"Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” said the Red Queen, in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The United States-propelled sudden flurry of peace overtures to the Taliban in Afghanistan, along with President Donald Trump’s unilateral troop withdrawal announcement and the subsequent global reaction brings the Queen’s remark to mind.
Who would have thought the theatre of the Great Game, Afghanistan—a barren, desolate and landlocked country in the midst of Asia—would be America’s principal foreign policy challenge in the 21st century? After 17 years and four months of fighting, the crowning irony of US intervention in Afghanistan is that its troops are fighting militants who were not born or are not old enough to know what the 9/11 attacks were about. The September 11, 2001 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center towers were the reason for US intervention, in Afghanistan and elsewhere. There was not an iota of doubt that as its regime provided safe haven to Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network, planning for 9/11 took place on Afghan soil.
The US lost 2,419 soldiers in the Afghanistan war. The allies lost 1,142 soldiers. The annual cost in Afghanistan alone, as per Congressional record, is $51 billion. That is the US bill.
The argument that non-state actors like al-Qaeda operate independently of governments was not tenable at the time. No one in the US or Europe believed it. They agreed that it was al-Qaeda, not the Afghan government, that attacked the US, but the government was held responsible and its people have paid a terrible price for that. The massive anti-terror operations spearheaded by the US morphed to unimaginable proportions, with costs spiralling and rising death tolls among the US and its allies not to speak of the untold thousands of Afghan civilians, rebels and soldiers killed in the war. The war on terror spread to Iraq, with hundreds of thousands more deaths and widespread destruction of infrastructure.
s per the US-based war casualty watchdog icasualty.org, until February 2019, the US had lost 2,419 soldiers in the Afghanistan war. The allies had lost 1,142 soldiers. There are various estimates about the costs of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The January 2019 Congressional tally, the latest, puts it at $6 trillion in the two countries. The annual cost in Afghanistan alone, as per Congressional record, is $51 billion. This is the US bill. If the amount spent by NATO allies in Afghanistan is added, the number rises massively. The projection is based on NATO’s total defence spending, except the US, for 2017, which was about $957 billion.
In addition, Russia and Asian giants like India, China and Japan are also spending substantial amounts in Afghanistan. As neighbours, Pakistan, Iran and some Central Asian nations are also intimately involved in Afghan affairs. The mere involvement of so many countries has converted the Afghan theatre into a geostrategic contest of Olympian proportions. That is why the US troop pullout announcement coupled with its vigorous peace overture towards the Taliban has commanded so much attention. Allies translate the sudden peace move as leaving the battlefield midway through, while rivals described it as acceptance of defeat. The Taliban and their major backer, Pakistan, are feeling triumphal while Russia plays the broker and new guardian of the movement. China is cautiously jubilant while Iran is openly seeking relations with the Taliban.
So as the US, through its special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, of Afghan extraction, works out the modalities of a deal that will enable it to finally exit a country it has never been able to control, the other interested parties are watching anxiously to see how their interests will be affected. India, for instance, wants the US to stay. It sees the American presence as a necessary insurance against the civil war it fears will follow the pullout. Others like Russia and China want the Americans gone so that they have a freer hand to pursue their interests. Everyone has an angle and they are waiting with bated breath to see what the final arrangement portends for them.
The Senate defied Trump “to express the sense of the Senate that the United States faces continuing threats from terrorist groups in Syria and Afghanistan" and that "the precipitous withdrawal from either country could put at risk hard-won gains and United States national security”.
That leads us to the US initiative and two basic questions: What is the peace gambit about, and what did the troop withdrawal announcement expect to achieve? Delivering on his election promise, the unpredictable Donald Trump wanted all troops back home from war-torn countries like Syria and Afghanistan. In a video message posted on Twitter, on December 19, 2018, Trump said, “We have won against ISIS” and “Our boys, our young women, our men—they’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now”.
he dramatic announcement was made by the President overruling all his advisers–military, political, and civilian. Quoting unnamed sources in the US administration, Wall Street Journal on December 19, 2018, reported first about the upcoming withdrawal of 2,000 forces from Syria during the next 60 to 100 days. The next day on December 20, 2018, the Journal again quoted unnamed US officials and stated “President Trump has ordered the start of a reduction of American forces in Afghanistan and more than 7,000 American troops will begin to return home in the coming weeks.’
