Afghanistan

The U.S. and the Taliban: Collapse of a deal

Print edition : October 11, 2019

The site of a massive explosion in Kabul that killed at least 16 people, on September 3. Photo: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP

Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani. Photo: OMAR SOBHANI/REUTERS

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters in Washington on September 9. Photo: ANNA MONEYMAKER/THE NEW YORK TIMES

Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban spokesman in Doha. Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan. Photo: Omar Sobhani/Reuters

A planned partial peace agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban falls through at the last minute, worsening the security situation in the country ahead of the presidential election.

The Donald Trump administration and the Taliban leadership were insisting until the second week of September that a partial peace deal to end the long-running conflict in Afghanistan was imminent. The two sides have held nine rounds of high-level talks since last year, and the basic contours of the proposed agreement were spelled out. The United States would withdraw around 4,500 troops stationed in Afghanistan. The deal also envisaged the withdrawal of the remaining 8,600 U.S. troops after the Taliban kept its part of the bargain.

According to the U.S., the Taliban had given an assurance of engaging in more inclusive talks with the government in Kabul. The Taliban has so far refused to either recognise the legitimacy of the Afghan government or start talks with it, despite pressure from the international community. The Taliban has also rejected the U.S. claim that it had agreed to a ceasefire after the signing of the proposed agreement. Suhail Shaheen, the spokesman of the Taliban in Doha, said that a ceasefire agreement inside the country was not part of the discussions with the U.S. He added that such a discussion would take place only after the withdrawal of all foreign forces from the country and after discussions with the government in Kabul and other Afghan players.

The Taliban had also given an assurance to the U.S. that non-state actors would not be allowed to operate in Afghanistan. The Taliban had given refuge to the Al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, but according to most counterterrorism experts, it had no knowledge or involvement in the events that led to the terror attacks that occurred inside the U.S. on September 11, 2001.

The U.S. had also agreed to vacate the five military bases it currently operates from in Afghanistan. The bases would have been handed over to the Afghan government five months after the signing of the peace agreement. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S.’ special envoy to Afghanistan, announced in the first week of September that a peace agreement with the Taliban had been approved in principle.

The Taliban had described the results of the negotiations with the U.S. as the “third historic triumph” of the Afghan people over foreign occupation. The first, according to it, was against the British in the 19th century, and the second was against the Soviet-backed government in Kabul.

If Trump is to be believed, the White House had laid the groundwork for a meeting with the Taliban leadership at the Camp David presidential retreat where the peace deal was to be signed. According to Trump, the meeting at Camp David, to which Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was also invited, was scheduled to be held on September 9.

“Unbeknownst to almost everyone, the major Taliban leaders and, separately the President of Afghanistan, were going to secretly meet with me at Camp David on Sunday,” Trump had tweeted.

Trump said that he had to cancel the meeting at the last minute because of a Taliban suicide attack on a U.S.- led military convoy near the U.S. embassy in Kabul. Twelve soldiers, including one American, were killed in the incident that took place in the first week of September. The majority of those killed were Afghan soldiers.

Both the Taliban and the U.S., while negotiating in Qatar, had escalated their attacks on each other within Afghanistan. The U.S. had been targeting Taliban military commanders and their families. July witnessed the highest civilian casualties so far this year, with more than 1,500 Afghans killed. Last year was the bloodiest since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, with the civilian toll rising to more than 3,800.

The U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, while defending Trump’s decision to cancel the Camp David meeting, said that the U.S. forces had killed more than a thousand Taliban fighters in the previous two weeks.

Trump had previously said that he could end the war “very quickly” if he wanted “to kill 10 million people”. He had even used the most powerful conventional bomb in the U.S. military’s arsenal, known as the “mother of all bombs”, in Afghanistan in 2017.

Trump has now declared that as far as he is concerned, the peace talks with the Taliban “are dead”. After the abrupt cancellation of the talks, he ordered an escalation in attacks on the Taliban. He claimed that the U.S. attacks on Taliban targets were the fiercest in more than a decade.

The peace talks in Doha continued despite many U.S. soldiers dying in attacks launched by the Taliban. Khalilzad, accompanied by the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Scott Miller, had actually proceeded to Doha to start another round of talks with the Taliban, a day after the incident in which the lone U.S. soldier was killed.

Trump now claims that it was the loss of a single soldier’s life in the Kabul incident that prompted him to call off the peace summit. He accused the Taliban of staging the attack in order to “strengthen their bargaining position” at the negotiating table.

