,000 civilians have died. The number of militants killed also runs into thousands.

The tide of history seems to be on the side of the Taliban, as the US acceded to one of their lead demands for face-to-face talks without involving the Afghan government, which they dismiss as a puppet of Washington. The US-Taliban one-on-one was opposed by Kabul because it would confer legitimacy on the militants. The acceptance of the demand constitutes a big concession to the militants and lays bare Washington’s desperation over the lingering crisis.

While the dialogue was being held in Doha, the Taliban struck at an intelligence training centre and killed more than 40 troops, which only confirmed that they went into the talks from a position of strength, leaving Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who knows he is fighting a losing battle, to highlight the sacrifices made by his troops and citizens at the World Economic Forum.

At the six-day Doha parleys, significant progress has been made on the two sticking points in the Afghan conflict: a schedule for the withdrawal of US-led international forces from Afghanistan – the militants’ demand – and the guarantee from the Taliban that they would not allow international jihadi organisations like Al-Qaeda to take root in the country after the pullout – the Americans’ demand.

As only a sizeable US presence in Afghanistan stood between the Taliban and the throne of Kabul, the militants persistently called for a complete American pullout from Afghanistan as a precondition for an end to the war. Other important issues, such as a ceasefire and the direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government have been put on ice for now.

Be that as it may, it could have been the other way round, with the Taliban and Kabul first thrashing out a truce and future political roadmap for the country followed by an agreement on the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. That’s what has been the standpoint of the Afghan government. But since the US top priority is to quit Afghanistan as early as possible – like a mega enterprise facing whooping losses to opt out of the market – it chose the course prescribed by the Taliban.

Although Zalmay Khalilzad, the US chief negotiator for talks with the Taliban, has assured that any deal with the militants would include an intra-Afghan dialogue, it has become a secondary issue. The foremost issue for Washington is to leave Afghanistan with the guarantee that the Taliban would not provide shelter to an organisation like Al-Qaeda again. Such a guarantee can be underwritten by regional powers and enforced by the fear that in case Afghanistan reprises its status of being an epicentre of global terrorism under the Taliban, the US may once again invade the country.

But such a guarantee can hardly be regarded as iron clad. Once they have become the supreme power in Afghanistan, the Taliban would not be under the thumb of regional countries. It also won’t be easy for the US to commit enormous resources to another round of the Afghan war, except if a 9/11-like calamity were to hit the country.

As the philosopher Thomas Hobbes once observed, covenants without the power to enforce them are merely words. This ring true for Afghanistan, where political power still flows out of the barrel of the gun – and only from the barrel of the gun. So once the US leaves the roiled country triumphantly, holding the Afghan reconciliation trophy, who will ensure that the Taliban don’t rise roughshod over other ethnic/sectarian groups, the way they did in the 1990s?

But why has Washington chosen the road it has? After they had ousted the Taliban regime, the US and its Nato allies had the option to finish off the Taliban as an armed opposition. But it is doubtful if that option ever received a fair hearing for the reason that the Taliban themselves never constituted a serious threat to US security.

The Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996. While that may have been an epoch-making event for the region, it wasn’t the case for the US. It was only when the Taliban regime dragged its feet on handing over Al-Qaeda’s leadership, which is widely seen to have masterminded the 9/11 attacks, that the US decided to unseat it. Thenceforth, America’s top concern in Afghanistan was to lay waste to Al-Qaeda’s network in the country, which it did.

That is the reason Washington seldom, if ever, expressed its unflinching commitment to stay in Afghanistan until the country rids itself of militancy. Instead, it hinted from time to time at possible exit strategies, while at the same time pressurising Islamabad to do more. Pakistan could not be realistically expected to fight a US war which the latter itself lacked the commitment to take to its logical conclusion.

Hence, reconciliation among Afghan factions has been the constant theme in Washington’s Afghan strategy. At first, reconciliation was to be pursued on Washington/Kabul’s terms within the ambit of the Afghan constitution. This was to be done by segregating the militants into ‘good’ – who were ideologically motivated – and ‘bad’ – who were mere soldiers of fortune – snuffing out bad militants, and encouraging the good ones to lay down their arms. Finally, a power-sharing agreement would be struck among the key players. It was with a view to segregate the two assumed categories of the Taliban that the quadrilateral peace process involving Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and the US was launched.

Granted a distinction could be made between the good and bad militants, the success of the strategy turned on putting the bad Taliban to sword, which entailed a strong, long-term commitment on the part of the US and its Nato allies. Such a commitment, as already mentioned, was conspicuous by its absence. After Osama bin Laden was killed in May 2011, Washington’s interest in Afghanistan began to fizzle out. Barack Obama announced that US combat troops would be pulled out by the close of 2014.

Come Donald Trump, who had been opposed to America’s costly involvement in foreign wars. However, in his August 2017 Afghan strategy, he announced his decision to beef up his country’s military presence in the country. But on sober reflection, he realised that adopting such a course would be a fool’s errand. His next announcement was to cut the 14,000 American troops stationed in Afghanistan by half, which sounded the death knell for already feeble attempts to dictate terms to the Taliban.

Thus the reconciliation in Afghanistan was a euphemism for recognising the Taliban, who controlled large swathes of the territory, as a de-jure power. Nothing could have dialled down the morale of Afghan troops more than the impression that the entire war machinery was geared towards offering an olive branch to those they were fighting against.

As fate would have it, the Taliban will soon have another bite at the cherry. It remains to be seen whether time has put a damper on their puritanism and medieval sense of justice or if it is as virile as it was two decades ago.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

Email: hussainhzaidi@gmail.com

Twitter: @hussainhzaidi

Hussain H Zaidi, "The Taliban return," The News. 2019-02-03.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political leaders , Political parties , Political process , Peace process , Politicians , Politics , Terrorism , Terrorists , Violence , Taliban , United States , Afghanistan

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