America’s Infamous war on terror and the peace deal: A face saving exit in disguise

 By Aarti Bansal
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 “Everyone’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s an easy way: Stop participating in it.” ― Noam Chomsky

The US, in the immediate Cold war era, as the sole superpower could have chosen to live in harmony with the world, it could have helped assemble a universe of harmony, fortifying the laws and establishments that oblige war. Instead, Washington did the opposite. It adopted a grand strategy that gave pride of place to military threats and methods and constructed a form of global integration that served the immediate interests of a few but imperiled the long-term interests of the many. At best, these were mistaken priorities. At worst, they turned the US into a destructive actor in the world. These actions created more enemies than they defeated, killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, and made the American people less safe.

Why did the Good War turn into bad?

The US failed in Afghanistan largely because of intractable grievances, Pakistan’s meddling, and an intense Afghan commitment to resisting occupiers, and it stayed largely because of unrelenting terrorist threats and their elect on U.S. electoral politics. There were few chances to prevail and few chances to get out. Afghanistan was deceptively peaceful. There were opportunities to meet peace, or at least a more sustainable, less costly, and less violent stalemate. American leaders failed to grasp those chances, thanks to unjustified overconfidence following U.S. military victories and thanks to ignoring the value of forethought. In most cases, determined U.S. leaders did this inadvertently, or because they truly believed things were going well. At times, however, evidence of failure was purposefully swept under the rug.

But failure was not inevitable. The best opportunities to succeed appeared early on, between 2001 and 2005. The Taliban were in disarray. Popular support for the new Afghan government was relatively high, as was patience with the foreign presence.

Exclusion of the Taliban from the post-invasion political settlement was one of the grave mistakes made in the early phase of the war. After pushing the Taliban back to war, Bush and his team then moved far too slowly in building up the Afghan security forces. The ease of the initial invasion in 2001 distorted Washington’s perceptions. The administration disregarded arguments by its prominent diplomats and intelligence services that the insurgents were staging a comeback. Believing they had already won the war in Afghanistan; Bush and his team turned their attention to Iraq. [1]

Presently, While the Chinese, Pakistanis, Indians, and Iranians are all developing competing energy and mining projects in and next door to Afghanistan, the US appears to have little commercial future in the country, even though it spends about $45 billion there annually. The total cost of the war could reach as high as $2 trillion when long-term costs are factored in, according to Brown University’s Cost of War Project. To them, Afghanistan is like the huge and hugely expensive aircraft carriers we continue to build, increasingly obsolete in an era of sophisticated missile technology and hypersonic warfare. It is a vestigial limb of the empire, and it is time to let it go. [2]

FEAR OF TERROR

Every U.S. president since 2001 has sought to reach a point in Afghanistan when the violence would be sufficiently low or the Afghan government strong enough to allow U.S. military forces to withdraw without significantly increasing the risk of a resurgent terrorist threat. That day has not come. Given the high costs and slim benefits of the war, why hasn’t the US simply left Afghanistan? In reality, getting out was nearly as difficult as prevailing. It stayed largely because of unrelenting terrorist threats and they’re erect on U.S. electoral politics. U.S. presidents have had to choose between spending resources in places of very low geostrategic value and accepting some unknown risk of a terrorist attack, worried that voters will never forgive them or their party if they underestimate the threat.

The Uncertain Terms of an Uncertain Peace

There is a famous diplomatic dictum, ‘superpowers don’t lose wars, they lose interest.  Well, that’s just their explanation and excuse. The deal is simply giving a face-saving exit to the US. America has lost in Afghanistan. The US signed a broad peace agreement with the Taliban in Doha on February 29, 2020, in which the Taliban agreed to prevent terrorists from using Afghanistan to threaten the US or its allies, the US agreed to first reduce its forces from roughly 13,000 to 8,600 within 135 days, and then fully withdraw all remaining forces within the following 9 and a half months, conditioned on the Taliban adhering to the agreement.

However, it is clear from the broad nature of these agreements that they do more to expedite the U.S. and allied withdrawal than create the conditions that can lead to secure peace or even define a real peace. The peace effort is also ignoring critical structural problems in Afghan politics, governance, economy, and the creation of effective security forces. Real peace cannot be defined until a faction-driven government and a highly ideological movement like the Taliban negotiate a stable working agreement and eventually prepare its implementation confronting severe fundamental challenges.

