March 3, 2020

Comments on the U.S. - Taliban agreement on Afghanistan

My former colleague Zalmay Khalilzad signs the agreement with the Taliban

I was interviewed by an Azerbaijani press outlet about the U.S.-Taliban agreement on Afghanistan. Since it is unlikely that many of my normal readers and followers monitor the media in Azerbaijan, I have provided a copy of my responses.

Q. On Saturday, February 29, representatives of the United States and the Taliban inked a peace agreement in Doha to end the 18–year–long war. That agreement would see the U.S. withdraw its troops from Afghanistan in return for security guaranties by the Taliban. That also paved the way for intra-Afghan talks. At the first, how can you assess the importance of that deal?

A. An agreement to end the longest war in American history is an important deal – the question is, is it a good deal? In my opinion, it’s a mechanism for the United States to withdraw its forces and close the chapter on 18 years of wasted effort.

Let’s look at the history of why American forces are there. Following the al-Qa’idah attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, American forces invaded Afghanistan, launching Operation Enduring Freedom. In a rather quick operation, the Taliban government was removed and al-Qa’idah fighters pushed towards the Pakistan border.

Once Usamah bin Ladin and his fighters were holed up in the Tora Bora mountains, there was a foolhardy agreement with the Afghan Northern Alliance that they would broker the surrender of bin Ladin. Any experienced observer of events in this region realized that this was never going to happen. Who knows exactly what happened – money changed hands, tribal and factional loyalties came into play, Pakistani intelligence – whatever. The bottom line was that bin Ladin escaped across the frontier.

At that point, the goals of the American invasion had either been met, or were no longer achievable. Al-Qa’idah was no longer present in the country, and at the time, the Taliban did not present a threat to the United States.

In my assessment, it was the time to withdraw. But no, we have to start “nation building.” I am not sure the reason, but it was a mistake. I bristle at comparisons of our misguided efforts in Afghanistan to the rebuilding of Europe after World War II under the Marshall Plan. That effort was to restore European democracies, while the effort in Afghanistan was to create a democracy where it does not seem to fit.

Q. The United States has fought Taliban militants in Afghanistan since the invasion after the September 11 attacks. But now the U.S. has signed an agreement with the Taliban following the long–term successful diplomatic negotiations with it. From your viewpoint, what happened for Washington to take this step?

A. As I see it, the Trump Administration is following a campaign promise to end “unending wars.” The United States is weary of Afghanistan. Despite our best efforts to create some form of representative government, it just has not worked. Perhaps we have finally come to the realization that creation of these types of government must come from within, not without.

Are we abandoning the peoples of Afghanistan to their own devices? I say “peoples” since Afghanistan is not an ethnicity, but merely a geographic designation of an area that contains Tajiks, Pashtuns, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Aimaks, Sayyids, Turkmen, Baluchis, etc.

Unfortunately, I suspect that in a few short years, there will be a Taliban-dominated government again, after a hiatus of two decades.

Q. In your opinion, does the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan pave the way for regional powers to enter the country?

A. Possibly. There are economic interests in the country that China and Pakistan may try to consolidate. I assume that there will be attempts by Iran and Pakistan to exert political influence in the country, hoping to shape whatever new government emerges – and it will, the current government is doomed to fail.

Washington’s position? As long as whatever leadership exists or emerges does not pose a threat to the United States, Americans do not care. However, should a group like al-Qa’idah or the nascent ISIS presence there, appear to be a threat to the United States, there may a revisit – short, swift, and vicious – of U.S. military action.

Q. At a press conference, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that enduring peace in Afghanistan would not be possible unless Taliban militants break ties with Al-Qa'idah and other terrorist groups, and sit down for intra-Afghan talks with the Kabul government. Do you think that this agreement can bring peace and stability to Afghanistan?

A. I don’t. The Taliban signed an agreement that ends the fighting with the United States. The United States is withdrawing its forces – that is what the Taliban want. Once that happens, I see no reason for them to honor any agreement. I fully expect that once American forces are gone, there may be a “decent interval” in which they pay lip service to inter-Afghan talks, but in the end, they will exercise their military capabilities and move against anyone that resists what they believe is their inevitable rise to power.

Peace and stability, maybe. At what price? It will truly become what its official name implies – the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.