Will the US withdrawal from Afghanistan put the Taliban in power?
13 Aug 2020|

The endurance reflected in the oft-quoted Taliban taunt to the Americans, ‘You have the watches, but we have the time’, is evidently paying off. The United States and its allies have reached a point of exhaustion in Afghanistan. President Donald Trump, a longstanding critic of America’s Afghan adventure, has firmly acted to bring ‘the boys’ home and extract the US and its NATO allies from what has become a very costly and unwinnable war. The Taliban and their main backer, Pakistan, have never been closer to victory. Where does this leave war-torn Afghanistan?

The US is now at the same juncture that it found itself at in 1969 after six years of combat in Vietnam, and where the Soviet Union was after its decade-long occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. The US wants to exit militarily from Afghanistan, but with some face-saving measures. It signed a bilateral peace agreement with the Taliban in February to facilitate a US and allied troop withdrawal. It also hailed the deal as a significant step towards promoting a political settlement between the warring Afghan parties. Trump has shown no qualms about elevating the Taliban to the status of a US partner in peace, perhaps to improve his chances of re-election in November.

The US has acted in earnest by withdrawing some 5,300 troops, out of a total of 14,000, and Trump has promised to pull out most of the remaining soldiers by November. Meanwhile, the US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Afghan American Zalmay Khalilzad, has enhanced his shuttle diplomacy, styled after the approach of Henry Kissinger in 1969 as he negotiated the Vietnam peace agreement and in the mid-1970s as he sought to resolve the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Khalilzad’s goal is to encourage the Taliban and other Afghan parties, including the government in Kabul, to reach a political settlement while persuading interested parties from the region and further afield to support the process.

However, for many reasons, the foundations for achieving a viable and lasting political settlement are very thin. The US–Taliban peace agreement does not provide for a ceasefire; nor does it obligate the Taliban to negotiate with other Afghan parties in good faith. It obliges the US and the Taliban to avoid fighting one another but does not ask the Taliban to stop their operations against the Afghan National Security Forces. Since the agreement was signed, the Taliban have amplified their operations, resulting in more military and civilian casualties than in the preceding months, though the Afghan and allied forces have also been responsible for some of the civilian losses. The Afghan security forces are overstretched, with unsustainable levels of losses and desertions.

The Taliban are not the only armed opposition in Afghanistan. The many other groups include the Khorasan Branch of Islamic State (IS-K) and al-Qaeda. IS-K has been responsible for some of the deadliest attacks across the country, including the latest in the eastern province of Nangarhar on 2–3 August, which killed 39 people and injured many more. IS-K is a rival of the Taliban and the Taliban have no control over it. Al-Qaeda reportedly maintains close links with the Taliban. For the US to expect the Taliban to restrain IS-K or al-Qaeda, or, for that matter, some of its own splinter groups and criminal gangs that operate in Afghanistan, is a mistake.

The government in Kabul is very weak, with writ over no more than half of the country. It lacks a widely acceptable and nationally unifying leader and has been wracked by kleptocratic, ethnicised and entrepreneurial politics. President Ashraf Ghani, who was declared in February the winner of the September 2019 presidential election with fewer than one million votes in a country of some 37 million people, has proved to be very controversial. His claim of electoral victory was initially challenged as fraud by his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, and five other candidates. The dispute was settled for the time being with Washington’s heavy-handed intervention, resulting in the confirmation of Ghani as president and Abdullah as the newly created chair of the High Council for National Reconciliation outside the government’s executive structure.

Neither this development nor the inadequacy of the government in serving the common good, especially in the wake of the savage Covid-19 pandemic, has left much room for most Afghans to have any trust in the government. Ghani has been struggling to cobble together an inclusive delegation to open dialogue with the Taliban, who, with their supporters inside and outside Afghanistan, are willing to bide their time until all foreign troops are withdrawn before they make a decisive bid for power.

The US–Taliban deal contains nothing to stop outside interference in support of different groups in Afghanistan in pursuit of conflicting regional geopolitical objectives. While Pakistan as the traditional backer of the Taliban is keen to protect its interests against Iran and India, Iran has made common cause with Russia and China in an anti-US posture. Iran does not want Pakistan’s strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia to enable the Saudis to secure anti-Iranian leverage in Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, given the web of regional tensions and rivalries, all of these actors, with the exception of India, have also been courting the Taliban as a future key player in Afghanistan.

The Afghanistan situation is so complicated that it would take a lot more than a US–Taliban rapprochement to bring about a lasting and viable political settlement of the conflict. For an honourable withdrawal, the US needs to leave behind a stable Afghanistan.

An interlocking national and regional consensus is essential. This should also involve a positive understanding with Russia and China as to what kind of functioning Afghan state could be nurtured that would have the necessary domestic and foreign policy capability to look after itself on the one hand, and not be perceived as a threat in the neighbourhood on the other. But it seems that a valuable opportunity might have been missed. The Taliban are now better positioned than any other party to influence the future direction of Afghanistan, whatever that may turn out to be.