The Taliban spokesman in Doha said that the Taliban leadership had not accepted the invitation to attend the impromptu summit that was being planned at Camp David. He accused the U.S. President of “lying”.

Any deal on Afghanistan, he said, would be first announced in Doha and not in the capital of the U.S.

A meeting in the U.S. would not be able to resolve the problems that exist between the Taliban and the “stooge government” in Kabul, he said. “We had two ways of ending the occupation in Afghanistan, one was jehad and fighting, the other was talks and negotiations,” he said. “If Trump wants to stop talks, we will take the first way and they will soon regret it.”

The Taliban’s agreement with the U.S. was only to guarantee the safe passage of foreign troops out of the country in case a peace deal was signed. “If we sign an agreement with them, we have the obligation not to attack them and provide them with a safe passage. If they withdraw without signing any peace agreement, it is up to us whether to attack or not attack them,” the Taliban spokesman said. He added that it was “astonishing” that the U.S. decided to quit the peace talks as the two sides had already concluded a peace agreement.

Trump’s tweet about the proposal to invite the Taliban to Camp David just a few days before the 9/11 anniversary ignited a domestic political furore. Many Americans are convinced that the Taliban had a role to play in the terror attacks launched by the Al Qaeda on American soil, despite strong denials from the Taliban. Trump himself had accused the Taliban of complicity in the 9/11 attacks during his campaign for the presidency in 2016, while criticising the Obama administration’s attempts to find a negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Afghanistan.

There are reports that many senior Trump administration officials, including his Vice President, Mike Pence, and National Security Adviser (NSA) John Bolton were unhappy with the idea of inviting the Taliban leadership to the U.S.

Bolton was strongly against any deal with the Taliban or for that matter withdrawing the U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Bolton has since been sacked by Trump. As Trump is fond of repeating, the country would currently be fighting in four different wars if he had listened to the advice of his former NSA. Trump is also not ruling out the possibility of ordering a unilateral withdrawal of U.S. troops in the absence of a deal with the Taliban.

The sudden breakdown of the peace talks has been welcomed in many quarters, most notably by Ghani and his supporters. Ghani has been openly critical of the talks conducted by the Trump administration with the Taliban. He and the internationally recognised government in Kabul were kept out of the loop by the U.S. while holding talks with its nemesis, the Taliban.

The proposed peace deal would have involved sharing of power between the elected government in Kabul and the Taliban. The Taliban has been calling for the formation of a government in Kabul that would include all political forces, including those opposed to the government. It has also been demanding that the presidential election scheduled to be held on September 28, in which Ghani plans to contest for a second term, be cancelled. A peace deal would have involved the setting up of an interim government with a new leader more acceptable to the Taliban.

In the security situation currently prevailing in Afghanistan, campaigning and the conduct of elections are extremely difficult. The Taliban has already staged attacks on the few election rallies that have been held. Ghani’s running mate, Amrullah Saleh, had a narrow escape after a Taliban suicide squad broke into his office.

Many of Ghani’s opponents, including his chief rival Abdullah Abdullah, were resigned to the signing of the peace agreement and the postponement of the elections.

Women’s groups too were alarmed by the news of the imminent return of the Taliban to the political mainstream. Most Afghans, especially women, do not believe that the Taliban has changed despite its pledges that women’s education and their right to work will not be curtailed. During its years in power, the Taliban had implemented very regressive policies, even forbidding girls from attending primary school.

However, the fact of the matter is that the Taliban today controls 66 districts in the country and has a strong presence in 193 other districts. The government is in full control of only 138 districts. The last presidential election was widely disrupted by the Taliban and only a minuscule minority of the population was able to vote.

India, which has been suspicious from the outset about the Trump administration’s likely rapprochement with the Taliban, has reasons to be happy with the unexpected turn of events. The Indian government had conveyed its misgivings about the proposed U.S. deal with the Taliban to Khalilzad on his frequent visits to New Delhi.

The External Affairs Ministry spokesman said in the second week of September that the Indian government “was reasonably confident that any decision taken on the peace process by the international community, including the U.S., will take on board our concerns”.

India fears that a Taliban-dominated government in Kabul will help Pakistan retrieve the strategic depth it had lost. The Afghan peace process had also helped Pakistan regain some of its influence in the U.S. The Trump administration will still need Islamabad’s help if it has to conduct an orderly withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan.

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