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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 40, New Delhi, September 21, 2019

The Afghan Deal : Why it Fell Through and Thereafter

Monday 23 September 2019, by Apratim Mukarji


The world was startled on September 7 when US President Donald Trump announced, out of the blue as it were, that the Afghan peace negotiations were off and that he had called off a meeting to finalise a peace deal. The surprise was supreme because, even on the eve of the sudden cancellation of the talks, there was little hint of any such eventuality. On the contrary, the world was waiting to see the Taliban and Afghan Government representatives arrive at Camp David, the presidential retreat, at that week-end for the finalisation of a peace deal and President Trump’s announcement to be made in that regard.

The ostensible cause for the unexpected and swift collapse of the year-long step-by-step move towards achieving peace in Afghanistan after an 18-year-old, sustained war between the Afghan Government forces and international forces led by the United States was the suicide bombing in Kabul on September 7, in which one American soldier and eleven Afghan civilians and soldiers were killed and scores of others were injured. Taking a sudden turn, President Trump called off the talks (“The talks are now dead”) tweeting that the trigger of suicide bomb was carried out “seemingly (to strengthen) their bargaining position”.

He also tweeted “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 (September 8). They were coming to the United States tonight (September 7). Unfortunately, in order to build false leverage, they (the Taliban) admitted to (the bombing) attack in Kabul that killed one of our great great (sic) soldiers, and 11 other people. I immediately cancelled the meeting and called off peace negotiations. What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position? They didn’t, they...only made it worse! If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks, and even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway. How many more decades are they willing to fight?”

But was this all about the circumstances leading to the cancellation of talks or was the President being smart to hide other factors that had crept in disaffecting people on all sides from being enthusiastic about the approaching peace agreement? In short, what were the stakeholders feeling and speaking about on the eve of the deal? Did the nine rounds of talks leading to the scheduling of the Camp David meeting suffer from any inherent inadequacies?

The first stakeholder was, of course, the people of Afghanistan. They were clearly the least happy about the manner and contents of the negotiations that the US President’s pointsman Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-American academic and diplomat, was carrying on with the Taliban throughout the last one year, meeting mostly in Doha (Qatar). Post-collapse analyses suggest that Khalilzad had been keeping the secret deal so close to his chest that even the US Government officials had begun to feel a good deal squeamish about.

The secretive peace talks between Khalilzad and the Taliban negotiating team had merely succeeded in heightening a countrywide uneasiness at what the two sides were up to with even the elected government in Kabul, which also ironically is described by the insurgents as an American stooge and is officially protected by America, kept carefully out of the loop. This feeling of an impending disaster was under-standably coloured by the bitter memories of the six-year rule of the Taliban which had terrorised the nation in all its corners. The citizen on the street felt instinctively that in any arrangement in which the Taliban would be described as one of the partners, it is the people’s elected representatives who would be pushed out of any decision-making by the infinitely stronger terrorists. This was why the government too insisted on knowing the terms of the peace deal before it would agree to participate in any new arrangement.

AFP quoted a 52-year-old Mir Dil saying: “It is good that the talks have been cancelled. There should be intra-Afghan talks, and people should be involved in it, and they should be informed about it. If the Taliban had accepted peace, they should have announced a ceasefire, and then the talks should have moved forward.” Other Afghans, resident in Kabul, the news agency talked, to echoed their “deep unease” during the protracted talks. One of them, 22-year-old Ahmed Jawed, said: “It was a good opportunity for (the Taliban) but it was wasted because they did not stop attacks. Vama Safdari, another Kabul resident, said: “It took the death of one American to stop the process, while so many Afghan (soldiers) and civilians are killed on a daily basis.”

