Violence in Afghanistan

Shades of Vietnam

Print edition : August 30, 2019

Members of the Taliban delegation speaking to reporters on May 28 in Moscow. The conference in Moscow had representatives from the Taliban and the Afghan government under the same roof for the first time. Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

At a hospital in Herat on July 31 after a bus hit a roadside bomb on the Kandahar-Herat highway and dozens of passengers, mainly women and children, were killed. Photo: HOSHANG HASHIMI/AFP

The political headquarters of Amrullah Saleh, President Ghani’s running mate, in Kabul on July 29 after a car bomb attack. Photo: Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani arriving for an election campaign rally in Kabul on August 5. Photo: Rafiq Maqbool/AP

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan with Zalmay Khalilzad, the Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation at the U.S. State Department, in Islamabad, Pakistan, on August 1. Khalilzad met Imran Khan ahead of his flight to Doha, Qatar, for a crucial round of peace talks with the Taliban. Photo: Press Information Department/AP

The bloodletting in war-ravaged Afghanistan continues unabated even as the U.S. and the Taliban engage in peace negotiations. U.S. military experts believe that getting out of the country is likely to be a messy affair.

The only thing that is clear about the murky situation in Afghanistan is that President Donald Trump of the United States wants to withdraw the bulk of the American soldiers from the country before the next presidential election. Speaking to reporters in early August, the President claimed that “a lot of progress” had been made in talks with the Taliban. After much cajoling and arm-twisting by many countries, notably Pakistan, the resurgent Taliban agreed last year to engage in talks with the U.S.

Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours had been telling the U.S. for quite some time that the only way out of the military and political impasse it found itself in Afghanistan was to engage with the Taliban. Russia and China, backed by Pakistan, have called for a dialogue with the Taliban for years. Pakistan played a key role in pushing different sections of the Taliban to participate in the talks with the U.S. Trump has been bending over backwards to show his gratitude to Islamabad as was evident during Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent official visit to Washington, D.C. It is another matter that in the same press conference, Trump threatened to wipe Afghanistan off the map of the world if the Taliban insisted on being defiant.

Moscow hosted a conference earlier this year in which representatives from the Taliban and the government side were present under the same roof for the first time. India is the only major country with interests in Afghanistan that has refused to establish contacts with the Taliban. Even Iran has welcomed the latest round of peace talks. When the Taliban was in power, Iran was on the verge of declaring all-out war against Afghanistan.

The Taliban leadership even today refuses to engage directly with the government in Kabul despite repeated calls to do so from the U.S. and others in the international community. It continues to view the government of President Ashraf Ghani as a puppet regime put in place by the occupying U.S. military force. However, the Taliban’s hard-line position has undergone a visible change. It has given a solemn commitment to the U.S. that it will not allow forces inimical to the U.S. to operate from Afghan soil. The George W. Bush administration had alleged that Osama bin Laden planned the 9/11 attacks from Afghanistan. Many counterterrorism experts are sceptical about this claim.

This year, senior Taliban officials informally talked to representatives from other political parties and representatives of civil society on the sidelines of recent meetings on Afghanistan held in Doha, the capital of Qatar, and during the conference in Moscow. The Taliban has been saying for some time that it will start talking officially to the government in Kabul after the U.S. completely withdraws from the country, though most security experts are of the view that it is unlikely that the U.S. will vacate the strategic military bases it has in the country.

President Ghani has exuded optimism about the prospects for peace. He recently tweeted that “peace is coming” to his war-torn nation. At the same time, he is angry and upset with the U.S. for not keeping him in the loop while negotiating with the Taliban. Ghani is running for a second term in office, with the election scheduled for September.

The Taliban wants the election to be cancelled and has been targeting candidates. The election dates have already been rescheduled twice. There are calls for the election to be postponed indefinitely. Ghani’s running mate, Amrullah Saleh, narrowly escaped with his life after he was targeted by a Taliban suicide squad in late July. The attack left 20 people dead and more than 50 injured. Saleh was a close associate of the late Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Masood.

The Taliban now controls more than half of the country, the most territory it has had under its control since the U.S. invasion in 2001. Many experts are of the view that the peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban have strengthened the hands of Pakistan to the detriment of the government in Kabul. Former President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai recently said that though he welcomed the prospects for peace he “could not accept a deal between two countries” on Afghanistan’s future.

