The United States – Taliban talks are “dead”, and it is the Taliban that has gained
The 7 September announcement by the President of the United States (US) Donald Trump that he had decided to effectively call off the talks with the Taliban that his special representative Zalmay Khalilzad had been assiduously undertaking for close to a year came totally out of the blue and took Afghan watchers by surprise. In a series of tweets Trump made the startling revelation that “Unbeknownst to almost everyone, the major Taliban leaders and, separately, the President of Afghanistan, were going to secretly meet with me at Camp David on Sunday (8 September). Unfortunately, in order to build false leverage, they (the Taliban) admitted to......an attack in Kabul that killed one of our great great soldiers, and 11 other people. I immediately cancelled the meeting and called off peace negotiations”. He added, “If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway”.
The reason quoted by Trump for calling off the talks at a juncture when both the US and the Taliban had just a handful of days before publicly tom-tommed that they had reached an agreement on an astounding deal that would enable the US to withdraw a sizeable proportion of its 14,000-odd troops from Afghanistan in return for paper-thin guarantees from the Taliban that it would prevent future attacks on the US from Afghan soil, was baffling. It strongly suggested that there was more to the story than Trump was letting on. As underlined in the EFSAS Commentary of 06-09-2019, the milieu in which the US had persisted with the talks in the face of a concurrent and incessant offensive by the Taliban in which several US troops were killed was “bizarre and surreal”. While the eventual decision to call off the talks was the correct one, the question of how and why the death of a single US soldier resulted in the unraveling, whereas the prior deaths of several other US troops at the Taliban’s hands appeared to have been taken in the stride in the larger interest of a US withdrawal, remains unanswered. Furthermore, the timing of Trump’s decision at the threshold of signing the agreement, even if preliminary, raises more questions.
Among the possible factors that forced a rethink by Trump were the cautions by senior officials in the Trump administration and other key functionaries in Washington, including Trump’s then National Security Adviser, John Bolton, who contended that the Taliban cannot be trusted to fulfill their promises. Bolton was unceremoniously sacked by Trump soon thereafter. Even vocal Trump supporter Senator Lindsey Graham warned that rushing to remove US forces from Afghanistan would be a “strategic blunder”. Nine former US Ambassadors issued a joint statement of 3 September drawing attention to the perils of persisting with the Trump administration’s ill-conceived negotiating positions and future plans for Afghanistan. Consequently, as Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, put it, “I think it is Washington's mounting concern over the deal, and not the Taliban attack cited in Trump's tweet, that has prompted Trump to pull the plug on talks. In recent days, the influence of talks skeptics within the administration started to pay off, likely leading Trump to conclude that it's not worth inking a flawed deal”.
Other experts believe that given that an outright military solution is beyond the realms of possibility in present day Afghanistan, and that talks are bound to resume at some stage, Trump’s decision could actually be a negotiating tactic to get more concessions from the Taliban. Kugelman too felt that “If US negotiations resume with the Taliban, the US will certainly want to pursue a deal that obliges the insurgents to lay down arms before any US troops leave the country. The question will be what the US does to give the Taliban an incentive to agree to such a concession”.
While the warnings Trump had received would have contributed to his decision, given his inimitable style and penchant for publicity, perhaps the most likely reason why Trump called off the talks was the refusal of the Taliban to accept Trump’s invitation to visit the presidential retreat at Camp David where Trump intended to announce the deal with much fanfare in the media spotlight with next year’s elections in mind. The Taliban reportedly insisted on first signing the deal before venturing anywhere close to Camp David, thereby throwing cold water over Trump’s elaborate plan.
