On October 7, 2001, the United States began “Operation Enduring Freedom”, a military invasion into Afghanistan. This war in Afghanistan was prompted by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, led by Al-Qaeda and its leader Osama Bin Laden, who was believed to be living in Afghanistan. Just shy of 18 years, and having recently past the length of the Vietnam War, it is now America’s longest-running war.
As with any, the human cost of this war is high: about 22,000 American service members or contractors have been killed or wounded and over 111,000 Afghan service members or civilians have been killed.
The financial cost is estimated to be more than $975 billion and counting.
After a peak presence of 100,000 forces in August of 2010, by July of 2016 President Barack Obama had reduced the troop level to 8,400. So close to the end of his second term, President Obama determined it would be better for his successor to plan the next move. By August of 2017, President Trump had re-escalated the war in Afghanistan to 14,000 troops, nearly doubled the troop level of the previous year.
Negotiations about America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan have taken place intermittently since the war began. After almost two decades of failure, the talks began to heat up in late 2018 when the Taliban, the main insurgent group fighting the Afghanistan government, and Americans gathered in Doha, Qatar to discuss the removal of the 14,000 American troops and 17,000 NATO troops from 39 countries.
Conspicuously absent from the negotiating table was the Afghanistan government. The Taliban considers the Afghan government to simply be a “puppet government” of America and has steadfastly refused to negotiate with them. It’s believed that should a peace deal be agreed upon between the Taliban and the United States, the Afghan government and Taliban would then begin “intra-Afghan” negotiations.
While a deal had been reached “in principle” during the first week of September, it was thought that the intra-Afghan negotiations would begin in Norway in the coming weeks.
There are four issues at hand in the negotiations. One, the US wants a promise from the Taliban that it will not allow foreign armed groups to use the country as a launchpad for attacks outside of Afghanistan (which led to the Al-Qaeda managed September 11 attacks). Two, the complete withdraw of US and NATO forces; three, an intra-Afghan dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan government and lastly a permanent ceasefire.
That last issue appears to be particularly troublesome.
Last week alone, Afghan local media was reporting that attacks were continuing in the provinces of Kunduz, Takhar, Badakhshan, Balkh, Farah and Herat. Additionally, the Taliban launched a series of attacks in Kabul that left more than 100 people dead, including one American and one Romanian soldier.
The Taliban, perhaps uncharacteristically but certainly irrationally, never said they would forgo attacks during the negotiating process.
Despite a 2016 campaign promise to extricate the US forces entirely from Afghanistan, President Trump has maintained that some degree of military presence would be needed in Afghanistan. He has put the number of troops to remain even after a successful negotiation at around 8,600, which is about where it was in 2016 just before his election.
The war in Afghanistan has also hit a sad benchmark. Aside from the many people hurt and injured from this 18-year-old conflict, the troops now being sent to fight there weren’t born when the war began.
Historically, Afghanistan has been embroiled in wars since time has been recorded. From 1978 to today, the country has been involved in six wars. The 1978 communist Saur Revolution which led to the Soviet-led war that lasted for ten years before the Soviets withdrew their forces. Then three civil wars that preceded the invasion from American led troops in 2001.
Establishing any kind of political structure in a country that is essentially a fiefdom has proven to be problematic.
The negotiations between the US and the Taliban had been moving along in Dohar since late in 2018. All of the talks eventually led to a delicate peace agreement being “in place” the first week of September. However, on September 7, using Twitter as his official communication forum, President Trump announced that all negotiations would come to a full stop.
The president, angered by the recent bombings, and the Taliban’s unwillingness to commit to a cease-fire, called off all negotiations with the Taliban. He also cancelled a surprise summit supposed to have been held on September 7 & 8 at Camp David in the United States.
This secret negotiation between the US, the Taliban and Afghanistan scheduled to have taken place on September 7 & 8 at the president’s Camp David retreat came as a shock. Considering these negotiations have mostly flown under the radar for the past year, the fanfare of scheduling, and then abruptly cancelling, a meeting with an extremist group that is responsible for thousands of American’s death is an unexpected, and wildly dangerous, political move.
However, to understand Trump’s love of the unexpected, you only need to look at his recent spur of the moment meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un; in which President Trump became the first American president to step foot in North Korea.
Many were left wondering why a meeting at Camp David was needed at all if a tentative peace agreement was already in place. That is until you consider President Trump’s penchant for surprises and theatrics.
The potential sensationalism and symbolism around a successful peace accord with Afghanistan and the Taliban days before the anniversary of September 11 was most certainly an opportunity that President Trump could not pass: even if the Taliban has not yet confirmed they would’ve even attended this meeting at Camp David.
Thinking that the past week’s attacks, which included the death of one American, were a ploy by the Taliban to strengthen their negotiation, President Trump promptly cancelled the proposed meeting. After announcing the cancellation, an irritated and frustrated President Trump tweeted, “How many more decades are they (the Taliban) willing to fight?”
The answer can be found in a 2008 Rolling Stone article by Nir Rosen.
Rosen travelled to Afghanistan to meet with the then surging Taliban. After spending time with the insurgents on his last day in Kabul, Rosen was reminded by a Western aid of the words from a high-ranking Taliban leader. The man explained why the US will never prevail in Afghanistan, “You Westerners have your watches, but we Taliban have time.”
President Trump has called the Afghanistan War an “aimless boondoggle” and whether his abrupt about-face this weekend will prove to be a permanent stop to negotiations awaits to be seen. Although, current thinking indicates that bringing the Taliban back to the table after the president’s recent Tweeting outburst could prove troublesome.
President Trump’s outburst is proving to have been just as pointless as the war in Afghanistan.
The peace plan that was “in place” on September 5 accomplished very little. It didn’t come close to Trump’s 2016 campaign promise to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. This tentative agreement did nothing more than guarantee a reduction of American forces to about what they were when President Trump took office, 8,600.
Russian author Leo Tolstoy said, “The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.”
President Trump is not known for his patience and with a combustible election year right around the corner, his time to correct this “boondoggle” is closing.
The Taliban is proving to have both patience and time.