By Mohammad Taqi
December 9, 2018
Obama's declaration left Afghanistan with no peace and a buoyed Taleban. The result this time around is likely to be the same.
The flurry of activity by US special representative for Afghan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, and his remark that the US is in a hurry to find a peaceful solution for the war-torn country, has raised more concerns than it has assuaged. As the US war in Afghanistan enters its 18th year, a mad dash for exit and setting up of an arbitrary April deadline for a negotiated settlement smack of a desperation in the US camp. Pulling off in four months something that has remained elusive for two Afghan and three US presidents, and nine administrations among them, will be truly miraculous.
The precipitous efforts and a rather whimsical timeframe are reminiscent of the monumental blunder former President Barack Obama made by setting up a withdrawal date in 2011. Obama's declaration left Afghanistan with no peace and a buoyed Taleban. The result this time around is likely to be the same.
Just like then, the Taleban today are in no hurry to cut a deal with an adversary who they perceive is about to cut and run. The Taleban smell blood - and a victory - but they are not yet rushing to the finish line. As a Taleban fighter once summarised: "The US has the watches, but we have all the time!"
The US may have to pull out, but the Taleban have nowhere to go to. They are in it for a longer haul than anyone thinks. The Taleban intend to go through the song and dance of the talks while there's a lull in fighting due to the harsh winters.
US commanders and civilian officials might portray the recent surge in coalition airstrikes and backup for the Afghan forces as gains, but it indicates stalemate rather than strength. As the old maxim goes, the guerrilla wins by not losing while a conventional force loses by not winning. And this most certainly is not lost on the Taleban.
In an attempt to play a catch-up, the coalition forces have dropped more munitions in airstrikes this year than in any year since 2011. This has yielded some battlefield successes such as the elimination of Mullah Abdul Mannan, drug baron and Taleban's shadow governor for Helmand province. The tactic, though, has drawn criticism from within Afghanistan, including former President Hamid Karzai, and the UN for increasing civilian casualties such as the tragic killing of two dozen people in a Taleban-controlled area last month.
Although the Taleban remain a perfidious enemy that uses civilian areas for sanctuary and combat, the bombings raise concerns about rights violations and alienate a population increasingly sceptical of the Afghan state's ability to protect them.
An American rush towards a negotiated settlement, without a full buy-in from the Afghan state and the people, is rife with pitfalls. While the 17 years of war have cost the US a tonne of treasure, the Afghans have paid for it with an ocean of blood. A solution geared for expediency because President Donald Trump might want to check off the withdrawal for his re-election resume is bound to fail.
Individuals or states do not change their behaviour without an incentive or coercion. After decades of playing its sugar daddy, the US is dangling little today, if anything, to incentivise It is unlikely that the Taleban would simply put down their arms and agree to the present Afghan constitution and legal system. Even if they do, they would demand the lion's share in it. Additionally, there are no guarantees that after an abrupt US withdrawal, the Taleban would not revert to violence to take it all.
The US would do well to step back from ramming a so-called peace process, which has little or no guarantees for civil and constitutional rights, down the Afghan throats. They should detangle the peace process from the upcoming Afghan presidential elections in April 2019 and remove the artificial deadline imposed on themselves and the Afghan government. Delaying the elections or appearing to coerce the Afghan government to do so would also be highly ill-advised.
The contours of the current initiative by the Trump administration and its point man Zalmay Khalilzad are opaque and prejudicial to an Afghan-led peace effort. Any effort for a so-called peace at the expense of the Afghans is bound to fail and restart the cycle of death and destruction that was the hallmark of the hapless land in the 1990s.
Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistan-American columnist