The United States seems ready to give up on Afghanistan.
After the World Trade Center came down the U.S. accused al-Qaeda, parts of which were hosted in Afghanistan. The Taliban government offered the U.S. to extradite al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden to an Islamic country to be judged under Islamic law. The U.S. rejected that and decided instead to destroy the Afghan government.
Taliban units, supported by Pakistani officers, were at that time still fighting against the Northern Alliance which held onto a few areas in the north of the country. Under threats from the U.S. Pakistan, which sees Afghanistan as its natural depth hinterland, was pressed into service. In exchange for its cooperation with the U.S. operation it was allowed to extradite its forces and main figures of the Taliban.
U.S. special forces were dropped into north Afghanistan. They came with huge amounts of cash and the ability to call in B-52 bombers. Together with the Northern Alliance they move towards Kabul bombing any place where some feeble resistance came from. The Taliban forces dissolved. Many resettled in Pakistan. Al-Qaeda also vanished.
A conference with Afghan notables was held in Germany’s once capital Bonn. The Afghans wanted to reestablish the former Kingdom but were pressed into accepting a western style democracy. Fed with large amounts of western money the norther warlords, all well known mass-murderers, and various greedy exiles were appointed as a government. To them it was all about money. There was little capability and interest to govern.
All these U.S. mistakes made in the early days are still haunting the country.
For a few years the Taliban went quiet. But continued U.S. operations, which included random bombing of weddings, torture and abduction of assumed al-Qaeda followers, alienated the people. Pakistan feared that it would be suffocated between a permanently U.S. occupied Afghanistan and a hostile India. Four years after being ousted the Taliban were reactivated and found regrown local support.
Busy with fighting an insurgency in Iraq the U.S. reacted slowly. It then surged troops into Afghanistan, pulled back, surged again and is now again pulling back. The U.S. military aptly demonstrated its excellent logistic capabilities and its amazing cultural incompetence. The longer it fought the more Afghan people stood up against it. The immense amount of money spent to ‘rebuild’ Afghanistan went to U.S. contractors and Afghan warlords but had little effect on the ground. Now half the country is back under Taliban control while the other half is more or less contested.
Before his election campaign Donald Trump spoke out against the war on Afghanistan. During his campaign he was more cautious pointing to the danger of a nuclear Pakistan as a reason for staying in Afghanistan. But Pakistan is where the U.S. supply line is coming through and there are no reasonable alternatives. Staying in Afghanistan to confront Pakistan while depending on Pakistan for logistics does not make sense.
Early this year the U.S. stopped all aid to Pakistan. Even the old Pakistani government was already talking about blocking the logistic line. The incoming prime minister Imran Khan has campaigned for years against the U.S. war on Afghanistan. He very much prefers an alliance with China over any U.S. rapprochement. The U.S. hope is that Pakistan will have to ask the IMF for another bailout and thus come back under Washington’s control. But it is more likely that Imran Khan will ask China for financial help.
Under pressure from the military Trump had agreed to raise the force in Afghanistan to some 15,000 troops. But these were way to few to hold more than some urban areas. Eighty percent of the Afghan people live in the countryside. Afghan troops and police forces are incapable or unwilling to fight their Taliban brethren. It was obvious that this mini-surge would fail:
By most objective measures, President Donald Trump’s year-old strategy for ending the war in Afghanistan has produced few positive results.
Afghanistan’s beleaguered soldiers have failed to recapture significant new ground from the Taliban. Civilian deaths have hit historic highs. The Afghan military is struggling to build a reliable air force and expand the number of elite fighters. Efforts to cripple lucrative insurgent drug smuggling operations have fallen short of expectations. And U.S. intelligence officials say the president’s strategy has halted Taliban gains but not reversed their momentum, according to people familiar with the latest assessments.
To blame Pakistan for its support for some Taliban is convenient, but makes little sense. In a recent talk John Sopko, the U.S. Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), made a crucial point:
“We keep referring to Pakistan as being the key problem. But the problem also was that the Afghan government at times was viewed very negatively by their local people and what you really need is to insert a government that the people support, a government that is not predatory, a government that is not a bunch of lawless warlords,” observed Sopko.
He went on to say that the U.S. policy of pouring in billions of dollars in these unstable environments contributed to the problem of creating more warlords and powerful people who took the law into their own hands.