No formal announcement came from the White House or any other organ of the administration about withdrawal from Syria or Afghanistan. In Syria, the total of US troops is about 3,000 while in Afghanistan it is 14,000 out of which 8,475 forces are dedicated to the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission. Trump’s unexpected announcement prompted Secretary of Defence James Mattis to resign on the same day. In an effort to control the damage, on December 28, White House National Security Council spokesperson Garrett Marquis clarified to Bloomberg that “President Trump has not issued an order to the Pentagon directing US troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan”. On January 6, 2019, US National Security Advisor John Bolton added a new condition to the Syria exit: “Turkey must agree to protect the United States’ Kurdish allies.” Trump reiterated the NSA’s statement and said “the United States pullout move might not happen soon.”
A few weeks later on January 31, 2019, the Senate defied Trump’s call and adopted a motion 68-23 with 9 abstaining “to express the sense of the Senate that the United States faces continuing threats from terrorist groups operating in Syria and Afghanistan and that the precipitous withdrawal of United States forces from either country could put at risk hard-won gains and United States national security”.
Trump supporters have praised the decision. Trump’s argument is that the Afghan army has 300,000 soldiers and if they want their homeland, they must stand up and fight.
Senators agreed that “American leadership is needed in the ongoing fight in Syria and Afghanistan” and America cannot abdicate its duty, “to leave a vacuum in places where terrorists flood when they take advantage of the chaos and the upheaval”. American lawmakers fears these are places where terrorists “can lodge, grow, and train and then export their terrorist attacks, not only around the region but even around the world”.
rump ignored his field commanders altogether while making his decision. On December 4, 2018, Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie admitted during the Senate Armed Services Committee’s confirmation hearing as commander of US Central Command that the Taliban had 60,000 fighters. He clarified before the committee that without the aid of 14,000 US troops the Afghans would not be able to defend their country.
Trump supporters have praised the decision. By their assessment, the US has achieved the goal of Operation Enduring Freedom, as today there is no one living who participated or abetted in the 9/11 attacks including Osama, and the mess in Afghanistan is not going to change anytime soon. Trump’s argument is that the Afghan army has 300,000 soldiers and if they want their homeland, they must stand up and fight. America cannot always do the fighting for everyone. Senator Rand Paul said, “It is contended that we must fight the terrorists there or they will come” to America. Nevertheless, the US “have arrested over 300 terrorists since 9/11” and “if you look at their reasons for coming, they say it is because we are over there”.
Under tremendous political-military pressure, on February 21, 2019, White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders said; “A small peacekeeping group of about 200 will remain in Syria for a period of time”. Predictably, Trump’s announcement led to a political-military standoff, with all stakeholders opposed. So more than 60 days later not a single soldier has moved either from Syria or Afghanistan. The visible policy confusion in the Trump administration is an indication that the situation may not improve in any of the war-torn regions in the near future.
Lt Gen McKenzie sees Pakistan as vital to long-term stability in Afghanistan and a useful ally to facilitate talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. But he reiterated that “Pakistan does not appear to be using the full extent of its influence to encourage the Taliban to come to the table and Taliban being utilized as a hedge against India rather than as part of a stable, reconciled Afghanistan”.
Field commanders believe a deal with the Taliban is important even if there is stalemate in the battlefield. The US trick is to convince the Taliban that they cannot find a path to battlefield victory. So, the commanders want unrelenting pressure on the Taliban to force them to see the virtues of the diplomatic approach, which Zalmay Khalilzad embodies.
Legally speaking, troop deployment and withdrawal is a prerogative of the US President. Therefore, his withdrawal announcement, though it sounds unilateral, is within his powers. Operation Enduring Freedom began after a joint resolution of the US Congress (September 18, 2001), that authorised “The use of United States Armed Forces against those responsible for the attacks launched against the United States”. It does not include a specified congressional reporting requirement, but states that the authorisation is not intended to supersede any requirement of the War Powers Resolution, which does require congressional reporting for initial and continuing deployments of US armed forces into imminent or ongoing hostilities.
As per information available with the Federal Register and Compilation of Presidential Documents, so far there are 41 relevant presidential references to the 2001 Authorization of Use of Military Force all over the world. Of the 41, 18 were made by the George W. Bush administration, 21 by the Obama administration and two during the present one. Just as the legal framework for deployment of US forces in offshore theatres of war is unclear, the provision for withdrawal is equally opaque.
he Trump-approved peace mission of Zalmay Khalilzad has a long and troubled background. In November 2010, international media reported that the UK’s MI6 paid $100,000 to a man claiming to be Mullah Akhtar Mansour, one of the closest lieutenants of Mullah Omar, to facilitate a peace deal. Later both MI6 and the US Central Intelligence Agency realised the man was an imposter, originally a shopkeeper from Quetta, Pakistan, cashing in on America’s desperation to broker a deal between the government and the insurgents.
