The US withdrew from Vietnam after the Paris accord, which was never implemented, and is likely to make the same mistake in Afghanistan, only because Donald Trump appears desperate to fulfil his campaign promise, ignoring sound advice. The Taliban and Pakistan, the two major entities involved in resolving Afghanistan, seem to sense Trump’s predicament. It appears the US is presently only concerned about itself, rather than the people of Afghanistan and other states which have a stake in the country.
The US lost face in Vietnam and it is a memory which continues to haunt them and so will Afghanistan in the years ahead. As Vietnam fades from US memory, Afghanistan will rise. Afghanistan would come under Islamic law, women would be made slaves and it would become the drug capital of the world. US and NATO soldiers who lost lives, limbs and families, would be shocked that President Trump crumbled and handed back power to the very people who targeted them. Will US veterans sit quiet when the mujahids who attacked them and their comrades, are handed back power on a platter because the US lacks will and staying power? While US military advisors may suggest otherwise, Trump has made up his mind and would follow his intuitions, the world be damned. He did it in Syria and is repeating it here. The US despite all bravado, will follow the Russian path and pull out in meek surrender with an agreement which may not even last a week.
Khalilzad, the US envoy, is only pushing the Taliban to agree to talks with the Afghan government, prevent the country from being used as a base for attacks on the US and its allies as also denying presence to other groups. Is there any guarantee that anything will change, the Taliban will adhere to its word and not return to what it was doing earlier? Nothing at all, hence the entire exercise is one based on false hope and a desperation to withdraw. Everyone involved in the talks is aware of US intentions.
The Taliban and Pakistan (which is even more desperate for US withdrawal as it has faced multiple drone strikes on its soil, remains threatened by US presence and is pushed into a state of financial desperation), are aware that Khalilzad is fighting against time to obtain some sort of face-saving measure before Trump rushes out. Pakistan is pushing the Taliban for talks, while possibly at the same time advising them to delay as it understands American intentions.
Pakistan is aware that by pushing the Taliban for talks (it is not responsible for what happens in the talks), it would gain US goodwill. It may also obtain US largesse, have doors for IMF loans opened and pressure may be applied on India to pull out of Afghanistan. In sum, the US is simply playing into Pakistani hands as it has indicated its desperation to pull out. It is now heeding to requests of the same nation which housed Bin Laden and till recently denied the presence of the Taliban.
Has Trump misread the situation? His own national intelligence chief stated to a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that Pakistan’s “narrow approach to counter-terrorism cooperation almost certainly will frustrate US counter-terrorism efforts against the Taliban”.
There is panic within Afghanistan as the Taliban are no longer saviours from the Russians. They are considered tormentors who target their own. The respect which the Taliban had in the 1980s has all but vanished with their random killings across the nation. In the eighties they pushed Afghanistan into the stone age; what they would do now remains most debateable. Surprisingly, the country which rescued them from these tormentors is handing over power to them again.
US-Taliban talks are moving slowly, with the next round scheduled in the third week of February. The Taliban’s Qatar team is strengthening, and it is engaging multiple nations including Russia and Iran and opposition leaders, representing the erstwhile Northern Alliance from Afghanistan.
The Taliban are aware of the timelines for US withdrawal. It cannot be later than mid-2020, as US Presidential elections are scheduled for November 2020. Talks with Khalilzad would continue till an agreement is reached, after which talks could be considered with the Afghan government and other stakeholders. Can talks take place while the Taliban remain armed and continue attacking state forces?
There is no mention of the Taliban being asked to disarm itself. Discussions have yet to come to the stage of the future of the Afghan national forces and the Taliban militia being merged together. The two hate and continue to target each other, hence merger cannot be done easily. Even the commencement of this discussion has yet to happen.
In other regions of the world where such internal conflicts have occurred there has been the involvement of the UN and the presence of a UN peacekeeping force till peace is restored and discussions concluded. In this case, it is the US alone which is involved in discussions and these are centred around US withdrawal. This automatically precludes any confirmed chances of peace.
The US once it withdraws would no longer be responsible to ensure that terms of agreement have been implemented. It is likely to leave behind an environment of uncertainty and confusion, rather than one of peace. It would leave behind a second Vietnam. Ultimately it would be the Afghan population which would suffer.
It is still not too late to bring in the UN and consider placing a UN mandated ceasefire with the presence of UN peacekeeping forces till all discussions take place.
In case Afghanistan goes down the wire and becomes a threat to regional peace and security, who would take the blame? Would it be Trump or Khalilzad or the entire US government machinery? Trump would have demitted office but would remain in history books for being responsible for the death of a nation. In any case, it would be the end of US credibility as the enforcer of peace around the globe. It would only prove the adage of ‘Afghanistan being the graveyard of empires’.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)