Exiting Afghanistan

Updated December 28, 2018

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THE beginning of US failure in Afghanistan has been attributed to various decisions in recent history.

Abandoning Afghanistan after the Soviets were defeated, waging war in Afghanistan in response to 9/11 and allowing itself to be distracted by a disastrous war of choice in Afghanistan are some of the well-known reasons offered for US failure in that country.

But another less-discussed aspect may be the true reason for ultimate military failure in Afghanistan which appears imminent: the decision to exclude the Afghan Taliban from the Bonn Conference, where the contours of the current dispensation in Afghanistan were decided. Instead of a durable political settlement, the seeds of a near two-decades-old war were sown.

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The naïveté and inability to grasp nuances in Afghanistan that the US has displayed has severely, and perhaps irreversibly, affected its ability to help craft a stable and secure future for Afghanistan.

The Afghan Taliban, unlike Al Qaeda and later the TTP and now IS, were a nationalist force with no known transnational agenda.

Now, as the US appears to be attempting to fashion a hasty exit after a prolonged stay, the US may create yet more problems for the region.

A withdrawal without a peace settlement would risk not just plunging Afghanistan into chaos but could also have disastrous effects across the region.

Read more: Pentagon opposes Trump’s troop withdrawal plan

With US President Donald Trump often appearing to be at odds with his own administration, it is not known to what extent the president’s notorious reliance on instinct can or will be offset by serious thinking amongst his advisers.

Moreover, adding to the confusion is that the US national security establishment and military leadership appear wedded to the idea of permanent war if they cannot win the war, which they have fought to a bloody stalemate at best.

If there has been one unifying element among all internal and external actors in Afghanistan, it is that IS should not be allowed to expand in the country. But President Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw US troops from Syria that have been fighting IS indicates that even the spectre of the militant group in Afghanistan may not be enough to compel rational US decision-making in Afghanistan.

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How likely is it that, as a Pentagon report this week has asserted, reintegration of Taliban fighters will take place if the fighters and Taliban leadership believe that they may be on the verge of outright victory?

For Pakistan, the challenge remains the same: helping achieve an Afghan peace settlement that has the support of internal and external powers.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s intensive shuttle diplomacy is visible, but it is not clear to what extent Pakistan has a plan or ability to help achieve a region-wide desire for peace and stability in Afghanistan.

Perhaps the foreign minister should share news on his efforts with the country.

Published in Dawn, December 28th, 2018