Now, after nearly two decades of fighting, U.S. President Donald Trump desperately wants to disentangle America from a seemingly unwinnable war – preferably through a political settlement with the Taliban. Trump’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, the Afghan-American Zalmay Khalilzad, has been engaged since September 2018 in shuttle diplomacy, in an eerie parallel with the unsuccessful efforts of then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to bring about peace in the Middle East following the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.

Khalilzad has just begun his ninth round of negotiations with Taliban representatives in Doha. Separately, he has had numerous meetings with the Afghan government and non-governmental leaders, as well as with regional and international actors – but not Iran, with which the U.S. is locked in a cycle of deepening hostility.

Afghan government, a U.S. "puppet"

He has focussed on four inter-related objectives: a timetable for the exit of all foreign troops currently in Afghanistan; a commitment from the Taliban to prevent hostile acts being launched against the U.S. from Afghan soil; direct negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which the Taliban regard as "illegitimate" and a "puppet"; and a ceasefire across Afghanistan.

But although Khalilzad may finally manage to reach agreement with the Taliban regarding the first two aims, there is no guarantee that America’s partner in the peace talks will help to realise the remaining two.

Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan (photo: Getty Images/AFP)
Mission impossible? Although Khalilzad may finally manage to reach agreement with the Taliban regarding the first two aims, there is no guarantee that America’s partner in the peace talks will help to realise the remaining two, writes Saikal

The Afghan government’s weakness and internal divisions would give the Taliban the upper hand in any power-sharing arrangement, particularly after U.S. and allied forces have left. And it is very doubtful that the Taliban, whether in power or as a partner in power, would be able to control other armed opposition groups, most importantly IS-K, or enlist the support of a cross-section of Afghanistan’s diverse population.

The Taliban are ethnic Pashtuns, hailing specifically from the Ghilzai tribe to which Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and many around him belong. Neither the Ghilzais nor the rival Durrani tribe of former President Hamid Karzai are much trusted by non-Pashtun ethnic groups, who (though themselves divided) collectively form the largest share of Afghanistan’s population. To complicate matters further, all Afghan ethnic groups have extensive cross-border ties with the country’s neighbours.

Perils of an early pullout

Meanwhile, IS-K has loyalty to no one inside Afghanistan. The group became operational in 2015 and is said to have about 2,000 fighters (including some Taliban defectors), who are dedicated to creating disruption and chaos. They have been responsible for horrific attacks across Afghanistan, especially in Kabul and mostly on civilian targets.

Any withdrawal of U.S. and allied forces during Trump’s current term, whether phased or otherwise, must be based on conditions on the ground. Otherwise, the consequences will be disastrous.

Because of the way the peace process and the situation in Afghanistan have evolved, a hasty foreign-troop withdrawal would lead to a fiasco similar to those generated by the earlier Soviet retreat from the country and by the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.

To avoid such a catastrophe, the U.S. and its allies need to remain in Afghanistan for at least another decade. But Trump is in a hurry and thinks that a strong CIA presence in the country will manage to do what Western forces have been unable to achieve. More likely than not, that will prove to be wishful thinking.

Amin Saikal

© Project Syndicate 2019

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