by Zia Sarhadi (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 45, No. 2, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1437)
Life for the Afghan people has never been easy but having suffered war for nearly four decades, they want some peace and security. These are denied them because of the conflicting interests of external players.
There are perhaps no other people in the world that yearn for peace more than the long-suffering Afghans. Peace, however, has eluded them because they are held hostage by predatory powers and ambitious politicians who refuse to help bring an end to the war. The much-hyped peace talks between the US-backed Afghan government and the Taliban have not made much headway. In fact, there has been only one round of talks in Murree, Pakistan, in early July of last year. The next round of talks scheduled in Islamabad last month failed to materialize because of the conflicting demands of the two principal protagonists.
Talks at the end of July 2015 were sabotaged when the Afghan intelligence agency, in a deliberately provocative move on the eve of the talks, leaked information about the death of Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar. Last month’s talks failed because the new Taliban leader Mullah Akhter Mansour put forth a number of preconditions: withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan; removal of Taliban leaders’ names from international blacklists that impede their travel; and the release of prisoners. They also demanded the unfreezing of their funds and insisted on using the flag of the “Islamic Emirate.”
Some or all of these conditions are unacceptable to the Kabul regime as well as to the Americans. The Afghan government headed by President Ashraf Ghani has put forward its own demands: halt to Taliban operations and recognition of the Afghan constitution as well as the demand that Pakistan exert more pressure on the Taliban over whom Islamabad allegedly has influence.
The talks are brokered by the US, China, and Pakistan with the Kabul regime making up the fourth leg of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG). If the Taliban do not attend, as they have not done so since the first meeting on July 8, 2015, the talks would be akin to a wedding without a groom.
Getting the talks started is difficult enough; the Kabul regime also wants other regional players to be involved including Russia, Iran, and India. There are both merits and demerits in this proposal. While it would increase the possibility of ensuring that any agreement reached would have much wider support and, therefore, durability, the downside is that more players would increase divergence of views and hence make the likelihood of reaching an agreement much more difficult.
The real problem with talks not making much progress or even being held at all at least with the Taliban is that all players are pursuing their own agendas disregarding the interests of the Afghan people. Let us start with the Taliban. The main faction led by Mullah Akhter does not want a rival faction led by Mullah Rasool to be invited to the talks. Whether the latter would accept the invitation is a moot point. Mullah Akhter wants to be the sole representative of the Taliban, flying the “Islamic Emirate” flag.
The Afghan government is even more divided and has little control over most parts of the country where the Taliban hold sway, as we shall see. Ghani is challenged by the powerful Tajik mafia whose representative Abdullah Abdullah has his own ambitions. He wants to be the president of Afghanistan, a position he alleges he has been deprived of. Currently he holds the strange title of “chief executive” as if Afghanistan is a corporation. While Ghani wants the US to keep him in power by exerting pressure on Pakistan to rein in the Taliban, Abdullah fears that any deal with the Taliban would strengthen the majority Pashtuns and diminish Tajik influence and access to resources.
Pakistan wants to ensure that archrival India does not get too firm a foothold in Afghanistan. If that were to happen, Pakistan would be squeezed by India from both sides. Afghan politicians are beholden to India and use these links to pressure Pakistan. They fail to realize that it is Pakistan’s goodwill that allows transit facilities for imported goods into landlocked Afghanistan. If Pakistan were to close this route, most Afghans would starve to death.
What is China’s interest in Afghanistan? There are several factors involved. Neutralizing Uighur militants from China’s Xinkiang Province perhaps tops the list. The Chinese want to ensure that these separatists do not use Afghan territory to launch operations against China. The Uighurs have trained with the Afghans (first the mujahideen and later the Taliban) and have gained considerable guerrilla warfare tactics.
Beijing is also keen to have peace and quiet on its borders to ensure the success of the One Belt, One Road Initiative (aka the New Silk Road Initiative). While its success is not entirely dependent on peace in Afghanistan, continued fighting and insecurity would mitigate against realizing its full potential. The Chinese realize that it would be better for the Afghans, including the Taliban to be inside the tent than outside. Beijing has also invested several billion dollars in mining projects that will remain stillborn as long as fighting rages in Afghanistan.
All these pale into insignificance compared to what the US has on its agenda. Unfortunately, Washington is not sincere about withdrawing its troops or establishing peace in Afghanistan. While the total number of US troops has been reduced to less than 10,000, their presence is not without ulterior motives. President Barack Obama had announced in December 2014, to huge applause, that he had brought the longest US war to an end. He cleverly changed the Americans’ perception of the war. He claimed that responsibility for fighting had been handed over to the Afghan security forces that were supposedly ready for the task. The remaining US forces were in Afghanistan to protect the US embassy!
Neither of Obama’s claims was true. The year 2015 witnessed an upsurge in Taliban activities and a number of provinces as well as district centers have fallen to them. Afghan security forces have not proved up to the task. And as for US forces’ presence, there is no need for 10,000 troops to guard the US embassy. The presence of American forces acts as a magnet for Taliban attacks.
While American politicians say one thing, the generals are saying something quite different. Both General John Campbell who was the top US commander in Afghanistan and his successor, General John Nicholson have spoken about “increased risks” as a result of “insurgent attacks” in Afghanistan. Both have also emphasized not sticking to an arbitrary withdrawal date disregarding ground realities.
What are these ground realities? In his February testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, General Campbell is reported to have said, “Afghanistan is at an inflection point” and warned that the situation could easily get much worse. He warned against arbitrarily reducing the number of US military installations from 852 to 20. His successor, General Nicholson who took over command of US forces in Afghanistan on March 2, 2016 made similar observations.
So the question is: does the US intend to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan or not? From official statements especially of military officers, it is becoming clear that they have no intention of withdrawing completely from Afghanistan. Thus, it can be surmised that the purpose of the peace talks is not to negotiate an end to US presence in the war-torn country but to secure agreement of the Taliban to the long-term presence of US forces. Why does the US want to maintain a permanent presence when Osama bin Laden, ostensibly the cause of the US attack, is dead? So is Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Further, the Americans have softened their designation of the Taliban from terrorists to insurgents. There is even talk that they may be upgraded to the status of an “internal opposition” group. This would be quite a change from the insulting rhetoric of 2001 onward.
To understand American motives one must examine three interrelated aspects. First, the Americans want to secure the Taliban’s agreement for the oil and gas pipeline from Turkmenistan (aka TAPI). Second, the US and its multinational corporations have their eyes fixed on the estimated $4 trillion mineral wealth of Afghanistan. The Americans want to deny Afghanistan’s neighbors, primarily Russia and China, access to these riches. And, finally, continued American military presence in Afghanistan would act as a destabilizing force for China’s New Silk Road Initiative as well as the Russian-led Eurasia Economic Union.
There is more to American plans than merely fighting a war on terror. It is actually a war for spoils. That was the intention all along notwithstanding the ludicrous assertion of avenging the attacks of 9/11. After all, no Afghan was involved in those attacks and large numbers of Americans and others believe it was an inside job.