By: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Until a few days ago, the US war in Afghanistan was heading towards an eventual end after 19 long and bloody years of fighting. Today, prospects are, as US President Donald Trump said, “dead.” Instead there are talks of upping US military operations in the country in yet another bid to ‘defeat and dismantle’ the Taliban. 

Announcing the unilateral decision to call off negotiations, Trump boasted of increased bombing, saying “[in] the last four days, we have hit our enemy harder than they have ever been hit before, and that will continue.” On the other hand, the Taliban too have announced they will continue their ‘jihad’ until their final victory over the ‘occupying forces.’ 

There is thus little doubt that at least for now, the war will intensify, and will consume a lot more lives than the US soldier who was killed in the Taliban-sponsored blast that led the President to cancel the talks. And there is little reason to hope that will change the outcome. At one point the NATO coalition had 100,000 troops in the country. They couldn’t oust the Taliban then, and they are hardly likely to do it now with 14,000. There is unlikely to be a surge, and no matter how intensive the bombing, the Taliban have proven they can withstand it in the trackless mountains (above). 

But how sensible was it to cancel talks which were very much in the final stage? Certainly, there was no ceasefire agreement between the US and the Taliban. And, during the talks this blast was hardly the only violent incident that took place that killed the soldier, or the Taliban or even Afghan civilians. 

The fact is that even as talks were going on, attacks from both sides continued as usual, leading Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to claim to that the coalition forces had killed 1,000 Taliban fighters in the past 10 days – which only strengthens a Taliban counter-claim about the continuing US military attacks on them as well as unarmed Afghan civilians. 

In fact, according to a recent UN report, US/NATO forces killed more civilians in Afghanistan in the first half of 2019 than the Taliban or the Islamic State. Some 717 civilians became collateral damage from Afghan and US forces compared to 531 by militants, the UN reported. Air strikes, mostly carried out by American warplanes, killed 363 people, including 89 children, in the first six months of the year. 

While the US military has claimed that these figures aren’t accurate, this report unmistakably shows that attacks by both sides have never stopped during the whole process of negotiations that had gone on rather smoothly for about a year or so. Hence the President’s rather unjustifiable justification for killing the hard-negotiated deal. 

This being the case, the question is: why did the US president suddenly wake up to the ‘deadly’ character of the Afghan war and cancel the talks other than because of presidential pique from a notoriously unstable leader?

A more plausible explanation for this sudden decision is to be found not in the death of that single US soldier but internal political skirmishes that have been a defining feature of the White House, wherein political factions led by John Bolton and Mike Pompeo had been advocating two markedly different approaches to deal with the Afghan question. That was undoubtedly complicated by the President’s freelance diplomacy in inviting Taliban representatives to the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland. 

For Pompeo & Co., a deal with the Taliban, followed by a gradual withdrawal of US forces, was designed to bring the end of the US’s longest war. For Bolton & Co., the US president did not have to make a deal with the Taliban. Instead, the US, according to this approach, could continue to fight an endless war through a reduced/limited presence of US special operations forces.

Bolton appears to have been removed because of presidential irritation over his team’s leaks to reporters that made him look better than he should, and because of his adamant objection to the Camp David invitation. 

While the president’s decision to cancel the talks signifies a victory for Bolton & Co. which was immediately nullified by his own removal from his position as National Security Adviser, it equally throws light on the way political skirmishes continue to define the Trump administration. 

But the important question that the US needs to find an answer to is: how long can they continue to fight this war? 

The Taliban, as far as they are concerned, have never been so close to victory as they were until a few days ago. They hold more territory today than they have since they were ousted at the start of the conflict. Therefore, they will not only mount up their attacks but also find other ways of putting pressure on the US. 

As it stands, the Taliban recently sent a delegation to Russia to seek ‘Russian help’ in bringing the US back to the negotiating table. Of course, this visit was not just meant to tell the Russians of the Taliban’s readiness to engage in talks. It was a message sent to the US about the options the Taliban have at their disposal to make US life even more miserable in Afghanistan in coming days. An increased Russian activity in and around Afghanistan will mean a progressively decreasing US ability to manoeuvre and manipulate things in Afghanistan. 

Russia visit might also open up the way for an intra-Afghan dialogue and an intra-Afghan peace deal – a possibility that, if it materialises, would enable the Taliban to present the US with a fait accompli and force it out of Afghanistan without any withdrawal deal whatsoever. The Taliban, in other words, are seeking enhanced Russian mediation along the same lines as they were following when the Russians successfully held an intra-Afghan summit in Moscow last year, enabling the Taliban and the leading Afghan opposition figures to devise some fundamental points of agreement about Afghanistan’s political future. 

The Russians can certainly help translate those points of agreement into a peace deal, leaving both the US and the Ghani regime out of it, thus shrinking their space even further. 

For the US, such a situation will soon start resembling Syria, where Russian military involvement led to progressive erosion of US ability to manipulate and maneuver things to its advantage. As such, while exit through a deal might have left the US with a semblance of ‘victory’, a no-deal exit will re-create a Vietnam like situation i.e., exit through helicopters from rooftops. 

Whimsical cancellation of talks is only going to add to US problems while it may give the president a false moral sense of standing up to the “fanatics.”