The Taliban are not a monolithic group nor do they have the same ethnicity. They have suffered internal schisms and there is a division of opinion about negotiations with the US.
Although the two sides—the US and the Taliban—have never met formally, Taliban preconditions for talks were withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghan soil. Nine years later, in January 2019 that demand has not changed. In 2011 the Afghan government was ready to provide a political office to the Taliban in Kabul for peace talks between the warring parties but the Taliban preferred the political office in Qatar instead. Ever since the failed MI6 mission, countries like the US, Germany, Japan and France have tried their hands at various locales to convince the Taliban to start talks with the US and Afghan governments, only to taste failure. The Taliban opened their first political office in Qatar in June 2013 but their preconditions for negotiation remain the same.
The Taliban are not a monolithic group nor do they have the same ethnicity. They have suffered internal schisms and there is a division of opinion about negotiations with the US. The exact degree of Pakistan’s control is also contentious. Until July 2014, the de facto leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour was under the control of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and all claims on behalf of Mullah Omar about peace negotiations with the US followed ISI strategy.
In July 2014, when Mansour informed Mullah Zakir, the powerful Taliban shadow governor of greater Kandahar, that Mullah Omar wanted him to vacate his position as commander of the Taliban, the latter demanded proof that Mullah Omar had for asked his removal. Mansour produced a letter purportedly signed by Omar, which was rejected by Zakir. He wanted proof that Mullah Omar was alive. From this point onward it became difficult for Mansour and ISI to maintain secrecy about the death of Mullah Omar. More voices within Taliban circles sought proof of Mullah Omar’s life. The news found its way to Afghan National Directorate of Security, which leaked it to media. The revelation that Mullah Omar had died in April 2013 and that his death was kept as a secret created an uproar among the Taliban.
n July 2015, the Murree peace process started with Pakistan, Afghanistan and China as participants besides the US. The July 7, 2015 peace meeting was held when nobody knew Mullah Omar was dead. But as the NDS revealed the secret, rival Taliban commanders were enraged with Mullah Mansour for keeping the news a secret and running affairs in his name. At the behest of the Haqqani Network and other Taliban well-wishers, a meeting was held at Quetta in September 2015 where a Taliban commander from Zakir’s camp was said to have shot Mansour from point blank range. There were reports that he was critically wounded. The Taliban subsequently released an audio message purportedly from Mansour, rejecting reports of any shootout as “enemy propaganda”.
By the time the Murree peace process started, Mansour was isolated from both the Taliban and the ISI. The latter found he did not have the stature to mobilise the Taliban war machine for a peace deal. To the contrary, cadres were convinced that Mansour could not be trusted. So he tried to play both sides by promising ISI that he could produce a deal and telling hardcore Taliban commanders that he would never agree to a deal with the Afghan government. He issued a statement that he was not part of the July 7, 2015 peace process. But when he met ISI officers he promised to get his compatriots to the table because it was about Pakistan’s international reputation.
Continuing ISI pressure, however, pushed Mansour towards others, including Iranian clerics. The next peace meeting at the end of July 2015 never happened and that was the end of Mansour’s personal engagement with peace deals. From then onwards he portrayed himself as a hardcore Talib who would never sue for peace. As proof he captured the Kunduz City Centre in September 2015, the most spectacular Taliban victory in 14 years. Mansour developed connections with Iran and spent two months in Iran before returning to Pakistan in May 2016 only to be killed by a drone strike near Quetta, Baluchistan, probably after a tipoff from ISI.
After Murree there was no dialogue for five months. When the four countries met in January 2016, the Taliban refused to participate. From January to May 2016, five meetings took place among the four nations to take forward the peace talks. After May 2016, the death of Mansour derailed all chances of dialogue. Mullah Hibaitullah Akhundzada took over as Taliban chief and set his face against talks.
eanwhile, Donald Trump, who had promised to end the Afghan war, won the US presidency. Immediately after his inauguration on January 20, 2017, he asked officials to redraw Afghan strategy. A peace deal with the Taliban and a force pullout were central to this strategy. After a couple of years, in July 2018, Department of State officials contacted the Taliban in Qatar and reversing a longstanding policy, diplomats held face-to-face talks with Taliban representatives.
The Imran Khan government is trying to keep the US sweet. It seems that despite Pakistan’s two-faced policies, US pressure is working.
In September 2018, Khalilzad was named US envoy for Afghanistan. He was the Pashtu language interpreter for Jalaluddin Haqqani, patriarch of the Network, when he visited the White House to meet President Reagan way back in 1987. At the time they were friends ranged against the Soviet Union. Khalilzad’s close relations with India are well known to Pakistan. Therefore, there was considerable concern when the media reports about Khalilzad’s possible induction as Secretary of State in the Trump administration reached Rawalpindi.
