Halting Afghan talks

Updated September 10, 2019

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AN unexpected tweet from US President Donald Trump has put the brakes on the Afghan peace talks, giving rise to fears that the hard-won gains for a transition of power in Afghanistan may have been reversed.

Mr Trump stunned many people on Saturday evening when he announced that he was supposed to meet senior leaders of the Afghan Taliban and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at Camp David on Sunday, but that the planned secret talks had been called off after a US soldier was killed in Kabul.

The attack that took several lives was claimed by the Taliban.

In a series of tweets, Mr Trump hit out at the Taliban, asking "what kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position?"

The Taliban said the US president’s words had damaged his credibility, and they have warned of more American deaths.

There is no doubt that the Taliban’s continuing onslaught ought to be strongly condemned.

The group’s hardline position of bringing guns to the negotiating table is inconsistent with the goal of peace and has justifiably angered the US administration. But to respond to the Taliban’s violence in the manner adopted by Mr Trump is not only ineffectual, it is also self-destructive.

Mr Trump’s arbitrary decision has greatly undermined the work of Zalmay Khalilzad, America’s chief negotiator on Afghanistan, who had managed to move the needle on winding down 18 years of a bloody war by getting the Taliban to agree to a landmark accord "in principle" just days ago.

Although the US may have legitimate concerns about the high levels of violence in Afghanistan, it is entirely possible that increased diplomatic pressure on the Taliban could have resulted in lesser bloodshed and persuaded the insurgents to engage with the Ghani government.

It is true that in an ideal situation, a ceasefire would have been in place as warring parties negotiated. It is equally true that the Taliban have no qualms about displaying their strength to put pressure on their adversaries, especially as they are not bound by time constraints. But surely this makes continuing with the peace talks — accompanied by a closer look at Afghanistan’s long history of civil war and hardline positions — all the more necessary.

Where dialogue makes things possible, walking away from negotiations achieves nothing.

Calling off the talks will hardly lead to the change in the current situation that the Americans are hoping for. In fact, arbitrary moves by the US president will only intensify the cycle of violence in Afghanistan and create more uncertainty in the region.

The Trump administration should know better than to look for quick-fix solutions to the Afghan war. Meanwhile, any dreams of a foreign policy win before the next US election must give way to the realisation that Afghanistan is too serious a matter to link to domestic politics.

Published in Dawn, September 10th, 2019