In Qatar, the U.S. has been negotiating with the Taliban for months over the future of Afghanistan, and now there is progress. But the government in Kabul is alarmed—and it must not have a say.
Donald Trump summed it all up when clarifying his Afghanistan strategy last August.
“Attack we will,” the U.S. president said at the army base in Fort Myer, Virginia. He added that the consequences of a rapid withdrawal of 14,000 U.S. soldiers stationed on site were unpredictable, so troops would remain in Afghanistan.
The mission is not about building a nation, he said. The goal of his government is rather, after 17 years of war, to expand the fight against terrorism. Afghanistan should be prevented from again becoming a retreat for Islamic fighters and thus a danger to the United States — as it was under al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden.
A week later, the Taliban launched an offensive on the city of Ghazni. Only a month earlier, they had begun speaking directly to U.S. diplomats in the Emirate of Qatar about the future of Afghanistan. The Islamic militia thus pursues a dual strategy, relying on military strikes and diplomacy — just like the Trump government.
Rapprochement Between the Taliban and the USA
Earlier this week, after numerous meetings with the Taliban, but without government officials from Kabul, U.S. delegation leader Zalmay Khalilzad is now cautiously optimistic.
There is significant progress, he told The New York Times, saying that the principles of agreement have been worked out. U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan described the negotiations as “encouraging.” The key points in the discussions are clear:
• a nationwide ceasefire before the summer presidential election
• the complete withdrawal of international troops within 18 months
• and how to prevent international terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a base for attacks against the West.
It is less clear how rapprochement between the conflicting parties can be achieved on these three points. There are multiple reasons for that:
• The Taliban categorically rejects any direct talks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, but in a televised speech on Monday, called for precisely that.
• In addition, the government in Kabul repeatedly stated that it has been offended by the U.S., and it has so far had no say in the planning of the post-war order.
• The U.S. government and NATO are denying an immediate withdrawal of international forces, which subsequently makes a truce with the Taliban unlikely.
The Islamists now control about half of the country. There are battles almost weekly. According to the news agency DPA, special forces from the government released only 38 people from a Taliban jail in Ghazni Province on Monday night.
The “Butcher of Kabul” Wants to Become President
Ongoing violence is the main reason for postponing presidential elections by three months until July of this year. According to the government of Kabul, 45,000 Afghan soldiers have died since 2014. The civilian population suffers from the fighting — and from extreme poverty: more than half of Afghans live on only a dollar a day, according to official statistics.
That is the ideal breeding ground for extremists, especially for a country where the average age is 19. The incumbent president, Ghani, wants to be reelected in July. Alongside him in the election are numerous key figures from the country, including the exiled Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
The 69-year-old warlord and leader of the Islamist group Hezb-i-Islami earned the nickname “the Butcher of Kabul” during the civil war in the 1990s.
The emergence of the Taliban, the rivalry between the warring tribes in Afghanistan and the catastrophic situation of the civilian population increases the risk that the presidential election will be overshadowed by violence similar to the parliamentary elections at the end of 2018.
Given this situation, Trump is unlikely to be very interested in keeping the majority of U.S. troops in the Hindu Kush for long. As with Syria, he could seek a retreat and try to achieve his goal — the fight against international terrorism—with special units and commando operations. A similar strategy is already being pursued by the U.S. in Libya and Yemen — without any resounding success.