Trump and Afghanistan Post-Syria: Maybe Goodbye

Just when the Afghan war seemed headed to its logical end – years of stalemated fighting followed by a negotiated settlement – US President Donald Trump’s announcement to cancel talks and his unliteral rejection of the peace deal seemed to put the cart before the horse, undoing the deal only to do the same at some point when the conflict worsens.

Or leave without a deal at all.

That latter scenario has sent a hot poker through the floundering Afghan government in the wake of the president’s decision to betray the Syrian Kurds and let Turkey march its military on them. Could he take a similar decision on Afghanistan? In recent days, Trump has clearly voiced his eagerness, despite “dead talks,” to leave Afghanistan.

“We don’t want to be in 19-year wars where we serve as the police force of the entire country,” Trump said recently, referring to the war in Afghanistan. Those threats have left both the Afghan government and the US military trying to figure out what the president will do next, scrambling for what could be chaos and a reordering of the world order, with Russia, which has renewed its Afghan interest, suddenly dominant in a new theatre after its sudden ouster by default of the US from Syria.

Given that talks with the Taliban are dead and that recent attempts at reviving them have not yet produced any meaningful results, the question that Trump might withdraw unilaterally has assumed an uncanny significance. This is particularly so for the ruling elite of Afghanistan whose survival solely depends upon the US military and economic support. Their position, however, is unlikely to change in their favor even if the US enters into a deal with the Taliban.

Recent Afghan elections have proven this in stronger terms than ever during the 19 years of war. They can secure their position only under one scenario: a US military presence in Afghanistan for an unlimited period of time. The Taliban’s war, of course, will continue.

The recent Afghan presidential elections, while successful in terms of giving the Afghans a lesson in electioneering, have proved that political stability and people’s participation in politics cannot be secured under the shadows of war. The elections, held after being delayed at least twice during the US-Taliban negotiations, have benefited the Taliban, to the surprise of many, more than any other political actor in Afghanistan. The Taliban have emerged, without contesting elections, politically stronger than they were before.

Consider this: as compared to the previous election’s 7 million-voter turn-out, only 2 million to 2.5 million people turned out to vote in 2019—an obvious lack of trust in the current regime.

While Afghan officials were quick to point to the threat of Taliban attacks as the reason for the low voter turnout, the real reason for this is a lack of public interest in elections and the regime’s own incompetence plus a boycott by a significant segment of the political class. For, if the threat of the Taliban violence was really a serious one, people wouldn’t have come out to vote in previous elections as well.

On the contrary, the scale of violence on the day of election was just on the usual level, which means that the Taliban deliberately did not attack and refrained to test the waters. The lackluster voter turnout combined with the usual claims of victory by the main competing parties have given the Taliban a strong sense of ‘victory’ despite the ‘dead talks’ and no peace deal with the US.

The Taliban accordingly hailed the “absolute rejection and boycott [of elections] by the nation,” adding further that “the rejection of these elections by the Afghan nation was a heavy slap on the faces of all those sides trying to force foreign prescriptions and processes of the occupiers upon our believing people through the means of money, force and deception.

This absolute national rejection carries a message to the invaders that they are dealing with a vigilant, astute and determined nation. A nation that is only obedient to its principles and values and cannot be played by anyone for self-interests.”

What this means for the future of Afghanistan is that the Taliban will inevitably and necessarily capture political power with or without a deal. It’s about time for the US and the Afghan ruling elite that they re-assessed their respective positions.

The fact that only 2.5 million people of the 9.5 million registered voters came out to vote means that the incoming regime will be standing on an extremely fragile political foundation, giving the Taliban an additional reason to call that regime not only a “stooge” but also “fake and illegitimate.”

The Taliban will derive their legitimacy out of the illegitimacy of the regime and build their own armed campaign accordingly, strengthening and expanding their control over areas already under their full and partial control. To the Taliban’s joy, voter turnout was the lowest in Pashtun dominated areas i.e., southern eastern provinces of Afghanistan which happen to be the Taliban’s main strongholds.

The US, as the 19 years of war have proven, cannot militarily defeat the Taliban. Given the US president’s penchant for withdrawal and exit, the real question that matters now is how he will eventually accomplish this i.e., with or without a deal.

The Taliban would very much welcome a Syria-like withdrawal, leaving the space open for them to capture and make their own deal with people, ethnic groups and political parties willing to make a deal. In doing so, they will certainly have the luxury of combined mediation by Pakistan, China and Russia.

For the Afghan ruling political elite, such a scenario means a political apocalypse. Their notions of an “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” dialogue notwithstanding, a Taliban-led peace process will have no space for the Ghani & Co government. China and Russia would additionally want to ensure that no US presence is left in the country. With the president seemingly on the same wavelength, it might not belong to wait. The helicopters may soon be lifting off the headquarters compounds.