Americans born on September 11, 2001 are old enough to serve in the war in Afghanistan, which began after those 9/11 attacks. That war may now be ending – and the Taliban, which appeared to have been chased out of Afghanistan in 2012, is winning. This is an extraordinary turn of events, as the US has sought a deal with the Taliban, ignoring its own allies in the Afghan government, as part of President Donald Trump’s overall policy of reducing America’s global role and getting others to do more.
Taliban members have been globe-trotting over the last year during the negotiations. They relax in Qatar and travel to Russia, Iran and other countries. On Saturday, some of them arrived at the Sheraton in Doha. They didn’t speak with the Afghan government delegation, according to reports. This shows their end-goal and agenda. They will retake Afghanistan, almost two decades since losing it in 2001.
The US has lost thousands of soldiers in the Afghanistan conflict, with tens of thousands wounded, including many contractors. The war is arguably America’s longest in history. Along with other wars launched as part of the global war on terror, it has cost trillions of dollars. Large amounts of money were invested in training the Afghan security forces and rebuilding Afghanistan. It is not entirely clear if much of that is now a lost or sunk cost.
NATO has welcomed the new Taliban agreement, noting that it is between the US and the “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and between the US and the Taliban,” and that it holds the promise of ending devastating conflicts. “It could pave the way for negotiations among Afghans,” NATO says.
The reality appears to be more a Taliban victory. While the US still has movies like 12 Strong depicting the defeat of the Taliban at the hands of US special forces and Afghan fighters in 2011 and 2012, the reality has shifted greatly. The Taliban act like they are the government of Afghanistan and are received as if they are at least on par with the Kabul government. Countries such as Qatar that talk about supporting the UN-recognized government of Libya, another country with a civil war, host the Taliban. This shows hypocrisy in some international relations. There are some countries that have an interest in the Taliban winning. Those countries may include Qatar, Turkey, Pakistan, Russia, Iran and several others.
Under the Taliban deal, the US will likely withdraw large numbers of forces over the next 14 months. Troop levels will first decline to 8,600. This deal was in the making for more than a year, and appeared to fall apart in September. US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has pushed for a deal in an effort that has been difficult and complex. Progress was made in mid-February and an understanding was reached on February 21. The “long road to peace,” as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described it, was being paved.
The problem is that the deal hinged on reducing violence: basically begging the Taliban to stop slaughtering civilians to allow the US to leave Afghanistan without appearing to be chased away. This is basically the scenario America played in Vietnam in 1973 after the Paris Peace Accords. The US wanted a peace with “honor” and to get a pause in violence so it wouldn’t appear to “lose” the war. In April 1975, Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese and their South Vietnamese allies. Will it take as long for the Taliban to reach Kabul? By 2022?
We don’t know if there will be peace in Afghanistan. Given decades of history, it does not appear so. Evidence appears to point to a return to the 1990s civil conflict. Too many countries quietly want the Taliban to win because they have hosted and supported the Taliban for years. Some hosted them to challenge the US. Others simply like the Taliban’s religious extremism. It should be recalled that the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas and committed cultural genocide. They murdered Shi’ite minorities; they gunned down women in public. This is their method. They have gotten a bit older since then and supposedly lost some of their zeal for mass murder.
It is unclear what the US gained in Afghanistan. It could have probably left in 2003 and the situation would have been largely the same. But there are questions about leaving some American forces there and what those forces will do. Can leaving behind thousands of troops keep the status quo? Is that the policy?
When Washington says it has a time frame for leaving, all the enemy has to do is wait. That is largely what countries like Iran have already been doing in Iraq and Syria: biding their time until the US leaves. They can read US media reports as well. They know the end goal of the current US administration is to withdraw and get locals to do the fighting. The US also wants to reconsider operations against extremists in Africa. The Taliban can judge the way the world is drifting and they sense it is drifting in their direction.
It may not be a one-way street. India and some countries don’t want Afghanistan to be run by the Taliban or fall into anarchy. Even countries like Iran and Russia that might have seen the Taliban as a good choice to humiliate the US, don’t want a new “caliphate” in Kabul. They will want to keep the Taliban in a gilded cage, check their advance or force them to moderate.
The Taliban of the 1990s made a toxic alliance with Al Qaeda, which is what brought the US to Afghanistan after 9/11. The current older and supposedly wiser Taliban may not want to host groups like Al Qaeda, because the world has changed and extremist groups have become more like ISIS. The Taliban, so far, don’t like ISIS. So this may mean the mistakes they made in the 1990s, of exporting extremism, may end.
This is the model that Hamas and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham have adopted. If the Taliban only set up an extremist state in part of Afghanistan, they will be seen as “moderates” and be allowed to crush the hopes of people in their areas, so long as they don’t set the whole region aflame. The relaxing talks at the Sheraton in Doha seem to indicate that this is their near-term plan.