September 5th. A day like so many others in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul; one filled with carnage and terror after a suicide bombing, claimed by the Taliban, in the city centre. The victims: twelve Afghans and two NATO troops, including an American.
It was this last casualty that most incensed one man, thousands of kilometers away. When President Trump announced two days later (as always, by tweet) that he was cancelling peace negotiations with the Taliban, it seemed like just another of the abrupt shifts in US foreign policy characteristic of the current administration. More than a year of negotiations aimed at finally bringing an end to decades of war in Afghanistan, wiped out in minutes. So why were ordinary Afghans celebrating?
Contrary to initial impressions, the Afghan “peace” deal, were it to be implemented, would have catastrophic implications for the country. Its central aim was to secure a pullout of US troops from Afghanistan in exchange for a Taliban promise that they would refuse to aid international terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.
That’s it. That’s the deal. No guarantees of the Taliban respecting the legitimacy of the democratic Afghan government in Kabul, which they sees as a Western puppet; no assurances of ending the ongoing campaign of terrorism against the civilian population of the country; simply a cold quid-pro-quo between Trump’s personal interests (gaining domestic popularity through ending US involvement in an unpopular war) and the Taliban’s strategic interests (getting the US off their backs). On the Taliban end, it is almost certain they’ll uphold their end of the deal; after all, it was their support for al-Qaeda that led to the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the dismantling of the Taliban government. Now, more powerful than at any point since the invasion (controlling 15% of the country’s districts and contesting a further 30%), the Taliban is unlikely to repeat the mistake of harbouring terrorist groups targeting the US. The Taliban, more so than anyone else, want peace with the US.
But there shall be no peace with Kabul, or with the dozens of other influential armed groups in the country that oppose Taliban rule, such as Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) and the remnants of the Northern Alliance that opposed them prior to the US invasion. The Taliban’s maintenance of their terror bombing campaign against the civilian population of Afghanistan, combined with pointed refusal to open discussions with the Kabul government until the last American soldier has been withdrawn, makes their stance very clear: they will only negotiate from a position of strength.
And US withdrawal puts them in a very strong position indeed. At present, the Afghan security apparatus (represented by the Afghan National Army, Afghan Local Police, and myriad affiliated groups) is utterly reliant on Western military, intelligence, and logistical support. A withdrawal of US forces would knock out most of the pillars supporting this security apparatus and worsen existing problems with organization, morale, and corruption. The Taliban know this, and they know that concerted pressure applied to the chronically unstable Kabul government will lead to its inevitable collapse. While any such collapse would not lead to an automatic Taliban victory, it would lead to something almost certainly worse: a multi-faction civil war engulfing the country, with the biggest losers being the Afghan civilian population.
Who better, then, to judge the peace deal than the people it is supposed to be bringing peace to? The administration of Ashraf Ghani, the current President, has been understandably icy on the subject, openly welcoming Trump’s cancellation of the deal as being a sign that Trump “has a proper understanding of the situation and sees that the Taliban are not committed to peace.” But that’s just the perspective of the elite in Kabul, certainly the ones with the most to lose from an American withdrawal; what about the rest of society? Al Jazeera, the New York Times, and Foreign Policy Magazine (among others) have all published interviews with regular Afghans in the street, who always have the same blunt conclusion: so long as the Taliban are bombing their streets, their hospitals, and their election centres, nobody wants the Trumpist brand of “peace”.
In perhaps the most damning indictment, even US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly refused to sign on to the preliminary draft of the deal - allegedly because the Taliban were represented in the document as the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, the name they used for the country during their half-decade rule. Were Pompeo to sign, the US would be officially surrendering after eighteen years of spilt blood, all to fuel the domestic political agenda of Trump.
This is not to say that the present Western strategy in Afghanistan is working, or that the US should not aim to withdraw its troops in time, when a (relatively) stable, secure, democratic government controls the country. But “fixing” the present situation in Afghanistan is an exercise in choosing between the least crappy of many incredibly crappy options. While it may be tempting to take the first road to “peace” that we can find, we must also recognise that this will not be achieved by the US throwing the people of Afghanistan to the wolves.