IT may not be a Saigon moment for the American forces, yet an imminent deal with the Taliban clearing the way for gradual withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan is no less ignominious for Washington. It may not be a document of surrender, but neither is it a declaration of victory for the most powerful military power on earth.
After fighting for nearly 18 years, the Americans seem desperate to end an unwinnable war in a region often described as the “graveyard of empires”. Even if the United States believes it has not lost the war, it has not won it either. But will the accord between the US and the Taliban bring peace to a country devastated and fragmented by four decades of conflict?
In what could be termed a remarkable twist of irony, US officials sat for more than one year across the table to negotiate peace with the very insurgent leaders who the US had once declared terrorists and sought to annihilate. The presence in the negotiations of Mullah Baradar, the Taliban’s second in command who was incarcerated for nine years by the Pakistani government at the behest of the US, made the agreement possible. Among the Taliban’s negotiating team were also four former inmates of Guantanamo. The travel ban on them has just been lifted.
Unsurprisingly, the Taliban see the agreement on withdrawal of foreign forces, which has been its main demand, as a victory. Although still to be approved by the Kabul government, the agreement would see 5,000 US troops leave the country within five months. The time frame for the withdrawal of the remainder of foreign troops would depend on security guarantees by the Taliban, including a pledge that the country will not become a safe haven for terror groups. According to one report, the troop withdrawal could be completed in 16 months, provided the Taliban stick to their promise.
It is still unclear what kind of political setup the Taliban would be willing to work within.
Kabul’s consent to the agreement could open a path for direct negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan officials over the country’s political future. But that would be the most difficult part of the Afghan peace process. The Ghani government was completely sidelined while the Americans directly negotiated with the Taliban. There is no word from the Taliban leadership as yet that they would be willing to talk to the Kabul government now about the future political setup.
For many Afghans the prospect of the return of Taliban rule, however exaggerated the fear may be, is disconcerting. To alleviate the concerns, chief US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad has assured the Afghan leaders, that as part of the agreement, the US would reserve the right to assist Afghan forces should they be attacked by the Taliban.
Intriguingly, the Taliban have yet to define their political agenda, adding to a sense of confusion. There has been some indication that the conservative Islamist movement would be willing to work within a pluralistic political system. Yet there is no clarity whether the group would take part in the elections.
In their interaction with various Afghan factions and delegations, the Taliban leaders have held out assurances that they recognise women’s rights and would not oppose female education, but that has not helped remove the concerns about the Taliban returning to their old ways after the withdrawal of foreign forces.
Surely the Taliban political leadership appears more moderate and flexible in their views. But it is not clear whether the commanders leading the fighting would also be amenable to change. There is also the question about the modalities of the Taliban’s participation in Afghanistan’s future political power structure.
It will also be important to see the Taliban’s position on the coming presidential election later this month. The campaign has remained lukewarm, as most candidates believe the polls could be delayed because of peace negotiations. It seems improbable that the Taliban would participate in the election even after an agreement.
The situation has become more complex with the Taliban having extended their control and influence over a large part of the country. Moreover, they have never ceased fighting while negotiating with the Americans.
Hours after Mr Khalilzad briefed the Afghan government on the agreement, the Taliban carried out a devastating suicide bomb attack in a high-security zone that is home to several international organisations in Kabul, killing more than a dozen people.
Meanwhile, the advance of the Taliban forces in various Afghan provinces has also intensified. The insurgents have launched assaults on two northern Afghan cities in two days, which seemed a clear attempt to increase their leverage at the negotiating table.
More alarming is the escalation in terrorist attacks by the militant Islamic State group whereby it is sending a clear message that it could play the spoiler in any peace agreement. Last month the terrorist group that has a significant presence in parts of Afghanistan carried out a suicide bomb attack on a wedding celebration in Kabul, killing more than 60 people.
It was among the most horrific attacks in Afghanistan claimed by the group since it first established a foothold in the eastern part of the country. American officials are hopeful that the level of violence could be brought down after the agreement is concluded.
The withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan will also have a huge impact on regional geopolitics. The country’s strategic location has historically made it vulnerable to the involvement of outside powers and proxy battles.
There is still a long way to go before peace can return to the war-torn country. Decades of conflict that have exacted a severe toll on the lives of millions of Afghans and wrought destruction cannot be ended easily even if the two sides reach an agreement. Complete withdrawal of foreign troops may have its own complications. The long war has left the country more divided. With their battlefield victories and expanding territorial control, the insurgents have certainly gained the upper hand as the Afghan endgame draws nearer.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, September 4th, 2019