America was set for a breakthrough in their year-long talks with the Taliban which could have led to the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan after 18 bloody years. Then it all went wrong as a violent Afghan presidential election campaign entered its final days. Nicholas Nugent considers what lay behind this attempt to find a solution to the US’s longest war
Figures collated from several sources show last year was the most violent in Afghanistan since America led an invasion to displace the Taliban government in the wake of the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks in the US which killed 3,000 Americans. Some 25,000 Afghans lost their lives in 2018, more than in Syria.
This year started better but violence increased by mid-year, with the BBC reporting that 2,307 Afghans, most of them civilians, died in 611 security incidents in August, more than in any month since 2001.
Heightened violence in recent months forms the backcloth to two events: the campaign for the Afghan presidential election, of which the first round took place on 28 September; and so-called peace talks in the Qatari capital, Doha, between the US government and representatives of the Taliban, the Islamic militia-based party it deposed from power in Kabul 18 years ago.
America’s envoy, Afghanistan-born Zalmay Khalizad, was upbeat about the talks, saying the deal reached after nine face-to-face rounds ‘paved the way for peace’. The Taliban were just as confident, announcing after the eighth round that the deal was ‘80 to 90 per cent complete’. This optimism clouded over the fact that the talks were not so much about concluding a peace agreement and allowing the presidential election – which the Taliban fiercely opposed – to go ahead as to facilitate the withdrawal from Afghanistan of 14,000 US troops.
The Afghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani, who is seeking re-election, were not participants in the talks. The Taliban call him ‘an American puppet’ and refuse to talk to representatives of his government. When the deal resulting from the talks was shown to President Ghani, he is reported to have asked of envoy Khalizad, ‘Doesn’t this look like surrender to the Taliban?’
The Taliban had promised not to attack withdrawing American troops, but they did not consent to a general ceasefire or any commitment not to attack Afghan security forces or election rallies. They only agreed in the vaguest of terms to follow-up with ‘intra-Afghan’ talks.
In early September, attention switched from Doha and Kabul to Washington, where President Trump abruptly cancelled a previously unannounced meeting with Taliban officials at the presidential retreat, Camp David, which would also have involved President Ghani – though not at the same time. Ostensibly the cancellation was because the Taliban admitted responsibility for a bombing in Kabul on September 5, in which 11 people, including an American serviceman, were killed. Pointing out that no diplomatic groundwork had been laid for true peace talks, the International Crisis Group thinktank said, ‘Trump would have been aiming for a moons hot in a peace process where victories are measured in inches.’
Other forces were clearly in play behind the dramatic cancellation. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo publicly opposed the Doha deal, as did National Security adviser John Bolton, who was himself sacked two days later. They will have pointed out to the president the inadvisability of him meeting Taliban leaders in the week of the 18th anniversary of the al-Qaeda attacks on the US, which were allegedly planned in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan – and indeed of meeting the enemy under any circumstances.
There are uncomfortable parallels with the last time the US negotiated its exit from a long-lasting Asian war. Nearly 50 years ago, when Richard Nixon was US president, he sought an exit from the Vietnam War by convening peace talks in Paris with North Vietnam’s communist leadership and their National Liberation Front (NLF) allies. Leaders of the US-backed South Vietnamese government sat alongside the US as the fourth party.
The Paris Peace Accords signed in early 1973 prepared the ground for the withdrawal from Vietnam of all US forces, but did not end the intra-Vietnamese war, which lingered on for three more years before the communist North and its NLF allies were triumphant. Even before the talks concluded, Nixon was re-elected for a second presidential term and later, lead negotiators US National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and North Vietnam Politburo member Le Duc Tho were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Though it was involved in the talks, the South Vietnamese government felt badly let down when its US ally withdrew its forces.
The current analysis in the US is that President Trump needs a foreign policy success to help him gain re-election next year. So far, North Korea, Iran and Syria have all evaded solutions. Afghanistan is the US’s most unpopular foreign engagement, still tying down 14,000 US troops after 18 years. At its height more than 100,000 US troops were deployed there.
In Kabul the prevailing view is that Mr Khalizad was seeking a way to withdraw US forces rather than to negotiate a peace deal. The Afghan government argues that if President Trump wanted a true peace – or even a peace prize, as some believe – he would not have agreed to talks from which his Afghan allies were excluded. As Nixon did with Vietnam, they fear he intends to cast Afghanistan adrift to solve its own problem.
Meanwhile attacks in Afghanistan grew ever more frequent as the presidential election campaign reached its crescendo, with one bomb narrowly missing the campaigning president. The Taliban evidently feel they have nothing to lose, since they know that sooner or later the US will need to resume talks if they are to withdraw forces. Although the group already controls roughly half of the country, it was reported in August that its talks with the US were causing some of its commanders to defect to ISIS, which has been gaining strength in the country following its ouster from Syria two years ago. There are estimated to be 5,000 ISIS combatants in Afghanistan and they have claimed at least one recent bombing in Kabul.
Against this background, President Ghani’s own bid for re-election has attracted little attention outside the country, though he faces a formidable line-up of opponents, including his chief rival last time, the de facto prime minister, Abdullah Abdullah. As at last year’s parliamentary elections, it is expected that polling stations in Taliban-controlled areas will not open, so the election result will hardly be a ringing endorsement. If it goes to a second round, the result will not be known for two months.
By that time, the American administration – with a new National Security Adviser in post – may have come up with a new strategy for withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan.