War and peace strategies leave Afghanistan in a deadly muddle
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The war was not yet over when peace was given a chance in Afghanistan. But after a brutal start to the year, it’s time for a strategic rethink.
Over the past 16 years, Afghanistan has been a laboratory for a dizzying number of policy experiments to help secure the country. US troop levels have surged and ebbed, Taliban militants have been bombed and wooed to the negotiating table, Pakistan has been admonished and coddled to behave in its neighbouring state, and the international community has cooperated and competed in the desperate bid to find a lasting solution to the Afghan problem.
None of them have worked and the situation on the ground for ordinary Afghans only gets worse.
The policy muddle and its brutal consequences have been particularly stark this year, raising questions over whether US President Donald Trump’s new Afghanistan strategy can solve or worsen the problem – or not make any difference at all.
On Wednesday, January 24, just days after Taliban fighters killed more than 40 people in Kabul’s landmark Hotel Intercontinental, the militant group issued a statement confirming a recent peace meeting between a Taliban delegation and Pakistani officials.
The statement, issued in the local Pashto language, said a five-member Taliban team had travelled to the Pakistani capital of Islamabad to explain their position on a “political solution” to the crisis. “The Islamic Emirate [the Taliban] wants to emphasise that it desires a durable solution to the Afghan problem so all causes of the fighting are ended and the people live in peace and stability.”
But peace was not in their sights three days later, when the Islamist militant group disguised a minivan as an ambulance, packed it with explosives, and detonated the vehicle at a busy thoroughfare in the Afghan capital, killing more than 100 people and wounding over 200 others.
The Taliban “peace and stability” announcement, issued as Afghans were reeling from the recent attacks, incensed a populace growing weary of the cycle of hypocrisy and violence in their country. On Twitter and other social media sites, Afghans slammed politicians and analysts who have, in the past, advocated negotiations with the Taliban.
High Peace Council kicks off with an assassination
The “talking to the Taliban” solution surfaced shortly after Barack Obama took office, when the US president inherited two unfinished conflicts – in Afghanistan and Iraq – from his predecessor. As the Obama policy on Afghanistan lurched from troop drawbacks to surges, the message to the Taliban was unequivocal: Washington and its allies were losing the will to fight.
Peace initiatives meanwhile were picking up pace, backed by international funding. But shortly after former Afghan President Hamid Karzai set up a High Peace Council (HPC), the Taliban killed the council’s chief, former Afghan PM Burhanuddin Rabbani, in September 2011.
Last week’s brutal ambulance attack in Kabul was conducted barely 200 yards away from the HPC offices.
Despite Rabbani’s assassination and the lack of progress on the peace track, the Taliban were nevertheless granted a political office -- which they unsuccessfully tried to call “the embassy of the Islamic Emirate” – in the Qatari capital of Doha. From their luxury base in the Gulf, Taliban representatives have traveled to Norway and Pakistan for talks that have yielded no results, prompting the Afghan government to contemplate closing down the Qatar office last year. But the closure was held off amid concerns that it would undermine peace efforts.
Where guns, not flowers, bloom
In their message claiming the ambulance attack, the Taliban blamed Trump’s decision to increase US troop levels and targeted strikes against militant commanders in Afghanistan. “The Islamic Emirate has a clear message for Trump and his hand kissers that if you go ahead with a policy of aggression and speak from the barrel of a gun, don’t expect Afghans to grow flowers in response,” said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid in a statement.
The Taliban are not the only ones speaking from the barrel of a gun. The Islamic State (IS) group has also set up operations in Afghanistan, attracting disgruntled Taliban fighters and conducting increasingly audacious attacks such as the January 24 assault on the Save the Children offices in the southeastern city of Jalalabad.
The new entrant is increasing the competition between jihadist groups and changing their modus operandi, according to some experts. “The Taliban and the Islamic State are shifting the battle from the rural areas to the cities, so we’re seeing an urbanisation of the conflict,” explained Bilal Sarwary, reporting for FRANCE 24 from Kabul. “We’re also seeing the American military and the Afghan government go after mid and high level commanders and so, in some ways, this latest uptick in violence is a revenge for those attacks.”
Taliban and Trump stage Twitter war
On August 21, when Trump announced his “new” policy to boost the US troop presence in Afghanistan, it was widely viewed as a bid to convince the Taliban that they cannot win on the battlefield.
While the new US troop figures have not been released, an estimated 8,400 American troops are currently stationed in Afghanistan, most assigned to an approximately 13,000-strong international force that is training and advising the Afghan military.
The Taliban however has maintained that as long as there are international troops in Afghanistan, the group will not engage in peace negotiations, leading some experts, such as a Karim Pakzad from the Paris-based IRIS (Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques), to conclude that, “As long as this country [Afghanistan] remains the staple of US foreign policy, I think Afghans will know no peace.”