“In essence, the government we introduced, particularly some of the Afghan local police forces, which were nothing other than warlord militias with some uniforms on, were just as bad as the terrorists before them,” said Sopko …
This was the problem from the very beginning. The U.S. bribed itself into Afghanistan. It spent tons of money but did not gain real support. It bombed and shot aimlessly at ‘Taliban’ that were more often than not just the local population. It incompetently fought 17 one-year-long wars instead of a consistently planned and sustained political, economic and military campaign.
After a year of another useless surge the Trump administration decided to pull back from most active operations and to bet on negotiations with the Taliban:
The shift to prioritize initial American talks with the Taliban over what has proved a futile “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” process stems from a realization by both Afghan and American officials that President Trump’s new Afghanistan strategy is not making a fundamental difference in rolling back Taliban gains.
While no date for any talks has been set, and the effort could still be derailed, the willingness of the United States to pursue direct talks is an indication of the sense of urgency in the administration to break the stalemate in Afghanistan.
Afghan officials and political leaders said direct American talks with the Taliban would probably then grow into negotiations that would include the Taliban, the Afghan government, the United States and Pakistan.
In February the Taliban declared their position in a public Letter of the Islamic Emirate to the American people (pdf). The five pages letter offered talks but only towards one aim:
Afghans have continued to burn for the last four decades in the fire of imposed wars. They are longing for peace and a just system but they will never tire from their just cause of defending their creed, country and nation against the invading forces of your warmongering government because they have rendered all the previous and present historic sacrifices to safeguard their religious values and national sovereignty. If they make a deal on their sovereignty now, it would be unforgettable infidelity with their proud history and ancestors.
Last weeks talks between the Taliban and U.S. diplomats took place in Doha, Qatar. Remarkably the Afghan government was excluded. Despite the rousing tone of the Reuters report below the positions that were exchanged do not point to a successful conclusion:
According to one Taliban official, who said he was part of a four-member delegation, there were “very positive signals” from the meeting, which he said was conducted in a “friendly atmosphere” in a Doha hotel.
“You can’t call it peace talks,” he said. “These are a series of meetings for initiating formal and purposeful talks. We agreed to meet again soon and resolve the Afghan conflict through dialogue.”
The two sides had discussed proposals to allow the Taliban free movement in two provinces where they would not be attacked, an idea that President Ashraf Ghani has already rejected. They also discussed Taliban participation in the Afghan government.
“The only demand they made was to allow their military bases in Afghanistan,” said the Taliban official.
“We have held three meetings with the U.S. and we reached a conclusion to continue talks for meaningful negotiations,” said a second Taliban official.
“However, our delegation made it clear to them that peace can only be restored to Afghanistan when all foreign forces are withdrawn,” he said.
This does not sound promising:
- In a first step the Taliban want to officially rule parts of the country and use it as a safe haven. The Afghan government naturally rejects that.
- Participation of the Taliban in the Afghan government is an idea of the Afghan president Ghani. It is doubtful that this could be successfully arranged. Norther Alliance elements in the Afghan government, like the ‘chief executive’ Abdullah Abdullah, are unlikely to ever agree to it. The Taliban also have no interest to be ‘part of the government’ and to then get blamed for its failures. Their February letter makes clear that they want to be the government.
- The U.S. wants bases in Afghanistan. The Taliban, and Pakistan behind them, reject that and will continue to do so.
It is difficult to see how especially the last mutually exclusive positions can ever be reconciled.
The Taliban are ready to accept a peaceful retreat of the U.S. forces. That is their only offer. They may agree to keep foreign Islamist fighters out of their country. The U.S. has no choice but to accept. It is currently retreating to the cities and large bases. The outlying areas will fall to the Taliban. Sooner or later the U.S. supply lines will be cut. Its bases will come under fire.
There is no staying in Afghanistan. A retreat is the only issue the U.S. can negotiate about. It is not a question of “if” but of “when”.
The Soviet war in Afghanistan took nine years. The time was used to build up a halfway competent government and army that managed to hold off the insurgents for three more years after the Soviet withdrawal. The government only fell when the Soviets cut the money line. The seventeen year long U.S. occupation did not even succeed in that. The Afghan army is corrupt and its leaders are incompetent. The U.S. supplied it with expensive and complicate equipment that does not fit Afghan needs. As soon as the U.S. withdraws the whole south, the east and Kabul will immediately fall back into Taliban hands. Only the north may take a bit longer. They will probably ask China to help them in developing their country.
The erratic empire failed in another of its crazy endeavors. That will not hinder it to look for a new ones. The immense increase of the U.S. military budget, which includes 15,000 more troops, points to a new large war. Which country will be its next target?