Giving Afghanistan Back to the Taliban

Our last days in the 'Graveyard'

by , July 02, 2013

And now we’re back
Where we started
Here we go round again

Day after day
I get up and I say
I better do it again

The Kinks

Could it be, that after 3,000 coalition troops killed and untold (because there are no official counts) civilian casualties that the U.S would just hand Afghanistan back to the Taliban?

The prospect is dire, and there are many competing opinions on that point, but the picture emerging from recent headlines is that 1) the Taliban has the upper hand entering into negotiations with the United States and 2) they know it. And don’t forget 3) the United States wants badly to put this war behind and may likely capitulate on old "red lines" to do it.

"I don’t trust the American angle in all this – I am concerned that they will be searching for a quick and easy political settlement that superficially looks and sounds like a solution to Afghanistan and something that they can sell as ‘victory’ back in the US – and all before the end of 2014," wrote British Afghan researcher Tim Foxley, on his blog, AfghanHindsight.

Chistoph Sydow, writing for Der Spiegel June 21, was more blunt, with his analysis entitled "The West’s Capitulation in Afghanistan":

In 2001, the West set lofty goals for Afghanistan, including implementing democracy, safeguarding human rights and fostering responsible governance. But the states contributing forces to ISAF (International Security Assistance Forces) gave up on achieving such goals long ago. The United States has signaled that the Taliban will be allowed to do what it wants as long as it refrains from allowing international terrorists to seek refuge in the areas it controls.

Sydow might be exaggerating the American "signals," though in numerous reports on the still-stalled talks in Qatar, it was reported that the US was at least willing to go through with negotiations in part because, according to Telegraph writer Con Coughlin, it was able to "evince from the militants in their official statement … a pledge that ‘the Islamic Emirate (Taliban) never wants to pose harm to other countries from its soil, nor will it allow anyone to cause a threat to the security from the soil of Afghanistan.’"

That’s a far cry, Coughlin notes, from the two preconditions for talks in the past – "a cessation of hostilities, and crucially, a firm commitment from the group to cut its ties with al-Qaeda."

Not surprisingly, all these Brits, and other international writers, like this lengthy and pointed piece by former Indian diplomat M.K. Bradrakumar, are pretty forthright in their belief that the Obama Administration is looking weak. American newspapers, on the other hand, all quote US officials, including President Obama, saying that in order for talks to succeed, "(the Taliban) is going to need to accept an Afghan Constitution that renounces ties with al-Qaeda, ends violence and is committed to the protection of women and minorities in the country,” Obama said on June 18.

"An important focus for our meetings moving forward with the Taliban will be the need for them to completely and verifiably break with (international) terrorism," added Jen Psaki, State Department spokeswoman.

But the veracity of these preconditions seems, well, fungible right now. Dropping the old rhetoric of reaching out to "moderate" as opposed to "extremist" Taliban, reports in the last week indicate that the US is ready to talk to emissaries of Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Omar. The one-eyed former Taliban head of state went into hiding in 2001 and still has an American bounty on his head. He is still considered a powerful, cohesive figure. Washington has apparently welcomed, too, the inclusion of representatives from the notorious Haqqani network (HQN), an al-Qaeda linked faction of the Taliban which has been responsible for many of the most violent attacks across Afghanistan over the last few years. It was fingered in the deadly attack on the presidential compound in Kabul – which includes a US embassy annex and CIA station – just last week.

Even US military officials, apparently caught in a candid moment, seemed aghast at that one. "All I’ve seen of the Haqqanis would make it hard for me to believe they were reconcilable," said ISAF Commander Gen. Joseph Dunford in a Pentagon press conference call two weeks ago.

Meanwhile, to say the Taliban is sensing weakness might be an understatement. A day after Obama’s declaration that the Qatar talks were on between the US and the Taliban, Taliban representatives opened their new offices in Qatar under their old ruling banner, the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" and flying the Taliban flag. Afghan President Hamid Karzai reportedly flipped out, particularly because he had already been left out of the initial talks. He promptly cut off the ongoing negotiations with the US over their mutual post-2014 security agreement, which put the Taliban talks in limbo for the week.

Washington said it, too, was "outraged" about the Taliban’s brazen posture, especially since officials said the Taliban had agreed to be called "Political Office of the Afghanistan Taliban" during the talks instead. According to the State Department, the US asked Qatari officials "to take down the flag and offending nameplate," but bottom line: the Americans want to get the restarted talks restarted, and after some assurances, apparently Karzai is now on board, too.

