Back in the cauldron

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Back in the cauldron

Thursday, 24 January 2019 | Hiranmay Karlekar

The weakening of American resolve and toughening of the Taliban's posture would turn Afghanistan into a medieval prison that it once was

Afghan Taliban’s spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, refuted, on January 19, reports in Pakistani media that the organisation had agreed to talks in Islamabad with Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation. This is not surprising; nor is the statement on the same day by a Taliban leader who wanted to remain anonymous, “We have rejected Pakistan’s approach and suggestion. We are clear that Kabul’s puppet regime is not in a position to fulfill our demands.”

A bit of background needs to be recalled in respect of the issue of talks. In July, 2018, the Trump administration began seeking direct negotiations with the Taliban. Since then, Khalilzad has held at least three rounds of talks with the latter, the last one being in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, in December, 2018, in the presence of representatives from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. These, of course, were not formal peace talks to end the 17-year-old war in Afghanistan but rather exploratory talks leading to formal talks.

The future of these exploratory talks now hangs in the balance. Two questions arise here. What are the chances of these being resumed? What would happen if they are not? According to the Taliban leader, who sought anonymity, talks with the US could resume only if the latter assured that just three issues would be discussed — a US withdrawal from Afghanistan, an exchange of prisoners and the lifting of the ban on the movement of Taliban leaders.

They are unlikely to change their stand. Their strategy has been to drag on the war and tire out the US to the point where Washington is prepared to leave on any terms. They have fought — albeit with sanctuary and massive support from Pakistan — the US and their allies and the fledgling Afghan military and police, for over 17 years. They have expanded the territory under their control. According to a report by the US Government’s leading oversight authority, Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, the Afghan Government controlled, as of January 31, 2018, 229 (56.3 per cent) of the country’s 407 districts, Taliban 59 (14.5 per cent) and 119 (29.2 per cent) were contested, controlled neither by the Government nor the Taliban.

A report in The New York Times of May 9, 2018, however, said that 65 and 35 per cent of Afghanistan’s territory respectively were under Government and Taliban control or influence. According to an Associated Press report on December 21, 2018, half of Afghanistan was under Taliban control or influence. As a result, the US, which has spent over $900 billion, and had over 2,400 of its soldiers killed since the launch of its post-9/11 offensive against the Taliban in 2001, is showing an increasing desperation to leave. Its reaching out for talks with the Taliban in July, 2018, marked a significant concession to the latter who had said that they would first discuss peace with the Americans alone, while Washington had insisted on talks with the Afghan Government’s participation.

There have been other developments indicating a weakening of American resolve. One of these is the Trump administration’s decision, announced on December 20, 2018, to withdraw 7,000 troops from Afghanistan by this summer. The result has been a toughening of the Taliban’s posture, an example of which was their threat, delivered on January 15, that they would call off peace talks with the US if the latter’s troops were not pulled out of Afghanistan. The threat came as Khalilzad and the delegation led by him arrived in Kabul for talks with the Government headed by President Ashraf Ghani.

Clearly, the Taliban will negotiate only on their terms. Pakistan’s Government, its public statements notwithstanding, is not going to try to push them to accepting American terms because it wants to control Afghanistan through them. As for the US, its growing desperation may lead it to a final outcome which leaves the Afghan Government and its forces to fend for themselves. 

The chances of their being able to do so are bleak. Lt-Gen Kenneth F McKenzie, set to become the commander of the US Central command, told the US Congress during his confirmation hearings in December, 2018, that the Afghan Army would dissolve without American support. Coming in the wake of several major attacks like the one on Ghazni in August, 2018, Monday’s one on a military installation in Maidan Wardek province, which reportedly killed over 100 personnel of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s main intelligence agency, indicate that he may not have been wrong.

What would happen if the Taliban take over Afghanistan? The country would return to the medieval prison that it was — with its women reduced to domestic slavery — during their rule between 1996 and 2001. Islamist fundamentalism, and the terrorism spawned by it, would receive a massive boost worldwide. Europe would be a bigger target than now. And the US should remember what President Obama said while announcing his new Af-Pak policy on March 27, 2009, “If the Afghan Government falls to the Taliban — or allows the Al-Qaeda to go unchallenged — that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of us as they possibly can.”

(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and an author)

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