US-Afghan govt peace talks too little, too late
Peter Apps
When President Donald Trump goes to the polls in November, he clearly wants to tell the American people he has ended the “forever wars” that have become the longest foreign conflicts for the US military. Whether that will truly be the case, however, is a rather different matter.
At the heart of that strategy is this month’s tentative peace deal between the United States and Taleban, signed after years of often strained and sometimes secret diplomacy. Under that deal, the US is scheduled to withdraw almost all its 12,000 forces from Afghanistan over the next 14 months – a date that, perhaps through no coincidence, extends well into the next presidential term.
That the six months between now and the US polls will see a significant withdrawal of US forces, therefore, does not seem in doubt. (Washington says it plans to pull out a first batch of 8,600 troops within 135 days of signing the deal.)
Much less certain, however, is the fate of the next stage of negotiations with the Taleban, due to meet Afghan government representatives for peace talks in Norway on March 10.
Whether that gathering will happen, however, is in itself uncertain – the Afghan government is decidedly lukewarm on a pledge to free Taleban prisoners stipulated in the accord.
Should that deal unravel, it would be another reminder of the very different priorities Washington and the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani. For the United States, particularly under Trump, what truly happens in the country is scarcely a priority, provided it does not again become a haven for militants such as Daesh or Al Qaeda.
Those in charge in Kabul, in contrast, remain in a knife fight for control of a country in which the government only truly holds the cities while vast swathes of the countryside remain under Taleban domination.
Leaving aside the broader geopolitics, the greatest argument for a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan remains that after almost two decades of fighting, it remains distinctly doubtful that either side truly has the ability to change that dynamic.
If the Afghan government was unable to extend its remit to the countryside with the backing of tens of thousands of Western forces, there seems little reason to conclude it can do so now. The Taleban, meanwhile, have rarely shown the ability to go beyond hit and run and suicide attacks in major cities. That doesn’t mean they will not try – and there may be well be those amongst them who would like the chance. The last time the Taleban came close to seizing a major urban centre – Kunduz in 2015 – they were only pushed back with the help of a significant US effort, including Western air strikes.
Whether Washington would willingly do that again – particularly under a Trump or Bernie Sanders presidency – remains unknowable, as is the effect of a diminished US military presence on Washington’s appetite for risk in the wider region.
Most likely, Washington will retain a small presence of special operations forces tasked with hunting militant groups, but it will largely be up to the US president how much they also extend that task to backing the Afghan government.
In Syria, Trump showed a willingness to comprehensively ignore most US military advice in withdrawing hundreds of US troops outright.
The greatest unknown, however, remains the ability of Afghan security forces to stand alone if necessary.
While their capabilities have expanded and grown considerably in the near decade since the number of US forces peaked in 2011, huge gaps remain, particularly when it comes to air power, an area in which Washington only recently began to encourage Afghan growth.
As in Iraq, this may prove a major oversight – potentially one that sees the Kabul government turning to other international backers.
In Iraq, the rise of Daesh in 2014 saw the government in Baghdad turn quickly to Iran and Russia to provide aging Su-25 Frogfoot attack jets, quickly rushed into service often with foreign pilots.
Where the government in Kabul chooses to turn could have vast geopolitical impact.
Also important, however, is what the Afghan people themselves want. In many respects, their societal divisions – between more progressive urban dwellers and furiously reactionary groups outside – mimic those in almost every other country.
The speed of urban growth in Afghanistan since 2001, however, has been among the fastest in the world – in part due to people fleeing fighting in the countryside. That points to a wider paradox – almost all parties in this conflict, including Washington, the Taleban, Afghan government and its neighbours – are now approaching the next phase from a position of weakness fueled by nervousness.
The US wants out, the Kabul government fears losing control and the Taleban must have doubts about its ability to seize much more.
Pakistan, Iran, India, China and others, meanwhile, will be principally motivated by their worries of a rival moving into that vacuum.
That could be a potent driver of either peace or war. The Afghan people will be hoping it is not once again the latter.