Others however believe that the prospect of a total US withdrawal will not spell peace either – especially for a populace living in fear of a Taliban return. “Without the engagement of the US, the conflict will continue,” said Haroun Mir from the Kabul-based Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies. “Only the international community has the capacity, the financial, and the military means necessary to put pressure on all actors to bring an end to the conflict.”
Trump however has shown no interest in getting the different parties in the Afghan conflict to the negotiating table. “When you see what they [the Taliban] are doing and the atrocities that they're committing...it is horrible," Trump told a UN Security Council briefing in the White House on Monday. "We don't want to talk to the Taliban. We're going to finish what we have to finish, what nobody else has been able to finish, we're going to be able to do it," he said.
Taking a page from the Trump diplomatic book, the Taliban promptly tweeted its response; “To: @realDonaldTrump Let us know when you're ready to talk to discuss your exit. Soon is better before it becomes very ugly for you in Afghanistan. You know how to reach us through our office in Doha.”
To: @realDonaldTrumpعبد الله الوزير (@Alvizier) January 29, 2018
Let us know when you're ready to talk to discuss your exit.
Soon is better before it becomes very ugly for you in Afghanistan.
You know how to reach us through our office in Doha.????#Taliban https://t.co/NEP1hDIp6j
‘The Taliban is afraid of democracy’
Beyond the Twitter one-upmanship though, there has been little clarity on Trump’s new strategy. A day after the US president said there would be no talks, US Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan was telling reporters in Kabul that there was no change in Washington’s policy of forcing the Taliban through military pressure into talks.
Sullivan’s message echoed that of top US commander for the Middle East (CENTCOM) Gen. Jospeh Votel earlier this year, leaving journalists scrambling to decipher the implications of Washington’s latest policy update. “WTF? We just spent two nights in Afghanistan w @CENTCOM’s Gen Votel this weekend where US commander after commander said they were GLAD they had a new S. Asia strategy SPECIFICALLY w the mission goal to pressure the Taliban to reconciliation talks,” tweeted Kevin Baron, a Pentagon reporter and executive editor of Defense One.
WTF? We just spent two nights in Afghanistan w @CENTCOM’s Gen Votel this weekend where US commander after commander said they were GLAD they had a new S. Asia strategy SPECIFICALLY w the mission goal to pressure the Taliban to reconciliation talks. https://t.co/ukaiJutFxLKevin Baron (@DefenseBaron) January 29, 2018
While the US has been providing mixed signals on its Afghanistan strategy, in many Afghan circles, particularly in Kabul, patience is running out for the militant negotiations track.
“The strategy was to prove to the Taliban that they will not win militarily and that they should join the democratic process. But the Taliban is afraid of democracy. Right now, we have free speech, women’s rights, civil society institutions and Afghans are not willing to give it all up. If the Taliban joins the political process, they don’t have a message for the people. They know they will lose elections,” explained Mir.
War, not peace, is the answer
War then is the Taliban’s best bet. But with every attempt to display their strength via brazen attacks in urban areas, the militant group is losing support among Afghans who are witnessing a flight of capital and international investments as the post-war recovery mission in their country slows to a crawl.
For the US-led international coalition to defeat the Taliban though, policy framers have to take on an old bugbear: Pakistan’s support for the Islamist group.
Afghan and US authorities have long blamed parts of the Pakistani military intelligence establishment of aiding jihadist groups. Trump’s recent decision to suspend security aid to Pakistan reflects Washington’s frustration over Islamabad’s “lies & deceit,” but most analysts believe it will do little to change Pakistan’s behaviour.
Given Islamabad’s intransigence, some experts such as Mir says China – a key Pakistani ally which shares a 90-kilometer border with Afghanistan – "could play a major role in building a regional consensus”.
But international and regional talks on Afghanistan have often been working at cross-purposes amid rivalries between key players. A Quadrilateral Coordinating Group (QCG) comprising Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the US has failed to attract Taliban participation.
Russia meanwhile has been opening a dialogue with the Taliban. But the US has skipped out on Russia-backed six party talks amid mounting suspicions between Moscow and Washington.
With the peace track making no progress, some US policy makers are circling back to the old war plan – without Pakistan on board. Many experts note that the US staged a unilateral military assault against al Qaeda inside Pakistan with some success, including the 2011 US killing of Osama bin Laden. If Pakistan is unable or unwilling to crack down on jihadist groups, the US should undertake a unilateral military operation against the Taliban on Pakistani soil. If that’s the case, the US strategy for Afghanistan would spin back to square one – 16 years later and after a loss of thousands of Afghan and American lives.