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Trump’s art of quitting a bad deal wins some Afghan support

Mohammad Ismail, Reuters | File photo of Afghans arriving for prayers at a Kabul mosque.

As the US marks the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, President Donald Trump’s promise to end America’s longest war seems unlikely. But many Afghans have welcomed Trump’s recent pullout of US-Taliban talks.

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Fate, for many Afghans over the past few decades, has been determined by events that have occurred thousands of miles away from their beautiful, benighted homeland.

On September 11, 2001, as four planes crashed into New York’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, life for the people of Afghanistan was about to change. Eighteen years later, events and decisions made in the US still have the power to upend or transform ordinary Afghan lives.

Over the weekend, Trump’s Twitter shocker on Afghanistan caught everyone outside his inner circle by surprise, leaving pundits scrambling to digest the cause and consequences of the American commander-in-chief’s sudden halt to the US-Taliban talks.

For Afghans, who have been on tenterhooks about the outcome of the talks as the country heads for a presidential election later this month, the announcement came as a shock – and some degree of relief.

After enduring four decades of war, including two bouts of American engagements, Afghans are more than willing to give peace a chance. But even the most fervent peaceniks were not convinced that the latest US-Taliban talks, which began in Qatar in 2018, would bring peace to Afghanistan.

“We had a situation where talks were being held between the Americans and the Taliban about the fate of the Afghan nation. But ironically, the nation and the Afghan government were excluded, with the clear veto power lying with foreign envoys, the Taliban and subsequently Pakistan. These were behind-closed-doors, secret negations between the Americans and Taliban. It was quite embarrassing to see the Afghan government excluded,” noted Bilal Sarwary, a seasoned Afghan journalist, in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from Kabul.

While experts were slamming Trump’s latest Twitter adventures, many Afghans cautiously welcomed the US president’s decision to call off negotiations that lacked transparency, did not include their democratically elected government, and was turbocharged to meet unrealistic international troop withdrawal timelines ahead of the 2020 US presidential election.

"It is good that the talks have been cancelled, there should be intra-Afghan talks and people should be involved in them -- and they should be informed about them,” Mir Dil, an Afghan government employee, told AFP.

Eighteen years after they were ousted for harbouring terror groups such as al Qaeda, which conducted the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban today controls swathes of rural Afghanistan. But with their hardline Islamist positions, abuses against women’s and minority rights, the movement has never been popular among Afghans, noted Saad Mohseni, founder of Tolo TV, the country’s leading independent news station.

“The Taliban’s approval rating has never gone above 11 or 12 percent. For us, for a lot of Afghans, the frustrating thing was this peace deal was being imposed on us,” said Mohseni in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. In a survey conducted by Tolo, Mohseni revealed that of the 25,000 respondents, 75 percent supported the US president’s decision to halt the negotiations “until the Taliban commit seriously” to a just peace.

Taliban vows to continue fighting but they never stopped

The Taliban never committed to a ceasefire, a key demand of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s administration. The past few weeks have been particularly bloody, with the group launching deadly attacks across Afghanistan, including a September 5 bombing in Kabul that killed a US serviceman and 11 others.

On Tuesday, the Taliban vowed to continue fighting following the collapse of negotiations. "We had two ways to end occupation in Afghanistan, one was jihad and fighting, the other was talks and negotiations," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP. "If Trump wants to stop talks, we will take the first way and they will soon regret it."

But the Taliban never stopped fighting and neither did the US, with air strikes and night raids against the insurgent group continuing on the ground as the two sides talked in a Doha hotel banquet hall.

Historical, ideological, marriage ties to al Qaeda

The text of a putative draft agreement between US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban has not been released. But there were many reports from sources close to the talks of Taliban intransigence on a number of issues.

The militant group, for instance, insisted on being referred to as “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan", which angered many Afghans.

The crux of the negotiations centred on a scaled US troop withdrawal contingent on a Taliban pledge to control threats from the Islamic State (IS) group and other terrorist outfits. But the Taliban reportedly refused to specifically name al Qaeda in the draft text, opting instead for a fudge.

Given the close links between the Taliban and al Qaeda, the reports did not surprise Sarwary. “I personally think they will never be able to condemn al Qaeda publicly. Even if the Taliban want to do it, they are not in a position to do so since they are linked by ideology, history and intermarriages. A number of the Taliban military commanders don’t want to renounce al Qaeda. I would be quite surprised if the Taliban had full control of all their military commanders,” said Sarwary.

