A long way to Afghan peace

February 19, 2020


The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

SUCH is the irony of history that yet another superpower is negotiating its exit from Afghanistan as the war-ravaged country recently observed the 31st anniversary of the withdrawal of the last Soviet soldier from its soil. While the Russian forces pulled out in 1989, a decade after invading Afghanistan, it has already been nearly two decades since the Americans have been engaged in an unwinnable war.

Roughly, 3,500 American and allied troops have been killed in a war costing trillions of dollars. The US went into Afghanistan in 2001 out of revenge, with little understanding of a land, which is often described as the ‘graveyard of empires’. The US officials are now engaged in protracted peace negotiations that could bring their soldiers back home. But there’s still a long way to go before the exit is possible.

Some of those whom the Americans are negotiating peace with had also fought the Soviets with US support. Hailed then as ‘holy warriors’, they drove out the Red Army with the weapons supplied by the US. History took another turn when some of them turned their guns on their former patrons.

Many of those who sat across the table with American officials in Doha are former inmates of the infamous Guantanamo prison. For two generations, Afghans have only seen wars and there is little hope that their miseries will end soon despite some significant progress being made in the peace talks between the US and the Afghan Taliban.

A divided dispensation in Kabul makes it extremely difficult to reach a political settlement.

In a major breakthrough, the two sides have agreed to a temporary truce raising prospects of a deal that may bring an end to the US war in Afghanistan. But given the complexities of the Afghan conflict, achieving a workable political settlement may not be so easy. If everything goes well a peace agreement between the US and the Taliban is likely to be signed by the end of this month that will be followed by intra-Afghan talks. The format of the talks that is likely to be held in Oslo next month is yet to be finalised.

Indeed, the possibility of the 18-year-long US war coming to an end has never been so close. But much will depend on the next phase that would require intra-Afghan negotiations on the post-US withdrawal setup. It may not be that easy given the existing political fragmentation in Afghanistan.

A divided dispensation with various power centres in Kabul makes it extremely difficult to reach a political settlement. The prospects of the Ashraf Ghani government (whose legitimacy has been challenged under a controversial election) coming up with a coherent position if and when talks with Kabul and the Taliban follow is uncertain. The official result of last September’s presidential election, which was mired in allegations of rigging, was only announced late last night and has already been contested by Abdullah Abdullah.

With the ongoing power struggle there is still no clarity on who would represent the Kabul government in the ensuing Afghan negotiations. While President Ghani insists that he would lead the talks, others want a more inclusive representation. In contrast, the Taliban are much more united and prepared for talks. Increasing international recognition has given the militia greater confidence. There are also indications of some of the warlords and power groups striking separate deals with the Taliban further weakening the Kabul government’s position.

Then there is the question of whether the Taliban would agree to a longer ceasefire while the talks continue. There is no indication yet of the insurgents agreeing to a permanent truce without an accord on the future political setup. The Taliban leaders are still holding their cards close to their chest. It’s certainly going to be a long-drawn-out and extremely complicated dialogue process given past events.

A major reason for the Taliban not agreeing to a longer ceasefire is that it would be hard to mobilise the fighters once they have gone home. Reduction in violence, and that too for a shorter period, still keeps the fighters at the post. The Taliban had only committed to a halt in roadside and suicide bombings as well as rocket attacks.

There was a massive escalation in attacks from both sides in the days before the truce agreement was set to be implemented. The Taliban had launched a series of spectacular attacks on the Afghan forces in various provinces killing several government soldiers.

Similarly, American ground and air forces have intensified their attacks on Taliban strongholds killing a number of militants. Many civilians have also reportedly been killed in the attack by the air forces. It remains to be seen whether the two sides uphold the truce, a precondition for the signing of the peace agreement on Feb 29 in Doha.

Under the proposed agreement, some 5,000 Taliban prisoners held by American and Afghan authorities will be released further reinforcing the insurgent forces. It is apparent that the Taliban have also shown flexibility in their demand for a complete withdrawal of American forces.

The drawing down of American forces could start immediately after the signing of the agreement — from about 13,000 to 8,600. But it would take several months for the complete withdrawal of US troops depending on the successful implementation of the deal. However, the US security agencies would continue to engage in operations against Al Qaeda and the remnants of the militant Islamic State group.

It is evident that there is bipartisan support in the US for withdrawal from a festering war in Afghanistan that even the biggest superpower with its entire military was not able to win. But a peace deal paving the way for America’s exit from Afghanistan will certainly give a huge boost to President Donald Trump’s bid for second term.

Still, there is still a long way to go for a peace settlement to end the nearly two-decade-old US military presence that began shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Importantly, for peace to return to Afghanistan it is imperative that all Afghan factions must reach an agreement among themselves.

The writer is an author and journalist.


Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, February 19th, 2020