This month, a year ago, US President Donald Trump announced his administration’s Afghanistan strategy in a speech in Arlington, Virginia. Trump admitted that his initial instinct was to pull out of what was already by then a 16-year-old war. However, he understood that an immediate withdrawal would not provide “an honourable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made". Trump decided to commit the US to the battle without the Barack Obama-style withdrawal timelines. Even as his speech was being widely pilloried in Washington, there was also a view, notably in India, that Trump’s strategy deserved a fair chance.
A year later, it appears that Trump is unwilling to give a fair chance to his own strategy, announced after much deliberation. According to a recently published report in The Daily Beast, the US has once again opened back-channel talks with the Taliban. The talks on the US side are being led by Robin Raphel and Christopher Kolenda. Raphel is known for her sympathetic views towards the Pakistani army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Rawalpindi does not like direct US-Taliban talks but Raphel’s presence gives the Pakistani generals the necessary confidence.
Why did US patience wear out so quickly after announcing its new strategy? The fatigue with the war is real. Moreover, the chances of an American victory look slim with the kind of resources Washington is willing to commit. The back-channel was initiated in November itself. This implies that the new strategy was more of a signalling exercise than a commitment to re-energize the fight against the Taliban. That the back-channel has come out into the open now is also an indication of some optimism on the part of the protagonists involved.
In June, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani declared a unilateral ceasefire against the Taliban ahead of Eid ul-Fitr. The initiative was backed by General John Nicholson, the commander of Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) forces in Afghanistan. The Taliban soon reciprocated the gesture. Later in June, Mullah Fazlullah, the chief of Pakistan-focused terrorist group Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), was killed in a joint US-Afghanistan operation. The election victory of Imran Khan—known for his sympathetic views towards the Taliban—has also given rise to the hope that the new leader can deliver the Taliban to the negotiating table in return for the US facilitating an IMF (International Monetary Fund) bailout of Pakistan’s collapsing economy.
According to the The Daily Beast report, the Taliban has grown flexible in its demands. It is willing to, the report claims, countenance the presence of American troops in Afghanistan provided an Afghan government in the future with Taliban representation allows that. However, one should not get too ahead of oneself. The Taliban is still not willing to talk to the Ghani government; it considers Ghani to be an American puppet. It has, in fact, gone on the offensive with the latest attack in Ghazni. The US is trying to thread a needle when it maintains that the initial US-Taliban “talks" are different from, and a predecessor to, Kabul-Taliban “negotiations".
An earlier US attempt to a similar acrobatic approach had failed when the former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, asked for direct Kabul-Taliban talks prior to accepting the Taliban’s demand of opening a political office in Qatar. Even when Karzai fell in line later, on Obama’s personal intervention, the Taliban blatantly violated its side of the bargain by converting the agreed-to political office to an office of the unrecognized “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’. The whole exercise—described elaborately in Steve Coll’s recent book Directorate S: The CIA And America’s Secret War In Afghanistan And Pakistan—turned into a major embarrassment for the Obama administration, which then dropped the idea of negotiating directly with the Taliban.
There were several mistakes the US made during those negotiations. One of them was excessive reliance on similar back-channel efforts, led by people contracted from outside the primary diplomatic and intelligence institutions. The other was trusting the Pakistani army during the process. It is now known that the time when Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was negotiating on behalf of Taliban emir Mullah Omar, the latter was actually on his deathbed.
Another persistent problem has been the US tendency to distract itself from its own goals in Afghanistan. This started pretty early when the war in Iraq began to consume the George W. Bush administration and Afghanistan fell by the wayside. The story will be the same if Trump wilfully forgets his own speech made a year ago. Speaking to The New York Times, David Sedney, a former deputy assistant secretary of defence, posited it accurately (goo.gl/GFi7qX) when he blamed the lack of patience and a “reflex impulse" to judge the new strategy as doomed so soon after it began.
India was supposed to be a key player in the new Afghanistan strategy. This no longer seems to be the case. Some have previously argued that New Delhi should open a channel with the Taliban’s Qatar office. More importantly, India should ensure that its old friendships—from the days of the Northern Alliance—remain intact. In case of instability, India’s contacts on the ground will give it a place at the table.
Will the latest US-Taliban talks bear fruit for Afghanistan? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org