-Exclusion of significant stakeholder

It is noteworthy that Khalilzad used the formulation “intra-Afghan” instead of ‘NUG (National Unity Government) -Taliban’ dialogue. There is a basic difference between the two and signifies a major concession to the Taliban, which has considered NUG as a US puppet. It implies that the Taliban will negotiate with an array of Afghan groups and not exclusively with NUG about the country’s constitutional and political future. Such a process has the danger of further eroding NUG’s already strained cohesion and image. President Ghani has insisted all along that any talks between Washington and the Taliban in whatever format should be routed through Kabul. This request is entirely sensible, Afghanistan’s political future for Afghans should not be decided by the Americans.[3]

The Afghan govt is emphatic on its stance that Afghanistan is not a dependent nation. They believe, “economically we are dependent. But security-wise, West is dependent on us. We are giving the ultimate sacrifice for global security. It’s been our blood and our bones. From the West, recently, it’s only been money and metal — money and weapons. So please, make sure this is not considered a charity case. We are a partner.” [4]

Multiple Threats to a Real Peace

 With the Islamic republic in tatters and Taliban staging a comeback the shape of the new polity that will come is uncertain, but a full-blown Emirate would be unacceptable to the Afghan people and the international community. Also unacceptable to non-Pashtuns would be a fully Pashtun dominated political order. Some basic fundamental issues need to be addressed before resorting to any deal blindfolded.

  • How can one negotiate with an organization that wants to run the country like medieval times of the 8th century? Can anyone afford to leave Afghanistan in the 12th century? What is the future of the considerable progress made during the last 19 years in civil society in terms of women’s emancipation, education, health, democratic norms (maybe flawed but at least far better than Sharia laws)?
  • Peace agreements aren’t based on trust. They are based on mutual interest, verification, and enforcement.[5] The Taliban chose in 2001 that they would face defeat on the battlefield rather than give up Al Qaeda. Does anybody think the Taliban will be different this time? It is not clear how the U.S. could verify the Taliban pledges that terrorist groups won’t use Afghanistan as a staging area for attacks. If there were an eventual peace agreement, a very robust monitoring regime would be critical and we would still need to retain the capability to act in our national interest if we needed to.
  • It seems that in the Doha agreement, there is an inbuilt tolerance for violence against Afghans because there was no commitment to the Taliban to not attack Afghan forces and civilians. The commitment was only towards NATO and the US. One sees that the result is playing out. Since that agreement, the number of attacks has gone up at least 50 a week. The Taliban will have to explain to the Afghan people that as per demands, why are they fighting Afghans now. They’ve long justified their holy jihad against foreign troops, but now as they are leaving, what is this struggle for now. Afghanistan govt. holds an agreement with the Taliban on the departure of foreign troops but they also want the departure of foreign fighters, both will have to go along.
  • Security remains a critical and growing problem even with major outside the U.S. and allied support. The ground forces are years away from being able to stand on their own with any confidence, and there are no current plans to create an Afghan Air Force that could provide the level of combat capability the U.S. and its allies have provided since 2013 [6]. One key issue that shapes every aspect of the negotiations is whether the central government can survive without the support of U.S. and allied forces. In practice, the answers are uncertain but do not seem to favor the central government or the Afghan National Défense and Security Forces (ANDSF).

 Ryan Crocker [7] slammed this deal as a ‘surrender’, a betrayal of the democratically elected Afghan government that Washington has spent nearly two decades propping up. Taliban will certainly take over the Afghan government sooner or later. The U.S. ought not negotiate from a position of weakness. That Taliban will respect the constitution and seek legal changes, isn’t going to happen. The Taliban will offer any number of commitments, knowing that when U.S. leaves and the Taliban is back, the U.S. will have no means of enforcing any of them. Power-sharing will not be easy if it wishes to restore the entire theological structure of the Islamic emirate as obtained under Mullah Omar. Its win-win position for the Taliban. As one of the Taliban officials said “Our jihad was not started against the presence of U.S. forces; it was started in 1994 to found an Islamic state. A US withdrawal will not end our struggle. An Islamic regime will end our jihad.” There is no Taliban commitment to secure their constitutional framework or the govt. It has gained on the cost of Afghanistan democracy.[8]

 The failure of a peace deal could result in the probable intensification of conflict and instability in a country strategically located in a region with a cluster of major powers including China, Russia, India, Iran, and Pakistan. Another round of chaos could well result in the emergence of new violent extremist groups. Afghans and the rest of the world would have to deal with a possible security vacuum that could be filled by militant groups seeking fertile ground to plot future attacks. Increased production of drugs and the overflow of refugees would pose serious challenges not only to Afghanistan but also to the whole region and the rest of the world. [9] Having a Syria 2.0 in Central and South Asia where nuclear weapons are present, could become a global nightmare.

