PAKISTAN’S Foreign Minister has held a detailed discussion with the US Secretary of State on Afghanistan. Post Trump popular theme is that the US should not, simply hand over a victory to the Taliban. A troop withdrawal in May “would not only leave America more vulnerable to terrorist threats; it would also have catastrophic effects in Afghanistan and the region that would not be in the interest of any of the key actors, including the Taliban”. These views have been articulated in a report by the 15-member bipartisan” Afghanistan Study Group”, commissioned by Congress in 2019. The report has supported efforts by the former Trump Administration for creating a “pathway” for peace, however, it recommends a “significant revision of US policy”.
The report argues that, given the six-month delay in the start of peace talks that had been scheduled to begin in March 2020, the Biden Administration “can make the case that there has been insufficient time for these negotiations to create the hoped-for conditions under which international military forces could leave Afghanistan by May, as envisaged in the Doha Agreement.” Taliban representatives have threatened to return to an all-out war footing and abandon the peace process if the Americans and other NATO-led forces do not withdraw by May.
The Group was led by three co-chairs, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former US commander in Afghanistan General Joe Dunford; former Republican Senator from New Hampshire Kelly Ayotte and former senior official of the US Agency for International Development Nancy Lindborg. The study group included retired ambassadors and senior figures from both Democrats and Republicans, including Susan Gordon, former Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence and Mark Green, who served as head of USAID under the Trump Administration.
According to Dan De Luce “The report, released on 03 February, urges the Biden Administration to postpone a May deadline for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, warning an early exit would allow terrorist groups to re-emerge and undercut a tenuous peace process”. Leaving too soon could trigger civil war, hand the Taliban victory and spur the re-emergence of terror groups that could threaten the US, says the report.
Issuance of report has coincided with an urgent policy review by the Biden Administration, which has already said it is weighing options on Afghanistan and suggested it may delay the scheduled May troop withdrawal. In general, American intelligentsia supports a closure to two decades long war. The report said, “Withdrawing US troops irresponsibly is likely to lead to a new civil war in Afghanistan, inviting the reconstitution of anti-US terrorist groups that could threaten our homeland and providing them with a narrative of victory against the world’s most powerful country.”
The report said its recommended approach “depends on the US negotiating team making clear to the Taliban that they have not fulfilled the conditions in the Doha Agreement under which a US withdrawal can take place. “And, further US troop withdrawals should be conditioned on the Taliban’s demonstrated willingness and capacity to contain terrorist groups, on a reduction in the Taliban’s violence against the Afghan people, and on real progress toward a compromised political settlement,” it said.
Trump era US-Taliban agreement signed in Doha on 29 February 2020 binds the US to fully withdraw its remaining 2,500 troops by end May. However, the bipartisan report has recommended an “immediate diplomatic effort to extend the current withdrawal date “in order to give the peace process sufficient time to produce an acceptable result.”
The report also reminds the US to consult its NATO allies and other partners that have troops on the ground, saying earlier troop reductions had taken place without appropriate consultations. And further such withdrawal could damage America’s credibility with its European allies. “The United States should view the goal of its military presence in Afghanistan as not only to counter terrorist threats such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State militants but to help secure a lasting peace settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government”, the report added.
On their part, Taliban say they have abided by the terms of the agreement, and that they have made good on promises to the US for to not targeting the US forces or stage attacks on Afghan cities. Taliban say that current waves of violence are not of their making, and that Daesh and other spoilers are orchestrating violence so that it could be blamed on Taliban.
The Afghan Taliban have made a startling revelation that the United States forces in Afghanistan were involved in transporting Daesh militants into the war-torn country through their helicopters. Senior members of Taliban, during a visit to Iran to discuss the peace process, made the statement at a news conference in Tehran on 03 February.
They went on to add that the US forces were also helping the Islamic State militants escape the areas under the Taliban’s control. Blaming the American forces for the recent uptick in violence in the country, the leaders said the US had defaulted on the terms agreed during the agreement in February and resumed the attacks. “We have no access to the media but they have. They attribute violence to us and that is not true. They start the violence. They start the violent action and that’s still continuing.”
India is also playing a spoiler’s role and a number of terrorist outfits of Indian origin are carrying out violent attacks on Afghan military and people which are being blamed on Taliban. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the Administration was assessing “whether the Taliban are fulfilling their commitments to cut ties with terrorist groups, to reduce violence and to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government and other stakeholders.”
Nonetheless, it is a foregone conclusion that US-led foreign occupation forces are poised to stay in Afghanistan for an indefinite period. Narrative is being strengthened on to support the inevitable. Now US allies shall, one after the other, come out with statements supporting retention of troops in Afghanistan. German Foreign Minister has made the beginning by saying that “Afghanistan troop withdrawal should be tied with peace talk progress”. Unilateral tempering with troop withdrawal schedule by the US is not likely to go down well with Taliban. Unless such offer is time specific, and embedded with a quid pro quo, Taliban may walk away from the deal.
Retention of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, as chief negotiator, by the Biden Administration indicates such likelihood.
—The Islamabad-based writer is a retired army officer and a regular contributor to the national press.