In the first week of August, the U.S. and the Taliban started another round of negotiations in Doha. Both sides have declared the current round the “most crucial” phase of the negotiations. The American side has even expressed optimism that a “peace agreement” could be inked in the August itself. Zalmay Khalilzad, the Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation at the U.S. State Department, tasked by Trump with bringing home U.S. troops, however, clarified that the two sides were not yet ready to sign a comprehensive “withdrawal agreement”. More than 20,000 U.S. troops continue to be deployed in the country. There are thousands of Americans and other foreigners working as military “contractors” for the Pentagon.

The Taliban has been demanding that the U.S. announces a departure date for its troops. A senior Taliban spokesman speaking to the media just before the latest round of talks in Doha said that the issue of troop withdrawal was prolonging the peace talks and preventing the signing of a comprehensive peace deal. There are reports that Trump has agreed to withdraw thousands of American troops from Afghanistan as part of an “initial peace deal”. Trump on the campaign trail three years ago had promised to bring back at least 8,000 American soldiers. But before doing so, Trump wants the Taliban to start negotiating a bigger peace deal directly with the Afghanistan government. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Trump had ordered a reduction in the number of troops before the 2020 presidential election.

Highest number of casualties

Meanwhile, the bloodletting in the war-ravaged country continues unabated, and the Taliban is only one of the actors responsible for it. In a recent report, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said that more Afghan civilians were killed by the U.S. and allied forces than by the Taliban and other militant groups in the first half of 2019. According to the U.N., July witnessed the highest number of casualties recorded in a single month since 2017. The report said that more than 50 per cent of the casualties were caused by bombings. A roadside bomb killed 32 people travelling in a bus in western Afghanistan in the last week of July. The U.N. has issued an urgent call to all the parties in the conflict to give peace a chance and end the cycle of violence that has been going on for the last 18 years. According to U.N. statistics, at least 8,304 civilians, including 927 children, lost their lives in 2018.

Even as the peace talks go on, the Taliban seems intent on keeping up its offensive. The U.S. and its allies are also using more firepower in their counter-insurgency operations. Most Afghans believe that meaningful peace can be achieved only if there is a comprehensive peace agreement involving all political parties. Afghan women especially fear the return of the Taliban though the group now says that it is no longer against girls being educated. Some Taliban factions are yet to agree to joining in the talks.

Then there is the Daesh (Islamic State), which has struck root in eastern Afghanistan. Some of the recent suicide attacks that claimed several innocent lives in the capital, Kabul, were carried out by fighters owing allegiance to the Daesh, which in this region calls itself the Islamic State of Khorasan. A U.N. report released in late July concluded that the group was responsible for 11 per cent of the killings that occurred in Afghanistan in the first six months of this year. The Daesh has been nibbling into the Taliban’s zone of influence for some years now and has also been randomly targeting the Shia minority. The two groups have fought pitched battles. U.S. airplanes have bombed Daesh-controlled areas and forced it to retreat.

So far, the Taliban and the Americans have been able to confine the influence of the Daesh to isolated pockets. U.S. intelligence officials say that the Daesh is not a serious threat to the country’s national security. According to them, the territory it controls is of little strategic importance. But the U.S. military leadership, which does not want a precipitate withdrawal from Afghanistan, is hyping up the threat posed by the Daesh.

Serving and retired army generals are making the case for the continued deployment of thousands of U.S. special forces in Afghanistan. General Mark A. Milley, Trump’s nominee for the post of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate that withdrawing troops too soon from Afghanistan would be “a strategic mistake”. Gen. David Petraeus, the man credited with the military surge in Iraq, is among those arguing for a continued military presence, claiming that it would deter terrorist groups from regrouping and prevent the collapse of the government in Kabul. Khalilzad has been saying that the U.S. “is not cutting and running from Afghanistan” and that the Trump administration is not looking for a withdrawal agreement. “We’re looking for a peace agreement,” he said. In all likelihood, getting out of Afghanistan is going to be a very messy affair for the U.S. Already parallels are being drawn with Vietnam.

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