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EFSAS Commentary

US-Afghanistan relations: Alternative narratives and strategies needed while aiming for long-term peace


This week marks one year since President Donald Trump released his new strategy to tackle the Taliban and the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan. Despite his announcement last year about “doubling down” on the commitment of the United States (US) in Afghanistan to solve the ‘Afghan-problem’, violence has consistently escalated in Afghanistan, not only within the last year, but within the last couple of months. Just recently, on 21 August, rockets were fired towards the Presidential palace in Kabul as President Ghani delivered a message of peace for the celebrations of the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha; attacks in Afghanistan have been relentless from both the Taliban and IS and this is most likely not what the US and Trump administration imagined when they decided to send an additional 3,000-4,000 troops into Afghanistan during the past year, while paradoxically pushing for negotiations and peace-talks with insurgents. Reports have been issued which stated that the Trump administration’s strategy is simply, not working, as after 17 years of war in Afghanistan - the longest one the US has ever seen - hundreds of lives lost, and billions of dollars spent, it has left many open-ended questions of what is to come next, and if and how peace could ever be sustained within the country and the wider region. What options are possibly left?

As a, rather strange, response to the frustrations, Erik Prince - founder of Blackwater - has once again attempted to revive his pitch about privatization of the war while embarking upon a crusade of promoting appearances on several television outlets. Prince puts forth the idea of replacing troops with private military contractors under special envoys who would aid Afghan forces with aircrafts and intelligence. He claims this would only cost around $3.5 billion and entail only a few thousand troops, allegedly saving the US billions of dollars. As foreign aid is also involved, countries would be asked to pay the private companies directly, which would be a first in history.

This idea was shot down last year by the Secretary of Defense and received much criticism because the method was considered to be extremely non-transparent and was also condemned by the former Afghan President, Hamid Karzai. However, as the current US approach has proved futile, many officials fear Donald Trump will show an interest in Prince’s proposition, overstepping the Defense Department, in a classic Trump fashion, as he has already replaced several senior administrators within the last year who originally opposed the plan.

As politics ensue, this leads the US nowhere in furthering the fight against the Taliban and the IS in Afghanistan and negotiating peace. The situation is stale, repetitive and exhausted. The US, its citizens, NATO allies, and most importantly, Afghans themselves, are past tired and desperately hungry for a solution after 17 years. But what comes next? If not Prince’s plan, then what?

More troops and military aid have not derived the desired results on the ground and it is unlikely that the Taliban will be defeated by the use of force - that seems not to be the war strategy that will work. The Taliban is well groomed in adapting change and new war strategies. For the US and its allies to come to terms with this, is the first step. The only way forward, seems to be dialogue with all parties.

This week Russia invited the Taliban, Afghanistan and the US to conduct peace talks to be held in Moscow. The Taliban has accepted to go to Moscow to begin discussions, but both the US and Afghanistan have declined. Although their declination, at first glance, seems a knee-jerk reaction, there is more to it than meets the eye. Analysts have criticized Russia for having poor intentions as they believe it wants to use the Taliban as a pawn to defeat the IS in Afghanistan, get a stronger foothold in the area, and assert dominance over the US. In addition, Russia is suspected of arming members of the Taliban in order to fight against and gain territory over the IS.  

It is becoming evident that the Taliban itself, is also tired of the war as it has expressed its intentions to negotiate and hold peace-talks. However, the group has made it clear that it will only conduct face-to-face talks with the US. American Presidential Administrations in the past have always denied this demand for face-to-face talks with the Taliban with the thought that the peace talks should be internal and Afghan-lead. This remains the current stance of the Trump administration and of the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. Although some would call it brave and commendable of the US that it has tried to settle the conflict internally and without foreign interference, clearly this strategy hasn’t resolved anything in the last 17 years.

After three Presidential Administrations abstaining from face-to-face talks with the Taliban, there are increasing and loud voices that this could perhaps be reconsidered. Secretary of State, Pompeo has said that he would perhaps lead negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban, but what is not being taken into consideration is that the Government in Kabul is not really its own separate entity; Kabul is too heavily dependent on the US. To state that negotiations have to be Afghan-lead is a bit presumptuous because of the fact that the Afghan Government and military is entirely propped up by the US. There is no “Afghan-lead” mission: The US and NATO have had a presence inside the country for the last 17 years. Therefore, the idea to have the US bring to the table itself, leaders of the Taliban, representatives of Kabul, and Afghan civilians, should not be rejected outright. Pakistan also needs to be represented at the table as the country has had a role in fueling and supporting the Taliban. Regional powers like India and China would also want a seat because of strategic concerns. A wider, more regional approach to the ‘Afghan-problem’, has echoed earlier as well.

With this course of action, not only the violence from the Taliban could be addressed, but that of IS as well. In Afghanistan, the IS is mostly comprised of former members of the Taliban who ventured to the new group to express their grievances against the Taliban. The IS in Afghanistan (or the ISKP), which is its own separate franchise from that of Syria and Iraq, actively recruits from the Taliban for new members. The terrorist outfits in the country are intertwined and are most definitely dependent upon each other, but these groups are also feuding with each other: As the Taliban retaliates against the US’ existence in the country and tries to claim territory, the IS retaliates harder to show its dominance. If the US was to negotiate and de-escalate the violence of the Taliban, the IS in Afghanistan would follow suite. Consequently, that would decrease the chances of the IS having a “spill-over” or a so-called network extension into other parts of South Asia that have seen the rise of IS presence, like in the valley of Jammu & Kashmir.

The US needs to desperately reconsider and adapt its foreign policy plan when it comes to the ongoing violence in Afghanistan. Sending more troops, aircrafts, and military intelligence to the area will only provoke further conflict and terror from the Taliban and IS. In turn, these terrorist outfits will continue to grow and spread throughout South Asia and beyond, as their presence has begun to be felt in Pakistan, Jammu & Kashmir, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. The US needs to realize that the setback in this conflict, is possibly the US itself, and that it needs to set its ego, rhetoric, and stale foreign policy aside. One might wonder whether the country will ever draw lessons from its earlier military interventions: Vietnam, Iraq, Korea?

It is time for talks and negotiations with all stakeholders in Afghanistan. And many believe that the Taliban is an important stakeholder when one is aiming for peace.