The self-proclaimed superpower is clutching at straws about “peace talks” following the Taliban’s convincing defeat of US-NATO armies in Afghanistan. While talk about talks has gone on for years with American officials — civilian and military — making bold pronouncements about commencement of “secret talks”, only to discover that some goat herder or a petty bicycle shop owner had taken the “smart” Americans for a long ride, the latter have not given up. The Americans’ plight is understandable. Their mighty army is not up to the task and the Afghan National Army (ANA) they claim to be training to takeover as part of the Afghanization process, is a joke. Defections are so widespread that American officials have started to revise downward the number of Afghan soldiers they hope to train and have ready to take over once foreign troops relinquish combat role sometime in 2013. The bottom line in all this is that America and its allies are broke; they have repeatedly said the $6–$10 billion in annual handouts for another ten years to Afghanistan after the 2014 handover are completely unrealistic.
But before taking US pronouncements about peace talks and troop withdrawal seriously, it is important to bear in mind certain basic facts. The US plan is not to withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan. This has been hinted at both by American commanders as well as US Ambassador Ryan Crocker in Kabul. They want to keep troops in Afghanistan indefinitely but in secure, well-protected military bases. Talk about abandoning its combat role is aimed at creating the impression that the US is serious about ending a war opposed by the vast majority of Americans because of its astronomical costs, which that have caused widespread poverty and misery in America. If one pays close attention to US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s announcement of February 1, it becomes clear that he mentioned a “phase-out” of US combat role by mid-2013. There was no mention of withdrawal.
“Hopefully by the mid to latter part of 2013 we’ll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advise and assist role,” Panetta said. He added that this “doesn’t mean we’re not going to be combat-ready,” but rather that the US and other international forces will no longer be in “the formal combat role we’re in now”. The US Defense Secretary, however, cautioned, that transition to Afghan army control would require continued financial support not only from the US but also from allies and many other countries. This was discussed at the NATO foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels on February 2 and 3 but few European countries, already suffering severe economic difficulties of their own, like the US, were prepared to make large financial commitments for a bottomless pit called Afghanistan.
US pronouncements about phased transition and withdrawal have a lot more to do with President Barrack Obama’s re-election bid this year than any realistic acceptance of ground realities in Afghanistan. After all, a mid-January poll in Afghanistan found that 56% of Afghans wanted all foreign troops to leave immediately.
The “training” of Afghan soldiers and policemen is also becoming a problem. There have been many instances of Afghan soldiers attacking and killing foreign trainers. These are becoming more frequent. In January four French soldiers were killed in Kapisa province prompting French President Nicolas Sarkozy to announce that France would withdraw all combat troops by the end of 2013 instead of the agreed date of 2014. According to a NATO report, between 2005 and 2010, at least 52 foreign occupation troops were shot and killed by Afghan soldiers.
As if the killings were not enough, another problem has arisen. Amid talk of US- NATO troop withdrawal, Afghan army and police commanders have started to make deals with the Taliban. They have made contact with them and pledged to defect with their weapons. This was confirmed in a story in the Asia Times Online (February 3) as well as a secret NATO report that was leaked to a British daily. This is bad news not only for Afghan President Hamid Karzai but also for US- NATO efforts to transition security arrangements to the Afghans. Training Afghan soldiers and policemen at the cost of billions of dollars is merely producing future Taliban fighters. This is the kind of environment that makes Afghanistan hell on earth. The secret NATO report also admitted that the Taliban were winning the war, contradicting optimistic statements issued by American and NATO officials in public.
Cognizant of this reality, American officials have been leaking reports about peace talks with the Taliban. Typical of these was a January 28 report in the New York Times by Alissa J. Rubin. She wrote in a story datelined Kabul: “Several Taliban negotiators have begun meeting with American officials in Qatar, where they are discussing preliminary trust-building measures, including a possible prisoner transfer, several former Taliban officials said Saturday [Jan 28].” Rubin went on: “four to eight Taliban representatives had traveled to Qatar from Pakistan to set up a political office for the exiled Afghan insurgent group.” The Taliban’s Qatar office story has been floating around for nearly a year but further into her story, it becomes clear that the former Taliban official Rubin is referring to, is none other than Mullah Qalamuddin. He was minister of vice and virtue in the Taliban government but is currently a member of the High Peace Council whose head, Burhanuddin Rabbani was assassinated on September 20, 2011 by a person claiming to be an emissary of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Rubin quoted Mullah Qalamuddin as saying: “Currently there are no peace talks going on.” So how could Rubin claim earlier in her story that “negotiations were underway” with the Taliban? Mullah Qalamuddin is further quoted as saying: “The only thing is the negotiations over release of Taliban prisoners from Guantánamo, which is still under discussion between both sides in Qatar. We also want to strengthen the talks so we can create an environment of trust for further talks in the future.”
Even a member of the Afghan High Peace Council would not confirm that any peace talks were being held with the Taliban yet the Americans and their media mouthpieces continue to parrot the peace talks mantra. American desperation clearly knows no bounds. It is almost as bad as Karzai’s pleas to the Taliban for talks. While he expressed disappointment that he was not consulted about the contacts in Qatar where the Taliban are about to open an office, Karzai said he would be meeting the Taliban in Saudi Arabia. A Taliban spokesman dismissed the claim and said no meeting with Karzai or anyone else had been planned in Saudi Arabia.
On further investigation, it emerged that the alleged Taliban officials in Doha, Qatar, were all former members of the Taliban and therefore, their authority to speak on behalf Mullah Omar was highly suspect. In any case, they confirmed that their talks were aimed at securing the release of Taliban detainees in Guantanamo as well as the removal of several Taliban members from a NATO “kill or capture” list. There was no mention of peace talks with the Americans or anyone else.
During the tripartite meeting in Islamabad (January 18–19) with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan, Karzai again appealed for help to hold talks with the Taliban. Karzai also met Maulana Samiul Haq, head of the Madrassa in Akora Khattak who is viewed as the godfather of the Taliban, requesting him to arrange talks with the Taliban. The maulana told him to make some important political gestures that he could pass on to the Taliban to convince them to hold such talks.
The US-NATO war on Afghanistan can be divided into three phases. From 2001 to 2005, the Americans and their allies were chasing the Taliban to eliminate them. From 2005 to 2009, this option was abandoned because it was found to be unrealistic. The new policy was to take certain well-defined areas from the Taliban and hold them before handing them over to the Afghan troops. This has also proved unworkable. The third phase is predicated on finding Taliban leaders for talks and have them agree to some kind of a deal.
But all the talk about peace talks is part of Obama’s domestic political compulsion that is largely divorced from ground realities in Afghanistan. George W. Bush, Obama’s predecessor, launched the war in Afghanistan on a false pretext. Obama could have walked away from it but he adopted it as his own. Now he is stuck with it and will have to pay the price for his ill-advised decision. Will American forces be able to hold out until mid-2013, much less 2014 given the large number of defections and Afghan soldiers turning their guns on US-NATO trainers, is an open question.
The Taliban have once again proved that Afghanistan is the graveyard of invaders. The next two years will certainly prove quite interesting.