by Zia Sarhadi (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 47, No. 7, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1439)
October 2001: “You can run but you can’t hide” – US President George W. Bush to the Taliban
August 2018: “You can run but you can’t hide” – Taliban to the Americans
The dirt poor Afghans have once again proved that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. Given American hubris, Washington thought it would escape the fate others had experienced before. After a trillion dollars wasted and thousands of lives lost — not to mention hundreds of thousands of poor Afghan deaths — the US is nowhere near achieving any of its objectives. No American official is even sure what those objectives are anymore.
Gone is the soaring rhetoric of nation-building; ditto for bringing democracy to a tribal society. The insulting rhetoric of “killing the scumbags” — Canadian general Rick Hillier’s infamous words — has also been abandoned. So what exactly is the US agenda now? To bring “peace to Afghanistan by talking to the Taliban” — yes the same Taliban that the Americans had driven out of Kabul in October/November 2001 and brought their Northern Alliance puppets to power in Kabul riding American-supplied vehicles and tanks.
To understand the Americans’ plight, consider this. On August 21, Russia announced that the Taliban had accepted an invitation for talks in Moscow on September 4. Representatives of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, Iran, and India will also participate in the Moscow meeting. Adding insult to injury, the Russian foreign ministry said Americans were also invited to the talks. To the discerning observer, it would be immediately obvious that America no longer calls the shots in Afghanistan. Americans rejected the offer. On August 27, Russia postponed the talks following a phone conversation between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. The latter asked for more time to prepare.
Last year, US President Donald Trump had announced a troop surge, contrary to his election promises, to degrade the Taliban and force them to negotiate with the Afghan government. In August 2017, Trump had unveiled his new Afghanistan policy. In characteristic arrogance borne of total ignorance, Trump said his Afghan policy would be robust. “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.” Even as evidence piled up of military failures, Trump insisted in January 2018, “We are going to finish what we have to finish in Afghanistan.” He then declared, “We don’t want to talk with the Taliban. There may be a time, but it’s going to be a long time.” The twitter-in-chief’s timescale turned out to be rather short.
By July, reports from Washington indicated Trump’s frustration with lack of progress despite the surge and he wanted his advisors to come up with fresh proposals. This was merely a prelude to raising the white flag and offering to hold direct talks with the Taliban — a complete reversal of American policy over the previous 17 years.
The surrender came on July 16. It was left to General John Nicholson, the top US commander, to announce America’s readiness for direct talks with the Taliban. Trump kept out of the loop. Instead, even Nicholson threw the ball in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s court.
Nicholson announced, “Our Secretary of State, Mr. (Mike) Pompeo, has said that we, the United States, are ready to talk to the Taliban and discuss the role of international forces.” Less than two weeks later, American officials huddled with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar to discuss the end of US presence in Afghanistan. The announcement was made by the Taliban who told several US media outlets they had held face-to-face talks with American diplomats led by Alice Wells, head of the South Asia Bureau in the State Department. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Voice of America all quoted the Taliban about the face-to-face talks. NBC News also reported similar meetings adding that American diplomats had held talks with Taliban representatives not only in Qatar but also in Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates.
While American officials are mum about the talks, clearly seeing them as a huge climb down from their previous position of not talking to the Taliban, they have let American media outlets break the news. When asked about the talks, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert deflected the question simply stating that Ms. Wells was in Qatar in mid-July where she met the deputy prime minister and other Qatari officials to “talk about their contributions to the situation in Afghanistan.”
Despite the talks the Taliban appeared in no mood to relax military pressure. On August 10, they struck Ghazni, south of Kabul and cut the Kabul-Qandahar highway. The city was under Taliban siege for five days resulting in hundreds of casualties despite optimistic claims from the Kabul regime. When the Taliban finally left the city, it was in ruins, largely the result of US bombing raids.
Even before Ghazni’s residents had a chance to return home, ISIS terrorists, who are regrouping in Afghan-istan, struck Kabul’s Shi‘i neighbourhood of Dasht-i-Barchi on August 15. Nearly 50 people were killed and many more injured, mostly students taking university entrance exams.
The ISIS Kabul attack was preceded a day earlier by the Taliban overrunning an army base in Faryab province, northern Afghanistan. At least 17 soldiers were killed and more than 100 captured in a stinging blow to the “US-trained” Afghan security forces. The fall of the base in Ghormach district of volatile Faryab province occurred when the Kabul regime failed to send reinforcements despite repeated pleas from the beleaguered troops for several days since the Taliban laid siege to it on August 12.
Amid these grim developments, it was announced in Washington that Secretary Pompeo would visit Islamabad on September 5, probably accompanied by Ms. Wells to meet Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Imran Khan (CI went to press before these meetings occurred).
If America is serious about peace in Afghanistan, it would find a ready ear in Islamabad. On the other hand, if it still harbors illusions about imposing its will and making insulting demands of Pakistan, then Pompeo would be wasting his time. Imran Khan is not likely to turn over like his predecessor Nawaz Sharif or the even earlier crook in power, Asif Ali Zardari. Long before the Americans publicly admitted to talking to the Taliban, Imran Khan had called for such talks. Subsequent developments have vindicated his stand.
It is now for the Americans to grasp the opportunity or face the prospect of being driven out of Afghanistan. Their retreat would likely be even more ignominious than what they faced in Vietnam in the 1970s. The choice is theirs: peace or humiliating retreat.