The cut-and-run strategy in Afghanistan

The Taliban are ready to negotiate. The question is whether they are negotiating in good faith, writes William Milam

The cut-and-run strategy in Afghanistan
It is Monday, September 2, as I write this, the Labour Day holiday in the US. The equivalent holiday in most other countries is May Day, or International Workers Day, which is conceptually the same — to honour working men and women, and implicitly the unions that represent them and defend their rights. In the news today, however, there was no mention of the celebration of working men and women, or of unions, or of the progress that working people have made through their hard-won right to organise into unions - a right that is being nibbled away at in the 21st century. Nor was there any mention of the irony that the concept of celebrating labour originated in America, yet it is celebrated here four months after the rest of the world celebrates it. The explanation for that goes into one of the dark corners of American history, which I shall relate in a later piece.

Today’s news, as one would expect here in the Eastern region of the US , led off with the bad news that the powerful hurricane “Dorian” is about to make landfall in the Southeastern section of the country, and cause much flooding and great damage in the coastal areas. That is clearly important bad news for the inhabitants of the threatened areas. It is equally bad news for the island nations that the hurricane has already devastated on its march to the US mainland.

The newscast then turned to the latest attack by the Taliban in Afghanistan and it sounded like the news from Afghanistan every day (a Taliban attack in Kabul today, Kunduz yesterday, Herat the day before, etc.). These attacks, we are told by the newscaster, are to keep the pressure on the Americans to negotiate in earnest. This is almost always followed by a caveat to bad news from Afghanistan: the good news that the US is negotiating an agreement with the Taliban to bring peace to the country and allow the US to withdraw its troops. Today the good news was that the special negotiator had arrived in Kabul to brief the Afghan government that the draft agreement with the Taliban for the withdrawal of American and NATO troops is almost complete, with only a few points to yet be agreed. There is very little in the description in the news of this negotiation about bringing peace to Afghanistan; it is mainly about withdrawing the troops.

The contents of the agreement are under wrap, of course. But most of the talk is about Taliban agreement to provisions that will prevent a return of Al Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups. It is said the main US interest is in preventing a return to the conditions before 9/11, i.e. the Taliban must agree that an Afghanistan without foreign troops would not permit a return of extremist groups that have the objective of attacking the West. I am not clear on how that applies to the relatively large ISIS component that is now in Afghanistan and occasionally lays claim to one of the terrorist incidents. We are (or at least were) fighting ISIS groups in Iraq and Syria, which I suspect have the objective of attacking the West. So, this anomaly is not clear, but since ISIS is very much an enemy also of the Taliban, perhaps the Taliban have agreed to eliminate them.

But if our negotiators have made the absence of anti-Western extremist groups a condition for foreign troop departure, does that mean we have eschewed the protection of millions of vulnerable Afghans—women, minorities, the young educated class who have profited by our protection to make great progress (as defined in the West, not by the Taliban), and the many Afghans who have worked for or aided the US over the 18 years we have been there—all of whom could be in great danger if the Taliban were recidivist rulers again of the country. There is much public handwringing about these vulnerable segments of the population which have made great social and political progress, especially in the areas of human rights and freedom of thought. But vague references to “guarantees” about these important topics in the negotiated agreement causes great skepticism about this on the part of many of the Afghans whose future is riding on such agreements, as well as many outside experts on Afghanistan.

How much can we believe in these “guarantees?” If we are to pay attention to those experts who know Afghanistan best, I would say we should be very skeptical of them. I don’t pretend to know the Taliban very well. I met with the secondary leaders a number of times 20 years ago when my main objective was, at first, to convince them to give up Osama bin Laden for prosecution for the 9/11 crime, and later to warn them that an attack on the US by a group sheltered in Afghanistan would bring the full wrath of the US down upon their regime. They chose to dissemble on my first objective so that I concluded it was never going to happen, and they chose to ignore the warning I conveyed (and dissemble on that too about their ability to control Al Qaeda). But that was a generation that is either dead or retired. I have no knowledge of the current generation of leaders or sub-leaders.

But among those that do know the Taliban, there is a respectable number which cautions that fundamentally, they are not much different than they were in their first iteration. There is a “new generation of leaders,” writes Marvin Weinbaum, “most of them more ruthless and ideological that their predecessors.” Those who talk of a “changed Taliban” appear to be driven by wishful thinking or a desperate need to make the Taliban image more acceptable in Afghanistan and/or the international community—to improve the chances that some form of apparent agreement to guarantee rights can serve to bring peace and/or get rid of the Americans. Clearly the Taliban have become more proficient at self-promotion and using fear tactics to silence or inhibit opposition in areas they control. They also continue to be proficient at financing their war making capabilities.

They also appear to be more proficient also at strategic thinking. Their readiness to negotiate with the US, the hated foreign invader, indicates not only their increased proficiency at insurgency, of making life very difficult militarily for the Afghan government and of the foreign forces, but of the realization that they cannot achieve the military victory they need to take over the country without the departure of the foreign forces. Sure, they are ready to negotiate, but the question is whether they are negotiating in good faith.

Have the Taliban modified their fundamentalist ideology to accept modernism as an aspect of the global world we live in, to accepting an inclusivist society in which women, minorities, and all other non-Taliban have full citizenship and human rights, to work within a political structure in which other parties, often representing other ethnic groups, have equal rights? We don’t really know, so to gamble that the Taliban have changed their fundamental nature enough to ensure peace in Afghanistan after withdrawal of foreign forces is a roll of the dice that could affect millions of Afghans and, rather than peace, ensure the war that now seems eternal really is. I worry about a US administration facing an election in which it is now an underdog, and at the top at least, not too concerned with human rights, will not want to let what many would call “unacceptable” guarantees stand in the way of a deal which allowed the withdrawal of a sizeable segment of troops. Pakistan has a big role to play in this and an enormous investment in a real sustainable peace.

The writer is an American diplomat and is Senior Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.