The manner in which Washington and the Taliban proceeded to hold negotiations between them-selves bypassing the elected government, was apparently deeply embarrassing and humiliating for the Ashraff Ghani-led regime. The latter’s position became all the more vulnerable because the Americans remained mute on every occasion when the insurgents deliberately belittled Kabul. Yet, by virtue of being elected by the people, the government had the responsibility to ensure that justice was done to the people. The govern-ment, therefore, took a measured stand to tackle the difficult situation. On the one hand, it often declared itself to be firmly on the side of achieving peace by bringing the hostilities to an end and, for that specific purpose, it was ready to talk even to its sworn enemy, the Taliban. But the latter had taken the calculated stand that the Kabul regime was “irrelevant” to the negotiations as the peace negotiations were being held between two “equal” combatants, the insurgents and the Americans, and that the government was irrelevant in this context since it was nothing but a stooge of the Americans.

In its first reaction to the drastically altered scenario, the Ashraff Ghani Government made this clear. The President’s Office cautiously saluted the “sincere efforts of its allies”. “The Afghan Government, in relation to the peace, appreciates the sincere efforts of its allies and is committed to working together with the United States and other allies to bring lasting peace,” the President’s Office stated. The Office also insisted that “a real peace can only be achieved if the Taliban stop killing Afghans and accept a ceasefire, and face-to-face talks with the Afghan Government”. (AFP, Afghans cautiously welcome halt to US-Taliban summit, September 9, 2019)

Sections of Afghan society, such as women activists and human rights activists, teachers, other professional classes, and, in short, the modern Afghans, were acutely conscious of the impending bleak period they were about to face in case the Taliban successfully negotiated a peace deal and enter the government, only to dictate its terms to the government and the people. So, apart from ordinary citizens, it was these groups which also heaved a sigh of relief when the news of the collapse of the talks became known.

The net loser in this scenario were the Taliban who did not try to hide their disappointment at the prize drifting away from their grasp when it was almost in their pocket. Responding harshly to President Trump’s exultation at the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist bombings on American cities by the Al-Qaeda that the American forces had hit “our enemy harder than they have ever been hit before and that will continue,” the Taliban warned on September 12 that the American leader had failed to grasp “what type of nation he is dealing with”. “Trump must (@realDonald Trump) must tread carefully,” tweeted the Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid. “He has yet to grasp the type of nation he is dealing with. His advisers must make him understand and introduce the Graveyard of Empires #Afghanistan to him.” (AFP, Taliban warn US President, September 12, 2019)

The September 7 collapse of the dubious peace deal was predictably followed by the full fury as the Taliban unleashed on Afghanistan. In the first attack, a rocket exploded at the US embassy in Kabul on the 10th, the eve of the anniversary of the 9/11 outrage, though it proved to be fortunately a failure with no injury reported. But, almost simultaneously, fighting, which had never ended, picked up in at least ten provinces of Northern Afghanistan with the heaviest clashes in Takhar, Baglan, Kunduz and Badakshan.

In a sum-up of the aborted peace negotiations and their collapse, Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network (ANN) wrote: “All things considered, there are no good options in Afghanistan. Nor are there any costless options. The terrible trajectory of descent into chaos that awaits Afghanistan was hardly going to change if the peace deal had been signed. And now that the deal is off the table, things aren’t going to unfold any more differently. Regardless of the eventual outcome of the conflict in Afghanistan, in the final analysis, Afghans and Afghanistan will continue to bear an unconventionally high cost in human lives lost and the country laid desolate by violence and war.” (War and Peace: Trump ends talks with the Taleban : What happens next?, September 8, 2019)

Most analysts agree that Trump’s typically whimsical decision to stop talking to the Taliban was solely dictated by his realisation that the single American soldier’s death at the hands of the Taliban had made his peace overture to that very enemy untenable at least for the time being. He had apparently carefully orchestrated the summit to emerge as the President who brought peace on the very anniversary of 9/11 and, by virtue of that one deed, would have remained one of the greatest Presidents in American history. The Taliban’s deliberate spoiling of this historic moment was too much for him to bear.

Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs and is the author of Afghanistan : From Terror to Freedom (New Delhi, 2003)  

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