But what is so telling about all of this is that while the US is struggling to get the Taliban to the table, the Taliban is still attacking Afghan civilians, Afghan government buildings and ISAF/NATO troops. And they are taking full credit in the press. Suhail Shaheen, who was speaking for the group of high-level Taliban assembled in Qatar for the talks (all from the Taliban’s political wing, all reportedly loyalists to Mullah Omar) said in interviews last week that "we really want to talk," but assured there "is no cease fire" and will continue to fight while the talks proceed.

What does it all mean?

Depending on whom you talk to this willingness of the Obama Administration could be a final act of desperation that is doomed to fail (read neoconservative Max Boot), or the smartest thing Washington has embarked upon in a long time – if done right. But most agree that the Americans would not be sitting at the table with Mullah Omar’s people if they felt they had won the war.

"Yes, I think they are in a weak position for a couple of reasons," said Central Asian expert and national security writer Joshua Foust (Registan.net) in an interview with Antiwar.com. One, the US is withdrawing and it announced this intention three years ago, a "fundamentally weak position for the same reason the Soviets weren’t in a strong position to angle and negotiate when they were leaving."

In addition, "the US has burned so much political capital, they made so many mistakes, I think they have lost – and I hate to use the ‘M word’ – their momentum."

Though weak, the invitation to restart the negotiation process with the Taliban despite charges that the west will eventually "capitulate" on its former red lines, is a "pragmatic approach" that will more likely lead to a breakthrough, said Foust.

Oh, the ironies. The US has spent the better part of 11 years engaging the Taliban in its “crusade on the West,” further fueling an insurgency that has enjoined Taliban back and forth across the Pakistani border. It justified a drone war, it justified a massive counterinsurgency operation in Iraq because minions of al-Qaeda, once harbored by the Taliban in Afghanistan, had shifted to Iraq to take advantage of the U.S invasion there.

It justified tens of billions of dollars to build an Afghan Army and Police and international aid, much of which has gone missing in the catacombs of Karzai’s poppy palaces. It justified the imprisonment of thousands of Afghans, deadly airstrikes, the support of corrupt warlords and the destruction of countless acres of land to combat a black poppy market that still thrives.

Now we sit with those "enemies" and they are far from chastened. For them, the hope might be to seize the same place of authority the Taliban held before 9/11 – a cruel fist gripping Kabul and a terrorizing, murdering and destructive force across the already scarred Afghan society. We helped to create this monster during the Soviet occupation. Our goal this time, supposedly, was to save a new generation of Afghans from a similar fate.

"The international community is not going to wake up one morning and cut off the Afghan government the way the Soviet Union did with the Communist regime" in Kabul in the early 1990’s, assured Foust. But even he is not convinced that the current trajectory won’t end with a wide swath of post-U.S Afghanistan under the thumb of Taliban once again.

Let’s face it. We were told the Taliban’s "momentum" had died years ago but yet we are on way to a bargaining table at which the US is clearly in the weaker position. Attacks on the U.S-trained Afghan Army forces, which are now in the "lead" security-wise, are up 47 percent. The Taliban are still ambushing girls’ schools across the country and in Pakistan, and more women are in jail for "moral crimes" than ever. Meanwhile, we find out everyday how the millions in USAID money has been misspent or wasted on projects that either don’t work or won’t sustain after the US is gone. Poverty and malnourishment still plague the people. The Red Cross was forced to withdraw foreign staff after a deadly attack in May at its headquarters in Jalalabad. Hardly a positive sign anywhere.

Meanwhile, Karzai is the weakest link ever and thanks to our meddling has been in power for nearly eight years and now seems particularly afraid he’s being cut out of negotiations. The political process in Kabul appears to be in a forever nascent state because of him, and there is no indication whether there is someone better waiting in the wings for the 2014 elections.

At home, where we have been told to "be patient," "progress takes time" and the worst, that eliminating the threat of extremism in Afghanistan was a matter of our own "national security," sits a generation of vets, many of them disabled for life.

And for what – a repeat of history?

No one seems to have the right answers – not the administration, nor the Washington think tank hive, and least of all, not antiwar scribes like me. But it is hard not to think of that Kinks songback where we started, here we go round again – when it comes to Afghanistan. It may not be our "graveyard," but it is certainly no field of glory, for anyone, except maybe the Taliban.

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