Prospects of a post-Taliban end state

The main goal of the end state is a commitment towards the dismantling of the terrorism industry which requires shared responsibility, Afghanistan is ready to invest with their blood and they hope that their international partners will invest in their equipment and financing. The region must find its balance of power to achieve peace and stability over time. They need to ensure common security against common threats, and need co-ordinate efforts for peace and deter and prevent spoilers from sabotaging the process. Hence unless the regional value chains try to ensure the denial of sanctuaries and safe heaven curb the drug trafficking in the region, which directly funds insurgents and other criminal elements in Afghanistan, the Taliban will not have enough incentive to reintegrate.

Furthermore, the US will have to end the endless wars. It will have to demilitarize its foreign policy. It needs to revisit a larger question, whether the use of force can be justified under the right of self-defence by the US when it is important to remember that acts of terrorism ought as far as possible to be addressed through criminal prosecution in coherence with International norms. Whilst a range of credible scenarios for Afghanistan’s future can be developed, the actual trajectory of events will likely depend not just on what has been done up to this point, but on a whole range of decisions yet to be taken by occupants of critical policy positions. A meaningful counter-terrorism policy for Afghanistan is not one primarily directed at the now-much-diminished threat posed by Al Qaeda. It will be one that squarely confronts the problem of sponsorship of terrorism as a tool of state policy. [10]

 Afghanistan’s past may not be its future. Just because the war has been difficult to end does not mean it will go on inconclusively. Afghanistan will in any case be the US’ longest war. Americans can best learn its lessons by examining the botched chances that shielded the US from gaining ground. Ultimately, the war should be understood neither as an avoidable folly nor as an inevitable tragedy but rather as an unresolved dilemma.

End notes:

[1] Foreign Affairs MARCH/APRIL 2020 • VOLUME 99 • NUMBER 2 • COME HOME, AMERICA?

[2] Opinion | Time to Get Out of Afghanistan – The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/01/opinion/afghanistan-war-american-troops-withdraw.html

[3] Towards an Afghan ceasefire:https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/toi-edit-page/towards-an-afghan-ceasefire-is-taliban-withpakistan-behind-it-virtually-dictating-terms-to-the-us

[4] To Slow U.S. Exit, Afghanistan Leader Offers Trump a Cost Reduction from the west, recently, it’s only been money and metal — money and weapons. so please, make sure this is not considered a charity case, said Mr. Hanif Atmar, Afghanistan’s former national security adviser. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/30/world/asia/afghan-ghani-trump-letter.html

[5] Getting Ahead of the Implications of a U.S.-Taliban Deal in Afghanistanhttps://warontherocks.com/2019/01/getting-ahead-of-the-implications-of-a-u-s-taliban-deal-inafghanistan/

[6] Reporting by the two U.S. inspector generals – the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) and the Lead Inspector General (LIG).

[7] Ryan Crocker a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom is one of America’s most respected and honored diplomats. In a foreign service career that spanned four decades, Crocker served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait, and Lebanon. As a political attaché, he survived the 1983 embassy bombing in Beirut.

[8] The Taliban Are Counting the Days Until Trump’s Afghan Pull-out https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-taliban-are-counting-the-days-until-trumps-afghan-pullout

[9] Afghanistan war: What could peace look like? – BBC News https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-47733079

[10] Maley, W. “Transitioning from military interventions to long-term counter-terrorism policy: The case of Afghanistan (2001-2016)”, Australian National University – Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy (2016).

[11] Other sources referred-

  • Seth Jones Christine Fair, RAND Pak spa Jihadi groups, 2010-06-21
  • Afghanistan: The Prospects for a Real Peace, Anthony H. Cordesman, Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 7, 2020
  • America’s Slow-Motion Failure in Afghanistan, Carter Malkasian, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, March/April 2020 · Volume 99, Number 2
  • The Price of Primacy- Why America Shouldn’t Dominate the World, Stephen Wertheim, FOREIGN AFFAIRS March/April 2020 · Volume 99, Number 2
  • The Afghanistan Conundrum, Maj Gen P K Mallick, VSM (Retd.), Vivekananda International Foundation Paper, March 2019
  • Mercille, Julien (2011) ‘THE U.S. “WAR ON DRUGS” IN AFGHANISTAN’, Critical Asian Studies, 43: 2, 285 — 309
  • DFID Understanding Afghanistan Strategic Conflict, Assessment 2.4 Final Report, The Recovery, and Development Consortium, November 2008
  • J. CRIMINOL, CRIME AND WAR IN AFGHANISTAN, Advance Access publication 14 December 2012
  • Alia Brahimi, The Taliban’s Evolving Ideology, LSE Global Governance Working Paper WP 02/2010 July 2010