Afghanistan: Negotiations or a US Military Defeat?

P 24.12.2018 U Salman Rafi Sheikh

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While the Trump administration may think otherwise and even take the credit for initiating dialogue with the Taliban on an unprecedented level with a view to pulling the US out of Afghanistan, there can hardly be any doubt that negotiations, after 17 years of continuous war, are nothing short of an uncomfortable acceptance of their inability to defeat the Taliban militarily. How else do we define a military defeat? In the very act of negotiations is implicit an American admission of the ultimate fact that it has become impossible for it to retain its politico-military hold on Afghanistan through its planted government in Kabul and the US-raised and trained Afghan security forces, despite the continued huge financial support and the support of the US/NATO high-tech military forces in the country. It is for this reason that the US had even to drop its previously adamant refusal to hold direct talks with the Afghan Taliban.

If there is no military defeat for the US and even if the US still has got forces on the ground, the question of holding direct talks with the Taliban points to the increasing inability of the US forces to force the Taliban into submission. Importantly enough, the current phase of talks has been initiated by the US, not the Taliban. The Taliban had repeatedly refused to endorse Kabul’s offers of talks, and only agreed to do talks if the US was willing to engage directly. Therefore, with the US now fully engaged in “peace dialogue”, the US military’s self-proclaimed notion of invisibility stands fully exposed.

While some may argue that dialogue is necessary to end the war through non-military means, it is hard to miss the point that the US military still remains deeply entrenched in the war. For example, apart from the fact that there are thousands of soldiers on the ground, the US air force dropped more bombs on Afghanistan in 2018 than in any other year of the war in 17 years. The number of bombs dropped do not only show that the war basically remains intense, but also that the US military is desperate to change the course of the war to its advantage, an ambition highly unlikely to materialise; hence, the ever more emphasis on dialogue with the Taliban.

And while the US can’t avoid a military defeat, it can still hope to avoid humiliation in Afghanistan. And, for this purpose it is prepared to utilise all available means, including asking Pakistan for help. Even though the Trump administration, ever since it came into power, has cut all military aid and coalition support fund to Pakistan and bi-lateral relations have never been so frosty ever since the beginning of ‘war on terror’, the ever-increasing helplessness against the Taliban has once again forced the US to ‘ask’ for help.

Pakistan, fully aware as it is of the ground realities of Afghanistan and the way the US has already lost the war, is unlikely to ‘help’ the US in turning the table in its favour. In fact, in response to president Trump’s letter to Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, Khan was quick to rebut Pakistani involvement in any relationship with the US “where Pakistan is treated like a hired gun — given money to fight someone else’s war. We should never put ourselves in this position again.”

The request for help came only two weeks after president Trump had actually accused Pakistan of ‘not doing a damn thing’ in Afghanistan for the US. But the letter he wrote only two weeks after this blatant accusation signified increasing US desperation in Afghanistan and its willingness to still cast Pakistan in a friendly role even though it, as the US claims, never did a damn thing for the US. How wise it is for the US to ‘ask’ for help from a country that it thinks has worked against it through-out the war? How else to explain this wayward and self-contradictory approach than by placing it in the context of an imminent military defeat and US desperation to somehow avoid it by making a face-saving deal with the Taliban?

All this proves that no matter how powerful the US military might be, or how hard it might have worked, or how many years it might have committed to building an Afghan army in its own image, and no matter how much air and logistical support that army might have received, it has failed to militarily defeat the Taliban, who are currently directly and indirectly controlling about 44 per cent of the districts and have even established, as reports have shown, a parallel system of governance and administration in many parts where the Afghan officials work in close cooperation with the Taliban.

More than anything else, this reality exhibits another defeat in terms of the failure of its so-called ‘counter-insurgency’ program’s ability to roll back and replace the Taliban networks on the ground. It also means that the US-planted socio-political governance system in Afghanistan has almost reached the brink of a “political defeat”, much like the imminent defeat of the US military and its trained Afghan forces, which are loosing more troops every year than the government can recruit, presenting yet another dilemma which the US forces have failed to resolve even after years of training and advising the Afghan security forces.

All this comes down to a single and undisputable reality: the US must withdraw and let the Afghans decide their future. Instead of finding a way to impose its demands on the Afghans, the best course for the US would be to liaise with other regional countries, including Pakistan, Russia and China, to develop such power sharing formula as would ensure an inclusive political system. Of course, any platform of negotiations and any peace plan that is developed without the Afghans themselves directly involved in its making would be meaningless in terms of reconciling the warring factions within the country. The sooner the US accepts this eventuality, the fewer of the US forces, the Afghan troops and innocent lives would be lost.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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