By pulling the plug on the ongoing talks with the Taliban, US President Donald Trump has pre-empted a bad deal that was unlikely to bring peace to Afghanistan. All accounts of the tentative agreement negotiated by special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, indicated that it was heavily focused on giving the Taliban what they most want – a timetable for withdrawal of American troops. A genuine peace deal would prioritise ceasefire, not US withdrawal.
Trump’s decision to abandon the talks, for now, has come in for criticism for the manner in which it was cancelled. Diplomacy by Twitter is not really desirable. The revelation that Trump was almost ready to host the Taliban at Camp David on the eve of the 9/11 attacks, which the Taliban had facilitated, was also shocking. But the end result is still positive.
The US had avoided a bad deal that might have empowered the Taliban only to fulfil an objective –gradual withdrawal of the US military personnel – that could be fulfilled even without that deal, in return for a Taliban promise to not host international terrorists. Trump remains free to reduce the number of American troops. Any deal on the future of Afghanistan must be negotiated by the Afghan government and the insurgents that challenge its authority.
Wrong reading of Taliban
There are several reasons why the negotiations with the Taliban ended up with a poor draft agreement. Instead of seeing the Taliban for what they are, a totalitarian Jihadi extremist group, Khalilzad and his team approached them as ‘noble savages’ battling for their traditional religious values.
Khalilzad had embraced that view as far back as 1996 when he advocated US engagement with the Taliban regime, notwithstanding its atrocities and deep linkages with the al-Qaeda. The veteran diplomat had even accepted the Taliban’s false assertion that Osama bin Laden had left Afghanistan at face value.
Support for the recent Khalilzad effort came mostly from people who had worked with President Barack Obama’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke. All of them sincerely believed that the US cannot win the war in Afghanistan, which has gone on for too long and must be ended through a deal with the Taliban.
Holbrooke, like Khalilzad, had imagined a peace deal with the Taliban, facilitated by Pakistan, in return for the US brokering a settlement between India and Pakistan. To Khalilzad’s credit, he was able to conduct nine rounds of talks with the Taliban. Pakistan was much more helpful this time around, raising hopes for a deal.
Deal offered nothing to US
But the war in Afghanistan is not a proxy war between India and Pakistan, nor are the Taliban just Afghan religious conservatives fighting to maintain old world values. In a 2013 article titled ‘Don’t Talk with the Taliban,’ published in The New York Times, I had pointed out that “unlike most states or political groups, the Taliban aren’t amenable to a pragmatic deal. They are a movement with an extreme ideology and will not compromise easily on their deeply held beliefs”.
In the Khalilzad-Taliban talks, the Taliban made virtually no concessions. The proposed deal did not require them to cease violence, condemn civilian casualties, or express remorse for their past (and present) association with al-Qaeda. They insisted on being referred to as the Islamic Emirate, the name of their regime when they controlled most of Afghanistan before the establishment of the current Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
The Taliban refused to accept the Afghan constitution, refused to recognise the elected Kabul government, and refused to guarantee full inclusion of women in the country’s future. They only agreed to an intra-Afghan dialogue without making any commitments about it.
In effect, the proposed agreement offered the Americans nothing but a fig leaf for withdrawal of troops and offered nothing to Afghans opposed to the Taliban.
It’s a stalemate for Taliban too
The Taliban would now have to end or substantially reduce violence for talks to resume though it is clear that the Taliban representatives in Doha control the actions of the Taliban’s military command. Moving forward, the US negotiators would have to give greater weightage to the Afghan government than ambassador Khalilzad has done so far.
The Taliban have talked peace while continuing to wage war and the Doha talks have only strengthened their narrative that their victory is imminent. They would have to reconsider this approach, now that Trump has signaled that he is not ready for the ‘peace at any price’ strategy, which has been pursued so far.
The fact that the Taliban came to the negotiating table should put to rest the myth that they control most, or even significant parts, of Afghanistan. The Taliban would not have joined peace talks so readily if stories about their extensive control of territory were true. They want to win the peace because they know that they are not about to win the war. A stalemate is a stalemate for both sides, not just for the Americans.
As a violent group that does not even have the support of 10-15 per cent of Afghans, the Taliban are given disproportionate weightage because of their disruptive capabilities. While they are far from being defeated, they are not on the verge of victory either.
Afghanistan’s military, raised only after 2002, is also not as toothless as portrayed in the media. The Afghans have borne the brunt of fighting for quite some time. It is just that an army takes time to develop esprit de corps and it takes at least 30 years for a second lieutenant to rise to the stature of a general.
It is right that the US cannot stay in Afghanistan forever. Nor should American taxpayers pay Afghanistan’s bills endlessly. Instead of Taliban-centric talks, the US must now engage seriously with the Afghan government to figure out how to transfer maintenance of security fully to the Afghans with lower costs.