Whatever be the reason, the suspension of the talks has caused all stakeholders to re-assess their positions in the abruptly changed circumstances and plan accordingly. The US has some hard decisions to take, including how it proposes to resolve the Afghan imbroglio while simultaneously prioritizing withdrawal of its troops. Despite Trump reiterating on 9 September that talks with the Taliban were “dead”, he did add that getting US troops out of Afghanistan “at the right time” was still a priority. This contradicted the statement of US Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, the head of US Central Command, that the US military was likely to accelerate the pace of its operations in Afghanistan to counter the Taliban upsurge. “We’re certainly not going to sit still and let them carry out some self-described race to victory. That’s not going to happen,” he said. Asked whether increasing operations against the Taliban could include air strikes and raids by US and Afghan commandos, McKenzie responded, “I think we’re talking a total spectrum. We’re going to make some decisions, I think, back in our nation’s capital over the next few days and that will give us increased guidance going ahead”.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also made incongruous statements on the path ahead for the US. On the one hand, he towed McKenzie’s line while saying in an interview to CNN that “If the Taliban don’t behave, if they don’t deliver on the commitments that they’ve made to us now for weeks, and in some cases months, the President is not going to reduce the pressure, we’re not going to reduce our support for the Afghan security forces that have fought so hard there in Afghanistan. We’re not just going to withdraw because there’s a timeline”. He claimed that more than 1,000 Taliban fighters had been killed in Afghanistan in the last 10 days alone. On the other hand, he suggested that the talks were not as emphatically “dead” as Trump had suggested, but were more “on hold”. As for the withdrawal of US troops, Pompeo said on an ABC programme that the issue would be discussed and that “The President hasn’t yet made a decision on that”.
While the US grapples with these questions and takes the decisions that it needs to, the growing tension on the ground in Afghanistan is adding to the uncertainty about the future course for US forces, which must now simultaneously brace for an increase in fighting while also awaiting potential orders to withdraw.
The Afghan government, on the other hand, had no ambiguity in welcoming the cancellation of the talks, which it blamed on the Taliban’s “obstinacy to increase violence against Afghans”. It added that “We have consistently stressed that genuine peace is possible when the Taliban stop the killing of Afghans, embrace an inclusive ceasefire, and enter into direct negotiations with the Afghan government”. The position of President Ashraf Ghani, who had been sidelined in the negotiations between the US and the Taliban, has been strengthened post-cancellation. Doubts about whether the presidential elections scheduled for 28 September would be held have also been removed. Ghani’s spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said on 14 September that a legitimate peace deal with the Taliban can only come after the presidential elections. Ghani is the frontrunner in the presidential race, but he realizes that the Taliban, stung by the calling off of the talks with the US, will launch a major offensive aimed at disrupting the polls. He also is acutely aware that lasting peace in Afghanistan will remain an elusive dream without getting the Taliban on board. He, therefore, made a renewed call for peace on 9 September but with the caveat that “Peace without a ceasefire is impossible”. The immediate challenge for Ghani and his government, meanwhile, would be to ensure that the elections are conducted relatively smoothly while the Afghan National Army and the US troops keep the Taliban at bay.
As for other regional players, unsurprisingly given its discomfiture with a robust US military presence close to its perceived sphere of influence, Russia expressed the hope that the talks process could be put back on track. It asserted that “We are convinced that the complete end to foreign military presence is an inalienable condition of durable peace in Afghanistan”.
China, like Russia, called for a renewal of the talks. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said after cancellation of the talks that “Afghanistan situation has entered a key juncture. We call on the US and Taliban to continue their negotiations for outcomes to let the seed of peace to take root in Afghanistan and create conditions for the final settlement of the Afghanistan issue”. China also asked all foreign forces to withdraw from Afghanistan and expressed support for an “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned extensive and inclusive peace and reconciliation process”.
Despite its strong verbal pledges in support of Afghanistan, China’s role and intentions in the country came under a cloud at a meeting held earlier this week at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). China threatened to veto the proposal to extend the mandate of the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) unless the text welcomed and urged efforts like China’s Belt and Road Initiative to facilitate trade and transit. The proposal was finally passed on 17 September, at which time US Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft made it a point to call out China for its highly self-centered worldview. She stressed that “The reason we cannot empower the mission with a stronger, substantive mandate today is a member’s insistence on language that highlights national political priorities rather than ways in which we can most effectively assist the people and the government of Afghanistan”.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry disclosed on 17 September that after the collapse of the talks, “In the framework of Iran’s comprehensive consultations with all parties in Afghanistan, a Taliban political delegation visited our country recently to discuss the latest developments in Afghanistan with Iranian officials”. Separately, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif tweeted, “Gravely concerned about Afghanistan. Defeated foreigners must leave and fratricide must end, especially as foreigners can exploit the situation, bringing renewed bloodshed. Iran prepared to work with Afghan government and parties — as well as neighbours — to forge a lasting end to violence”. Other Iranian officials have averred that it may be more meaningful to have intra-Afghan talks rather than work for a peace deal with the Taliban.
