by Zia Sarhadi (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 50, No. 2, Sha'ban, 1442)
That the US has lost the war in Afghanistan is not in doubt. President Joe Biden is left with two choices: withdraw with some honour now or be driven out ignominiously. It is amazing why Americans are such gluttons for punishment.
All the hectic activities currently underway—the conferences, US envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad shuttling between capitals to try and build some sort of a consensus—are mere distractions. Even if the myriad Afghan factions agree to whatever the US is proposing—a big if—there is no guarantee that this would hold after the US-Nato troops are gone from Afghanistan.
These activities may camouflage America’s defeat in yet another theater of war (what else is new?) but they will not bring peace to Afghanistan. The Afghans operate differently. One of their traits is that they cannot be coerced into accepting something even if it is to their benefit. If the Americans have not learnt this simple truth after 20 years in Afghanistan, then they must be even dumber than previously thought.
Before discussing what should happen in Afghanistan, let us consider some recent developments. During the US election campaign, then candidate Biden had criticized his rival Donald Trump for repudiating the multilateral Iran nuclear deal. Now Biden is doing exactly the same with the February 29, 2020 agreement signed by the Trump regime with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar.
Under the Doha agreement, the Taliban agreed to not attack US or Nato troops in Afghanistan during the withdrawal phase. They also pledged to not allow Afghan territory to be used by terrorist groups to launch attacks against others. On its part, the US pledged not to attack Afghan civilians, bomb villages, or attack the Taliban if they are not engaged in hostile acts. And all foreign forces including American troops would leave Afghanistan by May 1, 2021. Biden, however, is having second thoughts.
The Taliban did not agree to a ceasefire. Instead, this would come about as part of a broader agreement through negotiations among various Afghan factions. A ceasefire would have left the Taliban without any leverage against the Kabul regime that they consider to be illegitimate. Besides, there are many groups that have a stake in Afghanistan’s future, not just the regime.
Talks between the Taliban and Afghan factions of which the Ghani regime is but one party, started in Doha last September. Given their differences, not much progress has been made so far. Ghani fears, quite rightly, that the talks would end in his losing power. He is clinging to power following last year’s elections amid widespread allegations of fraud.
The Taliban have so far fulfilled their commitments under the Doha deal. The US has not. American planes have bombed Afghan villages on several occasions and even attacked Taliban positions. Despite such violations, the Taliban have shown restraint.
So why is Biden reluctant to meet the May 1 deadline? While the US has put forward a number of proposals that others must fulfill, its own position remains ambiguous. It has proposed the establishment of a transitional government in Kabul that would also include Taliban representatives and a countrywide ceasefire. Both the Taliban and the US-backed president Ghani have rejected the proposal. Ghani says he wants elections, perhaps within six months, for any future transitional government to emerge. The Taliban have rejected this proposal.
The US has also proposed a UN-supervised conference to be held in Turkey this month. Afghanistan’s neighbours Iran, Pakistan, China, Russia and non-neighbor India have been invited. The UN cover is necessary for the US to engage Iran in the process. In the past, Washington kept all of Afghanistan’s neighbors except Pakistan out of the loop. Now it wants to engage them.
On March 18, Russia convened a conference in Moscow to advance peace talks between the Afghan factions that have been meeting in Doha. For the first time since the Moscow forum was launched in 2017, the US sent its special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad to the conference. The Taliban sent a 10-member delegation reflecting confidence in Russia. It also showed how far the Taliban and Russians have come since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that lasted from December 1979 to February 1989. At the conclusion of the Moscow conference, Russia, China, the US and Pakistan called for a ceasefire in Afghanistan.
The statement included a special appeal to the Taliban to not launch their spring-summer offensive. The four countries pledged to mobilize political and economic support for Afghanistan once a peace settlement had been reached.
The Americans say they have spent $143 billion on reconstruction effort in Afghanistan since 2002. Of this, $88 billion have been spent on training the Afghan army. But as John Sopko, the US Defence Department’s special inspector for Afghanistan reconstruction, told a House of Representatives committee on March 16, without US military and financial support, the Kabul regime could face collapse.
“The Afghan government would probably lose the capability of flying any of its aircraft within a few months and, to be quite blunt, would probably face collapse,” he said. The regime relies for as much as 80 percent of its annual funding on aid from the US and other countries, Sopko said. Corruption, however, is widespread.
“Afghan security forces are nowhere near achieving self-sufficiency, as they cannot maintain their equipment, manage their supply chains or train new soldiers, pilots and policemen” without outside funding, Sopko said.
This is confirms that even after 20 years of “US training”, the Afghan security forces are simply not up to the task. Most security personnel are from poor rural families who see the security services as a means of earning a livelihood. They don’t see the Afghan regime as legitimate and, therefore, lack the motivation to defend it. They may be poor but they know the ground realities. As soon as foreign troops are out, fighting would intensify and the regime would collapse.
So, the question the American warlords must answer is, how long can they continue to pump money to prop up a corrupt regime that has no legitimacy and cannot defend itself? There is little doubt that violence will escalate once foreign troops are gone. There is also no doubt that the Taliban would come out on top. Thereafter, the Afghans will settle their affairs through a Loya Jirga and life may return to some sort of normalcy as it was before the April 27, 1978 coup that set this whole disastrous chain of events in motion.
It is time for Americans to pack their bags and leave. Let the Afghans deal with their problems. It has proved, yet again, that America is incapable of nation-building. Its soldiers don’t fight because they know that the people they have been sent to kill have not harmed Americans or anyone else.