Some of the Taliban’s powerful commanders – such as Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of the deadly Haqqani Network – have close ties to al Qaeda as well as other jihadist groups operating in South Asia. These include Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad, which operate in the disputed Kashmir region, and anti-Shiite groups operating in Pakistan.

‘Risking death to vote’

The collapse of the peace talks has put Ghani in a stronger position after months of undermining moves and mixed messages from Washington.

As a superpower, the US has long had a problem empowering and enabling its partners in successive Afghan administrations. Before he handed over power in Afghanistan’s only peaceful political transition, Hamid Karzai, the country’s first post-Taliban president, was undermined and castigated by US envoys for a host of failures, including siphoning funds to cronies and associates and attempts to reach out to the Taliban – accusations the US was equally guilty of in Afghanistan.

Karzai’s successor, Ghani, a former World Bank official, faired considerably better when he came to power in 2014, signing US-Afghan bilateral security agreements that his predecessor refused to approve.

But there have been recent strains over the Afghan government’s exclusion from the talks as well as pressure from US envoy Khalilzad to postpone the upcoming presidential election.

The 2019 presidential election was originally set for April 20 before it was delayed to July 20. The election is now set for September 28.

Over the past few months, US officials in Afghanistan have floated the idea of installing a transitional government, comprised of diverse groups, with a rotating chairmanship that would, within an 18-month period, organise elections in which the Taliban would participate.

But there have been no indications the Taliban – which has dismissed elections as “a tool of infidel invaders” – would participate in any electoral process. “The big problem is the Taliban is for an emirate, where power is held by one leader or family or lineage. There is a disconnect and the Taliban have not changed their line on this,” said Lorenzo Delesgues, founder and former director of Integrity Watch Afghanistan, a Kabul-based NGO, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

Ghani has refused to further postpone elections, claiming an Afghan government requires legitimacy ahead of any major peace deal concerning the future of the country. It’s a position shared by many Afghans. “This country has a history of coup d’états and using tanks to oust governments. Elections are seen here as a triumph of ballots over bullets. The rush to install a transitional authority risks instability with warlords likely jockeying for power,” explained Sarwary.

A number of experts cite the insecurity, lack of logistical preparations and fears of fraud as major reasons for an election postponement.

But in an unprecedented joint statement issued last week, nine former US ambassadors to Afghanistan called for the election to go ahead. “Afghans deserve to determine their government and who will represent them in peace negotiations,” the letter noted. “For this to happen, there is a strong argument that presidential elections planned for September should go forward. Millions of Afghans have risked, and again are prepared to risk, death to vote. It is not up to the United States to deprive them of this opportunity to determine who speaks for the Afghan state.”

Perfect jihadist terrain

The upcoming presidential election is likely to spark a spike in violence, with the Taliban calling for a boycott of the vote and warning that rallies and polling stations would be targets.

But to combat the violence, Afghanistan requires security forces with the morale and willingness to fight. For that, the ambassadors’ statement noted, the country needs a strong central authority.

The recent mixed messaging from Washington, Sarwary notes, has undermined the Afghan security forces while boosting Taliban morale. “Taliban recruitment has gone up while many Afghans now think twice about joining the security forces,” said Sarwary.

During times of instability, Afghans – particularly in the insecure rural areas – typically hedge their bets and join the winning side not out of ideological convictions, but as a matter of survival.

The problem in Afghanistan, though, is that a Taliban seizure of power is likely to be contested by a number of warlords and minority groups opposed to the Pashtun movement. The Taliban is also unlikely to be able to maintain peace in a rugged terrain used by myriad jihadist groups and competing warlords.

The 18-year US military engagement in Afghanistan was marked by several strategy failures, notably including Pakistan “with us” in the “war on terror” and diverting resources in 2003 to the Iraq conflict. But the rise of the IS group in Iraq highlighted the costs of hasty, ill-planned military pullouts.

In Afghanistan, some experts warn, the stakes could be a lot worse.

If the US leaves, I’m not at all convinced that the Taliban will have a hegemonic power over all of Afghanistan. There are factions and militant groups, including Daesh [an acronym for the IS group] opposed to them that will benefit from the Afghan topography, the impenetrable mountains, which is a far more complex terrain than Iraq or Syria, and these groups can reoccupy this terrain in a far more sustainable fashion,” explained Delesgues.

Trump may have dangled the prospect of ending the war in Afghanistan, but as his predecessor Barack Obama learned, a withdrawal of troops from the country that hosted the 9/11 attackers is not a solution. “I don’t see any other solution besides the Americans having to accept and review their strategy with a long term presence,” said Delesgues. “The situation is very difficult and the Americans cannot leave easily. That’s the real lesson.”

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