Now in its eighteenth year, the US-led Nato mission to remove Afghanistan’s militant government, the Taliban, is America’s longest ever conflict. Much like British then Soviet attempts to project influence in the troubled Middle Eastern state, the fight has been defined by its protracted, gruesome nature. By UN estimates at least 32,000 civilians have been killed and another 60,000 wounded in the past decade alone. Now, very tentatively, there have been steps towards peace.
A “framework” to end hostilities has been thrashed out with the Taliban’s leadership, announced Zalmay Khalilzad, the US’s lead negotiator after the latest round of talks. The Qatar-based discussions remain open – and “still have a long way to go”, warns Khalilzad – but in a near two-decade bloodbath, any forward movement feels momentus.
At the head of a multinational force, America invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to capture terror chief Osama Bin Laden. After deposing his Taliban protectors, the war degraded into an ugly counter-insurgency mission that strove to establish democratic stability while eliminating terrorists. 14,000 US troops remain in the country, charged with shoring up Afghan security forces in their bloody struggle with the Taliban. The resurgent group, stronger than it has been at any time since 2001, now controls nearly half the country.
The militants’ enduring demand has been the total withdrawal of American forces, something the US has in principle acceded to. The return gesture is a little more complicated. Washington wants a four-point peace package guaranteed by the Taliban: a mutually agreed US exit, an assurance Afghanistan will never again harbour international terrorists (something it has long promised), a ceasefire, and an agreement to deal directly with the Afghan government. On the first two there is consensus, while the third is unclear. It is the last point which is most fraught, however, with the group’s rejection of the Kabul administration utterly unwavering.
But for any hope of an enduring peace, Afghanistan’s democratically elected government has to be at the table. Sidelined from the talks amid Taliban charges of US puppetry, President Ashraf Ghani has assured citizens that their rights will not be bargained away and that no deal would be made without his involvement. “There are values that are not disputable,” declared Ghani, who seeks re-election in July, while acknowledging that, with 45,000 dead since 2014, Afghan security services are not strong enough without American oversight.
That puts the momentum firmly behind Taliban negotiators, who have found themselves further buoyed by US President Trump’s disdain for foreign intervention. “Great nations do not fight endless wars,” he said in his State of the Union speech, in line with vague calls to half the US’s military presence in Afghanistan by 2020 (though no official order has been given).
A reduction in troops would have to be preceded by a ceasefire, the Americans argue, which the Taliban have thus far resisted, hinting that they may struggle to remobilise disbanded fighters. Such commitment to militancy seems incompatible with Afghanistan’s fledgling and vulnerable democracy. US negotiators have assured that, while being “part of the political process,” the Taliban wouldn’t return to government.
That may come as little comfort to Afghan women, who suffered terribly under the militants’ authoritarian rule. At adjacent talks in Moscow, women’s rights played a prominent role amid concerns an empowered Taliban could roll back hard-won civil rights. The group has committed to granting female rights under Islamic law, but some are skeptical. “How do you ensure that all these nice statements are not just made to convince the US and international community to leave and then life goes back to how it was under the Taliban?” asked Fawzia Koofi, vice president of the Afghan National Assembly.
Weary of foreign intervention, America is unlikely to return to Afghanistan after withdrawal, and the Taliban knows it. How many of their promises are made in the knowledge that the US is hungry for a face-saving deal to cover its departure, critics have asked. Looking to calm fears of duplicity, Khalilzad has said that Taliban assurances against collaboration with terror groups would be subject to “enforcement mechanisms”, but failed to offer any further explanation.
Any such mechanisms would have to be robust. Despite their long-standing disavowal of international terrorism, violent networks have endured under the Taliban. In May 2018 a UN sanctions monitoring team estimated that some 10,000 to 15,000 foreign fighters connected to al-Qaeda, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Islamic State were active in Afghanistan – the former being “closely allied with and embedded within the Taliban”.
Despite these roadblocks, the talks’ incremental progress has been spun by an exultant Taliban leadership as the start of the end of American occupation. But if they remain intractable on the issue of inter-Afghan dialogue, this fervor will be short lived. Washington has committed to diminishing its role as discussions advance, and the Moscow summit saw former (and perhaps future) Kabul leaders share historic words with senior militants – but the current Afghan administration was once again snubbed.
To help navigate negotiation impasses, the idea of third party involvement has been floated. But there has been no agreement to this end, Graeme Smith of the International Crisis group, a think-tank, told Il Giornale, though “we are likely to see the United Nations step into the process at some point,” he added.
With a rising death toll, looming elections and a characteristically impatient individual in the Oval Office, a sense of urgency has been injected into Afghan peace talks. A rushed job would likely be a botched job though, with the price paid by those who have endured so much already.
“I am ready to even sacrifice my life for peace,” said Afghan president Ashraf Ghani on the eve of the most recent talks, “but not for a peace that will be a new chapter of carnage.” All parties would be wise to heed his words.