Events are moving at breathtaking speed in landlocked Afghanistan. Talks between the Americans and the Taliban have progressed to the point where both sides are issuing optimistic statements about a potential breakthrough, although couched in cautious language.
Let us get the facts straight. The Taliban have won and America has lost, once again. Those aware of ground realities and the Afghan mindset had predicted this when the US launched its war of aggression on Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. True, the Taliban were forced to flee Kabul under relentless aerial bombardment. Staying put would have been suicidal since they had no protection from the heavy bombs dropped from US B-1 bombers on the Afghan capital.
The Americans misread the Taliban’s retreat from Kabul as their defeat. Not so; they merely sought refuge in the mountains to plot their resistance. It took them nearly 18 years and many sacrifices to drive home the point that it is not possible to defeat the Afghans. True, some can be bought — and they were with sacks full of dollars — but there are always enough Afghans that will fight for their honor and dignity. This is what the Taliban have done.
Donald Trump and his military commanders may declare victory and get the hell out but the reality is that they have been forced to flee. The former US ambassador Ryan Crocker got it right when he complained the US was negotiating the terms of surrender. What else can it do when the biggest military machine in the world — US annual defence (offence) budget stands at $720 billion! — is unable to subdue rag-tag bands of fighters with primitive weapons?
George W. Bush had launched the war to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The latter was a US creation. Then the policy changed to liberating Afghan women, bringing democracy to a primitive society, nation-building, and training the Afghan army. Apart from al-Qaeda, everything else has been roaring failures. Trump does not want to be in the business of nation-building; it is costing the US too much ($1 trillion down the drain in Afghanistan!).
American military commanders will complain that their hands were tied, that the politicians did not give them enough weapons or manpower to do the job but these are excuses proffered by sore losers. The fact is the US has never won a war, period! Weapons do not win wars; men with courage and conviction do.
So what lies ahead?
The road to peace will not be easy. There are too many factions in Afghanistan split along ethnic and tribal lines. Ashraf Ghani is not one of them despite complaining that he is being ignored. He may be the nominal president but mayor of a part of Kabul would be a more appropriate title. To their credit, the Taliban have said they do not wish to usurp all power. It would serve the interests of Afghanistan and its long-suffering people if all groups are accommodated in a future setup.
Then there are the external players — Russia, Iran, China, and Pakistan — whose interests may collide in Afghanistan. Unlike the US, the four countries have a good working relationship. It would be in their long-term interest to ensure they work with rather than against each other.
One final point: the Taliban should demand the Americans pay reparations for 18 years of war in which countless Afghans have been murdered and the country virtually destroyed. This is the least the Americans can do to compensate for their crimes in Afghanistan.