by Zia Sarhadi (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 47, No. 2, Rajab, 1439)
Most Afghans would not want to be reminded that April 2018 marks the 40th anniversary of a military coup that set the country on a course for total destruction. Marxist military officers led by a tank commander Major Aslam Watanjar stormed the presidential palace on April 27, 1978. Afghan air force planes under the command of Brigadier Abdul Qadir repeatedly bombed the presidential palace. After intense gun battles between President Sardar Daoud loyalists and the coup makers that lasted the whole day, Daoud and his entire family were killed.
Once the shooting was over and the bodies had been buried in unmarked graves, Kabul Radio announced the coup and the establishment of a Marxist regime led by Nur Muhammad Taraki in Afghan-istan. The largely tribal-based country has not recovered from that blow since it sparked an uprising that is still raging with the country virtually reduced to rubble. There is total lawlessness and hoodlums rampaging throughout the country.
There is much history interwoven into the period since 1978. First, there was the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in December 1979 when the internal situation was about to get out of control of Moscow’s Afghan puppets. The Afghan people put up a valiant resistance and by February 1989, the Soviets had realized the impossibility of their mission. They decided to cut their losses and leave. The Afghan imbroglio also resulted in the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
That, however, did not end the Afghans’ suffering. Afghan fighters hitherto referred to as the mujahidin who had battled and defeated the Soviets turned their guns on each other. After several years of bloodletting, the Taliban emerged on the scene to restore law and order. Their rule from August 1996 to October 2001 can be characterized as relatively peaceful in recent Afghan history. One may take serious issue with their understanding of Islam and governance, but the fact remains that during Taliban rule, there was relative peace in the country.
Enter Americans on the pretext of avenging the attacks of 9/11. That no Afghan was involved in the 9/11 attacks — and there is considerable evidence to point to the fact that it was an inside job — the Americans nonetheless launched their crusade against a hapless people and country in October 2001. More than 16 years later and after spending nearly $1 trillion, the Americans are no closer to subduing the Taliban. Instead, the group now controls more than 60% of Afghan territory while the US-installed and backed puppet regime cannot guarantee safety and security even inside Kabul.
The Americans under Donald Trump have been huffing and puffing trying to gain the upper hand vis-à-vis the Taliban before agreeing to talk to the group, but the Afghan rulers have realized the futility of this approach. This was evident from the manner in which Ashraf Ghani, the nominal Afghan president, spoke at a peace conference in Kabul on February 28.
Attended by representatives from 25 countries, the one-day conference extended an invitation to the Taliban to hold talks without “pre-conditions.” The Kabul peace conference was held in the aftermath of several grim attacks in Kabul that shook the regime to its core. A daring attack on the Intercontinental Hotel located on a hilltop in Kabul led to the decimation of most of the pilots of Kam Air. This was followed by an attack on the military academy and then a massive car bombing in the capital that resulted in the death of more than 100 people. This was the deadliest single attack in Afghan history.
The Americans may insist that they want to degrade the Taliban before holding talks with them, but ground realities point in a different direction. Far from wishfully subduing the Taliban, it is the Americans and their Kabul puppets that are on the defensive regardless of how much they may try to shift the blame on neighboring Pakistan.
At the Kabul conference, Ghani was conciliatory. He voiced his regime’s willingness to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate political party and to facilitate open-ended talks without pre-conditions. Of course, he wants the group to accept a ceasefire. He even offered to discuss the US-imposed constitution that the Taliban have rejected outright. Other concessions include the release of some Taliban prisoners as well as help with opening an office in Kabul or elsewhere for the group.
Similarly, Ghani departed from his previous practice of attacking Pakistan by blaming it for his regime’s woes. “We’re ready to restart talks about peace with Pakistan, forget bitter experiences of the past and open a new chapter in relations with our neighbour,” he told the Kabul conference. Pakistan immediately welcomed the announcement and said it would assist by trying to convince the Taliban to open dialogue with the Kabul regime. Ghani repeated the same offer on March 17 when he held talks with Pakistan’s National Security Advisor General (retired) Nasser Janjua. Ghani said he wanted to forget the past and look forward to peace in the future evincing any desire to win.
How the Taliban will respond to Ghani’s overtures is unclear but following the Kabul conference, they twice offered to hold direct talks with the Americans whom they consider to be the real masters of Afghanistan. The Americans have given no public indication of how they might respond but there are reports of back-channel negotiations with the Taliban. Further, the US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said on March 2 Washington was glad that Ghani had used the conference to signal to the Taliban that “there are no preconditions for peace.” This is a clear climbdown for the Americans who had hitherto insisted that talks with the Taliban would only be held if the group accepted the primacy of the Afghan constitution.
On an unannounced visit to Kabul on March 13, US Defence Secretary James (mad-dog) Mattis gave further indication that back-channel discussions were taking place when he said some Taliban members had indicated an interest in holding talks with the Kabul regime. Mattis’ visit was unannounced because he feared a Taliban attack, as has happened on previous occasions.
“It may not be that the whole Taliban comes over in one fell swoop, that would be a bridge too far, but there are elements of the Taliban clearly interested in talking to the Afghan government,” he told re-porters aboard a military jet, according to the French news agency, AFP.
The Americans have also sought refuge behind the figleaf that the Taliban must split from extremist groups like al-Qaeda and Da‘ish (aka ISIS). The Taliban have nothing to do with these groups; the Americans have brought them into Afghanistan (some 10,000 of them), primarily from Syria, to undermine the Taliban.
Given that the US cannot win militarily, a fact admitted by several military officials but couched in the language that the Taliban cannot achieve a military victory either, they have signaled that the constitution is evolving and would be the “end condition” of talks.
“Along with that there has always been the understanding, even the expectation, that constitutions are living documents,” one senior US official told AFP, predicting that compromises would be made.
So what has caused a shift in US policy when Trump has been publicly saying he would accept nothing short of a military victory? If in 16 years, the US has failed to achieve any of its objectives and the Afghan army remains in disarray, the best option is to co-opt the Taliban (if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!). The other factor is the Taliban’s dreaded Spring Offensive. If the winter months were so awful, what would spring bring in its wake?
Draft-dodger Trump has no clue about military campaigns but his generals know that they cannot achieve military victory in Afghanistan. Their only option is to convince the Taliban to hold talks, thereby allowing the Americans to stay in the country for the foreseeable future.
Why should the Taliban allow the Americans to stay when in Afghanistan’s entire history, no foreigners have been allowed to occupy it? Perhaps an ignorant Trump has to be taught this lesson the hard way.