Trump's announcement came on a day when Pakistan, China and Afghanistan were meeting in Islamabad to discuss future plans once the US-Taliban agreement came into effect. Pakistan, the widely acknowledged benefactor of the Taliban, has been stunned by Trump’s decision. It had, after all, played an important role in nudging the Taliban towards the negotiating table in the hope that not only would that help in re-entrenching Pakistan’s grip on Afghanistan through the Taliban, but would also bestow it with largess from a beholden US. The cancellation of the talks put paid to those hopes. The Pakistani Foreign Ministry in a statement on 8 September therefore stated that “Pakistan will continue to monitor the developments and reiterates its principled policy stance that there is no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan and urges that both sides must re-engage to find negotiated peace from the ongoing political settlement process. Pakistan looks for optimized engagement following earliest resumption of talks”.
Pakistan now finds itself in the unenviable situation where not only has its relationship with the Taliban been dented, but it may also be accused by the US of not exerting enough pressure on the Taliban to bring it around to agree to a ceasefire or to cut back on the violence. The timing of Trump’s decision has also been inopportune for Pakistan. In the event of the US – Taliban deal going through, Pakistan could have been in a position to gain vital support from the US on the Jammu & Kashmir-issue, as also on the matter of its possible blacklisting by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). That boat now appears to have sailed.
India, quite the opposite of Pakistan, was hugely relieved that the talks had been called off. Its Ministry of External Affairs said, “We are following the developments including the talks between the Taliban and the US very closely. We believe all sections of the Afghan society including the legitimately elected Afghan government should be part of this process. We have supported the election to unfold later this month. Our position is that any process should respect the constitutional legacy and mandate, should not leave any ungoverned spaces where terrorists and their proxies would relocate. We are reasonably confident that any decision on the peace process which is being taken by the international community including the US will accommodate our concerns”.
India viewed the US – Taliban deal as more of a troop withdrawal agreement than a peace deal. There were also concerns that the deal could plunge Afghanistan back into a civil war and give Pakistan the momentum to push its terrorist proxies towards India. India was worried that the Taliban's return to the corridors of power in Afghanistan would threaten its considerable interests there. India, therefore, visualizes more regional stability with the deal being called off rather than it moving forward.
The Taliban reacted with perceptible nonchalance to Trump’s announcement, making it clear that it held the better cards and was in no pressing hurry to surrender its gains when it was so close to victory. Its spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted in response to Trump’s tweets that “The Islamic Emirate has a solid and unwavering policy. We called for dialogue 20 years ago and maintain the same stance today. And we believe the United States shall return to this position as well”. The Taliban also said that “We had two ways to end occupation in Afghanistan, one was jihad and fighting, the other was talks and negotiations. If Trump wants to stop talks, we will take the first way and they will soon regret it. This will lead to more losses to the US. Its credibility will be affected, its anti-peace stance will be exposed to the world, losses to lives and assets will increase”.
Within a week of the talks with the US being called off, the Taliban sent a delegation to Moscow to assess regional support for forcing the US to leave Afghanistan. Taliban delegations are also scheduled to visit China and some Central Asian countries. A senior Taliban leader in Qatar was quoted as saying that “The purpose of these visits is to inform leaders of these countries about the peace talks and President Trump’s decision to call off the peace process at a time when both sides had resolved all outstanding issues and were about to sign a peace agreement”.
It is astounding that without gaining anything tangible in return, the US gifted the Taliban, which the US and almost every other world power had till recently viewed as terrorists, such wide legitimacy and international recognition. Even when the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan at the turn of the century, other than Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, no other country even recognized the Taliban government. The Taliban today, courtesy the US’ highly flawed policies in Afghanistan, views itself as an equal of the US that sits across the table from it and negotiates deals that envisage withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan at little or no cost to the Taliban. Through according this legitimacy, the US has also paved the way for Taliban delegations to traverse the world and be treated as the de-facto Afghan government despite never having contested, leave aside won, even a single election.
The Taliban’s conviction that the US will have no option but to return to the table, sooner rather than later, does not seem to be misplaced. In all likelihood the US will then have even less leverage, and be on an even weaker footing than it has been at the just concluded negotiations with the Taliban.