Observations of an ex pat: Afghanistan on the brink?

Afghanistan is in serious danger of a major outbreak of peace. Or is it?

Certainly the signs are that the US is about to announce an historic deal with their foes the Taliban. The basic bones are that the US and NATO-led forces will withdraw. In return the Taliban will promise to never again allow Afghanistan to become a terrorist base.

Withdrawal from the 17-year-long  $1 trillion Afghan war has been one of the key goals of President Trump. It was also a political target of President Obama. The problem is how to exit without leaving behind a vacuum of the kind that led to the rise in the 1990s of the Taliban and their Al Qaeeda guests.

The question has been exercising the minds of a succession of American diplomats since on-off negotiations started with the Taliban in 2011. During the Obama Administration these contacts controversially resulted in the release of five Taliban terrorists from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Sergeant Robert Bergdahl.

The talks were held in the Qatari capital Doha where the Taliban set up a semi-official embassy paid for by the Qatari government. After the prisoner exchange the talks slipped into limbo with only the occasional diplomatic chat as the Taliban refused to deal with the Afghan government whom they called “American puppets. ” Neither would they talk seriously with the US without a date for the withdrawal of troops.

Then in November it was announced that American and Taliban negotiators were once again having serious discussions in Doha. The man heading up the American team appears tailor-made for the job. Ambassador Zalmay Khalizad was born and raised in Afghanistan and educated in America. His posts have included ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq.

He is clearly under instructions from President Trump to get American troops out of Afghanistan. He told reporters: “Let me be clear—the US wants peace…To achieve peace, we are ready to address the legitimate concerns of all Afghan sides in a process that ensures Afghan independence and sovereignty and accounts for the legitimate interests of the regional states. Urgent that fighting ends.”

Since November the diplomatic activity has been frantic. Donald Trump’s Senatorial ally Lindsey Graham flew to Pakistan for talks with Prime Minister Imran Khan who, for the past ten years, has been urging the US to talk directly with the Taliban. The political hierarchies of Afghanistan and Pakistan are dominated and linked through the Pashtun tribe, so Imran Khan’s support is vital to the success of any deal. Also key to success are the Qataris who, since 2011, have provided the Taliban with their only diplomatic outpost.

The next step is likely to be the announcement of a ceasefire by the Taliban. They are reluctant to do this because they now control half of the country and they are increasing their territory almost daily. But the US is unlikely to commit to a firm timetable for withdrawal without this gesture.

Another bugbear is the role of the Western-recognised Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani. The Taliban refuses to speak with its representatives and the Ghani government refuses to accept any deal unless they have a major say in it.

But the uncomfortable truth is that President Ghani’s government is the puppet that the Taliban claim. The danger is that in his rush to the exit, Donald Trump is leaving behind a political dwelling which is an economic disaster zone and hopelessly divided between rival Pastun factions and 14 other feuding ethnic groups.

The bones of a military deal appear to be there. Missing are any help with reconstruction, rights for women, an end to the drug trade and a power-sharing agreement. The Trump Administration says it is not in the nation-building business. But if it fails to build structures to succeed its departure it could face the blame for creating a failed state in Afghanistan—for the second time.


* Journalist Tom Arms is a member of Wandsworth Liberal Democrats. He is a regular contributor to Lib Dem Voice as well as broadcasting for US radio.

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