18 years after 9/11: Why US troops are still stuck in Afghanistan
The US-Taliban deal is off the table. With elections round the corner, violence is likely to intensify in Afghanistan.
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Eighteen years and counting...
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan looks just as stuck.
Talks between the US and Taliban to resolve “technical details” came to a grinding halt when US President Donald Trump called off the negotiations in a series of tweets. Expectations were running high that the two sides would reach a deal in their ninth round of talks to start pulling out American security personnel from the Central Asian nation.
Unbeknownst to almost everyone, the major Taliban leaders and, separately, the President of Afghanistan, were going to secretly meet with me at Camp David on Sunday. They were coming to the United States tonight. Unfortunately, in order to build false leverage, they admitted to..— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 7, 2019
Given how quickly Trump had resumed talks with North Korea after similarly declaring the negotiation process dead, hope is not lost for the resumption of dialogue to get the 14,000 US security personnel risking their lives in the trouble-torn territory of Afghanistan back home. Trump is under pressure to pull out the troops, given that it was among his electoral promises.
On August 29, Trump said he plans to withdraw thousands of US forces from Afghanistan, but will keep 8,600 there for the foreseeable future, pending the outcome of US peace talks with the Taliban.
On September 8, however, Trump tweeted that the proposed secret meeting at Camp David, a country retreat for the US President, was off the table.
Under the proposed US-Taliban deal, the US was to withdraw its roughly 14,000 military personnel in a phased manner, provided the insurgents publicly renounce al Qaeda, the terrorist group that carried out the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington.
The US troops serve in the country alongside international troops to advise and assist Afghan defence forces and to fight terrorist groups like the Islamic State and al Qaeda.
About 14,000 US troops serve in Afghanistan. (Photo: Reuters)
US withdrawal from Afghanistan is perhaps more difficult than its entry was. Americans had a choice on whether to enter or not. In terms of leaving, the US doesn’t have the same leverage.
Opposition to the proposed withdrawal has come from, among others, a vocal supporter of President Trump, senator Lindsey Graham. Graham told Fox News that a precipitous withdrawal of American troops would lead to another 9/11.
In an opinion piece written for The Wall Street Journal, Graham said the US shouldn’t “outsource” to the Taliban the responsibility to protect America from Islamic State, which carried out the August 17 bombing of a wedding hall in western Kabul that killed 80 people.
“American national security interests require that any agreement allow a meaningful US counterterrorism capability, coupled with a robust intelligence apparatus, to remain in Afghanistan to deal with the real threats that will continue from groups such as the Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate, ISIS-K,” Graham wrote.
Why others were opposed to the US-Taliban deal
This was a strictly US-Taliban deal. As per the terms of the deal, the Taliban was supposed to ensure that the country won’t ever again be used as a base for groups seeking to attack the US and its allies.
Even the Afghan government wasn’t part of this deal.
A meeting between Afghan officials and Taliban leaders — agreed to as part of the US-Taliban deal and scheduled to be held in Oslo on September 23 — was supposed to follow a pact between the US and Taliban. While European officials were supposed to work out the modalities of the deal, it was clearly based on the US and Taliban. The Afghan government was more of an onlooker as the Taliban doesn’t recognise the Ashraf Ghani-led dispensation, whom it considers a US puppet regime.
Ghani had openly criticised the US efforts to broker a deal with the Taliban. In an interview to The Indian Express, Ghani said, “[The Americans] are breaking norms by trying to sign a deal with a terrorist entity, a non-state malign actor and an insurgent group. We don’t know how they will give it legal justification.”
India, on its part, has remained opposed to such an agreement. New Delhi has long contended for an “inclusive peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan, which is Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled, leading to a lasting political solution”.
This includes preservation of the constitutional order and women’s rights.
India is also concerned that with Taliban in charge of affairs, anti-India terror outfits could find a safe haven in Afghanistan and use it as launch pad to launch attacks on India.
India has so far not reacted to the failure of the talks but would be happy with the development since Pakistan had become a crucial go-between for the Afghan talks, given its ability to help bring the Taliban to the table. India, on its part, has no contact with the Taliban and wouldn’t want to see the latter return to power.
The country is supposed to hold elections on September 28. Ghani, who is convinced of his victory, is pushing hard that the elections be held on the scheduled date. The Taliban, however, are vehemently opposed to the polling and have warned of unleashing large-scale violence if the elections are held.
The Taliban, who control roughly half the country, wanted the election cancelled as a pre-condition for the intra-Afghan dialogue — talks that were to be held after the agreement with the US — on how power can be shared and the country organised. The talks were also supposed to discuss a ceasefire.
When the campaign season started on July 28, Taliban gave a trailer of how serious the consequences of going ahead with the elections could be. Within hours of the campaign kicking off, the Taliban launched an attack on the office of Ashraf Ghani’s running mate Amrullah Saleh. Saleh survived the attack that left 20 killed and over 50 injured.
The Taliban have told Afghans to boycott the vote and warned that rallies and polling stations would be targeted if the elections aren’t called off.
With the US-Taliban talks now halted, the cycle of violence in Afghanistan is set to intensify.
Ghani’s main challenger, chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, has already said he is ready to abandon his bid for power for the sake of peace, raising more questions about prospects for the election.
Abdullah, a former foreign minister, was Ghani’s main challenger in the last election, in 2014.
That vote was marred by extensive fraud and Ghani became president after then-US secretary of state John Kerry brokered a deal creating the post of chief executive for Abdullah. A repeat of the chaos could severely jeopardise peace.
Another main contender, Hanif Atmar, a former interior minister who also served as Ghani’s national security adviser, suspended his campaign in August citing intense violence as the reason.
With Ghani deteremined to hold elections, the future looks ominous for the country. And with Trump rebuffing the Taliban so close to a deal, the problems for US troops could mount in the hostile territory which at the moment has no exit routes for the soldiers.