Using his superb negotiating skills, Khalilzad managed to secure the release of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar from Pakistan’s custody. Deputy to Mullah Omar, Abdul Ghani was a co-founder of the Taliban and a leading field commander until captured by the ISI in 2010. His voice is respected across the Taliban ranks in southern and eastern Afghanistan. He was expected to take over the Qatar office and to lend credence to peace negotiations where he would lead the Taliban delegation. Khalilzad’s involvement is a great development as he is personally known to actors from all sides of the conflict and he understands the Taliban better than anybody else in the US administration.
In the last few years Russia has been looking to muscle its way to the table. Russia’s aim is to make the US job tougher and exact a measure of retribution for the crushing defeat in the same theatre 30 years earlier.
Trump increased the pressure on Pakistan and this time it proved more willing to deliver than ever before. Trump’s twitter terrorisation seemed to work where nothing did. The threat of aid cuts made it clear the US was not bluffing and Pakistani diplomatic circles complied. Moreover, the Imran Khan government is trying to keep the US sweet. It seems that despite Pakistan’s two-faced policies, for the first time US pressure is working. Rawalpindi understands that Khalilzad has the confidence of both the Secretary of State and the President.
o far Pakistan has successfully rationed international access to the Taliban, a godsend for its battered economy and army. The present development threatens its access—the unthinkable has happened, with the US and the West accepting a group of non-state actors and open rivals killing NATO troops as genuine stakeholders and brokers in a peace process. Talks with a group seen as the proxy of a nuclear weapons state seems no problem for the US. Even the strong possibility that any successful deal will devastate governance in Afghanistan seems to be no deterrent. Peace with horror or peace with honour, Trump seems equally indifferent to either outcome.
Despite all the pressure, Pakistan has tried to derail Khalilzad’s mission. If he succeeds, it loses control of the Taliban and the Afghan plot. It will not be able to use them as a proxy against the West or India. So the ISI has tried to maintain an iron grip on proceedings. Indeed, it was the author of the speeches by Taliban participants at the Moscow conference of November 9, 2018. Pakistan’s strength lies in the fact that it is a populous Islamic country and controls the supply lines the US uses into Afghanistan. Its great geostrategic utility to the US is still beyond price. But a deal between the two principals would cut out the facilitator.
In the last few years Russia has been looking for a chance to muscle its way to the table. The Moscow conclave of November 9 was an attempt to pre-empt the US and seize the lead in peace talks. But Moscow was destined to fail as two main stakeholders—Afghanistan and the US decided to stay away, rendering the conference a non-affair. Moscow’s eagerness to take centre stage is evident from its invitation to Afghan politicians who are not part of the government and the Taliban again in February 2019. Despite loud claims of success there has been little progress. Russia’s basic aim is to make the US job tougher and exact a measure of retribution for the crushing defeat inflicted upon the erstwhile Soviet Union in the same theatre 30 years earlier.
China is the other significant power involved in Afghanistan. Its contacts with the Taliban are the most complex and shrouded in secrecy. It has invited Taliban leaders like Abbas Stanikzai, Maulvi Shahabuddin Dilawar, Jan Muhammad Madani, Salam Hanafi and Dr Saleh to visit Urumqi on at least two occasions since 2016. Recently, it decided to reach out openly to the Taliban and has been going through the official channel, the Qatar political office. China is interested in Afghanistan as a trade route to Central Asia as well as bringing the Afghans into the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
So far the government has resisted overtures to extend CPEC to Afghanistan. Instead it has asked Beijing to use its leverage on Islamabad to stop creating chaos in Afghanistan with the Taliban as its proxy. China understands that the Taliban don’t have an aggressive foreign policy and hopes the Uighur issue will not find traction. Beijing is also taking solace in the fact that the Taliban are happy to see its proximity to Islamabad. But the two have contrasting ambitions in Afghanistan—while Pakistan is all for stoking divisions and uncertainty, China is pro-trade and prefers stability.
During the Afghan war India had a shared camaraderie with the Soviet Union and Iran. When the USSR retreated, India aligned with Ahmed Shah Masud’s Northern Alliance. In the present, neither Russia nor the Northern Alliance is interested in a greater Indian presence.
Iran, another vital player in the Afghan theatre, has long been accused of aiding the Taliban. The official Taliban linkman in Iran is Maulavi Nek Muhammad, originally a civil servant in the Najibullah regime and a resident of Nawa district in Helmand province. He left his job to join the Taliban and became minister of education in Kandahar. He first came to Iran in September 2011 to participate in the “Islamic Awakening” conference and lobbied with the government to open the Mashhad office of Taliban. It was opened in 2012 with the approval of Mullah Muhammad Omar. In Tehran, the media maintains a stony silence on Iran’s Taliban contact. On October 23, 2018, the US Treasury Department listed two Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers—Mohammad Ebrahim Owhadi and Esmail Razavi as Specially Designated Nationals, barred from business with the US. Their assets are blocked. These two officers are accused of harbouring and training Taliban fighters.
s international pressure on Iran was increasing to reveal its degree of support to the Taliban, as a counter measure to address diplomatic pressures, it organised a formal meeting with Taliban officials in Tehran. Taliban delegates met with Iranian foreign ministry officials on December 30, 2018 and Iranian intelligence kept the news under wraps till the event ended and the foreign office organised a press conference the next day. Iran’s proactive overtures to the Taliban are motivated by their anti-US and that they are against Islamic State. This binds them together.
The Indian position is peculiar. During the Afghan war India had a shared camaraderie with the Soviet Union and Iran. But the region has gone though a sea change, especially Afghanistan. In the 1980s, the USSR was pitted against the Mujahideen-USA-Pakistan-Saudi Arabia combine. India had a convenient option—to oppose Pakistan and support a seasoned superpower and a friendly USSR. Iran joined the bandwagon and the alliance firmed up around the collective defence philosophy.
No matter what India does, Taliban domination means trouble for India. If the Taliban do not accept friendship from the Afghan Government, it is unrealistic for Raisina Hill to think the Taliban may accept India as their benefactor.
When the USSR retreated from Afghanistan, Ahmed Shah Masud’s Northern Alliance refused to accept the Durand Line as an international border and hence he was out of Pakistani funding and support. That is where India smelled opportunity and to settle scores with Pakistan aligned with Masud and company. In the present situation, neither Russia nor the Northern Alliance is interested in a greater Indian presence in Afghanistan. India has good connections with the Afghan government and also with the US. But in the event of a US withdrawal both partners—the Kabul government and US troops–would vanish leaving India high and dry. Therefore, India is walking a tightrope in this scenario.
In July 2018, General John W. Nicholson, commander of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission and US Forces-Afghanistan visited New Delhi to seek India’s support. Nicholson reiterated that Afghanistan required defence hardware “to deal with the Taliban and other terrorist outfits such as the Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad that are a threat to the entire region”. India has consistently advocated a prolonged stay by US forces. Their presence glues Afghan and Pakistani militants to the Afghan theatre. Once NATO troops vacate the country, Pakistani militants would begin to eye Kashmir. India’s social capital build-up in Afghanistan will be lost and all aid would go in vain. To avoid this worst case, India has started its own overtures towards the Taliban so that it is not left behind if they take over.
But no matter what India does, Taliban domination means the starting of a fresh round of trouble for India. If the Taliban do not accept the offer of friendship from the ArgPalace (Afghan Government), it is unrealistic for Raisina Hill to think the Taliban may accept India as their benefactor.
he peace deal has already taken a bizarre turn—everything connected to Trump seems to do that—with the Taliban leaking the news that the US has conceded every demand. Khalilzad’s Capital Shuffle between Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Afghanistan and Pakistan is beginning to expose the desperation of the US. Khalilzad’s exertions coupled with Trump’s incessant barrage of unpredictable Twitter outbursts embolden the Taliban and weaken the morale of US troops. In an attempt at course correction, Khalilzad issued a Twitter statement before the second round of Moscow talks that there was no discussion on troop withdrawals, nor was there a timeline for such withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The US has a bad hand in this game, a loser whether it stays or goes. It is in fact trapped between two seemingly compelling imperatives.
The Taliban understand that once US troops leave the country, the race will be on to Kabul to capture parliament and the city centre. They are in no hurry because they are not power-hungry people but a group of obscure field commanders more concerned with ideology, religious behaviour, taxation, followers and collective domination. All of these they can possess without being in Kabul. Also, the Taliban are strong enough to dictate terms in the country. Their ability to sustain themselves economically and the lack of other vocations available to Afghans ensure that there is no dearth of new recruits. Now they can smell victory which is at most a couple of years away.
The US has a bad hand in this game, a loser whether it stays or goes. It is in fact trapped between two seemingly compelling imperatives: “it is required to stay to dominate the region and to counter terrorism” and “too much bloodshed, American blood, has already happened and it is impossible to fix Afghanistan; hence it is better to leave”.
For the moment the stalemate will continue and America may, under the garb of a manufactured peace, leave the country, its task incomplete, and Afghanistan open to another civil war.