Judging by the recent statements of US politicians and generals about peace in Afghanistan, one would think American warlords have suddenly become peaceniks. The latest call for peace talks came from General John Nicholson, the top US commander and head of the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan. In a July 16 story datelined Qandahar, Reuters quoted the general as saying, “Our Secretary of State, Mr. [Mike] Pompeo, has said that we, the United States, are ready to talk to the Taliban and discuss the role of international forces.” He went on, “We hope that they realize this and that this will help to move the peace process forward.”
Last January, General Nicholson, like his predecessors, had appeared confident he could still win the war. No general ever admits defeat even when he knows he cannot win, particularly the Americans. Asked if he had everything he needed, Nicholson said, “Yeah, with the new policy I do… this is the end game. This is a policy that can deliver a win.”
That was in January. Last month, Nicholson was forced to change his tune when alluding to Pompeo’s statement during the latter’s unannounced visit to Kabul on July 9. He declared that the US was prepared to hold direct talks with the Taliban. Pompeo couched this in colorful language stating the US would remain an “enduring partner” of Afghanistan. He did not elaborate, however, who would rule in Afghanistan.
Gone was the bombast of “defeating the Taliban.” George W. Bush had threatened the Taliban in the aftermath of 9/11, “You can run but you cannot hide.” Bush is history but the Taliban are still there and getting stronger. While sidestepping the question of the US defeating the Taliban, Pompeo inverted this by saying, “…many of the Taliban now see that they can’t win on the ground militarily.” Obviously he meant against the US and its NATO allies. Whatever happened to the US threat to defeat the Taliban?
The ground reality is that the Taliban control more than 60% of territory while the world’s self-declared strongest military power armed to the teeth with the latest gadgets cannot dislodge ragtag bands of Taliban from much of the country.
The Taliban welcomed the US offer of talks. Sohail Shahin, spokes-person for the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, said on July 16 he was still waiting for direct confirmation but welcomed signs of the new approach. “This is what we wanted and were waiting for, to sit with the US directly and discuss the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.”
It was in line with the Taliban’s open letter to the American people and President Trump on February 14, 2018 (a Valentine Day gift?) stating, “The Islamic Emirate had asked America from the very beginning to solve her issues with the Islamic Emirate through talk and dialogue… War is imposed on us; it is not our choice. Our preference is to solve the Afghan issue through peaceful dialogues.” Make love, not war, seem to be the Taliban’s message!
Shahin stipulated that as a first step, he expected to see Taliban leaders removed from a United Nations blacklist in order to be able to travel. He also said that the presence of international troops in Afghanistan would be a major issue and that the Taliban would be willing to discuss US concerns.
Given the two sides’ divergent outlook, this could prove a sticking point. For the Taliban a safe passage for the withdrawing US-NATO forces is the issue; the Americans want permanent military bases. The Taliban are unlikely to agree to this.
The Washington warlords did not arrive at this decision suddenly or willingly. There were back-channel communications with the Taliban, facilitated by Pakistan. Following the grim testimony of Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats to the Senate Intelligence Committee last February about the lackluster performance of the Afghan National Army and the bottomless pit that is the Afghan economy, the Americans began to have second thoughts.
When Trump first came to power, he thought he could browbeat Pakistani generals into submitting to his demands. He had to be taught, like his predecessors, that Pakistani generals are no pushovers. Further, that the road to Kabul (or Qandahar, home base of the Taliban) does not go through Delhi, but Rawalpindi. Once the Americans were made to come down from their high horse, they changed their tune.
American officials now talk about addressing Pakistan’s legitimate “security concerns” in Afghanistan. On June 9 while addressing a seminar in Washington, Lisa Curtis, senior advisor to Trump said, “We have asked for Pakistan’s assistance in facilitating a peace process.” She went on, “And we have sought to understand Pakistan’s own core security concerns and ensure that its interests are taken into account in any peace process.”
Alice G. Wells, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary who looks after South and Central Asian affairs at the State Department, has been a frequent flyer to Islamabad. In June she told a congressional panel that Pakistan had “an important role” and “legitimate interests” in Afghanistan, which “it wants to ensure are met during any peace process.” She was in Islamabad early last month for further talks. This will not be her last visit.
With momentum for direct talks between the US and Taliban picking up speed, it is almost certain that Ms. Wells would be intimately involved. What form these talks will take or where they would be held is difficult to determine at the time of writing this article.
While the Americans were talking about peace talks from one side of their mouth, they urged their Saudi puppets to try and delegitimize the Taliban’s struggle from the other. They told the Saudis to issue a fatwa against jihad. The Saudis gathered ‘ulama’ from some 30 countries in Makkah on July 11 to issue not a fatwa (that would have been blasphemous and would have aroused the wrath of Muslims worldwide) but a call for peace in Afghanistan. At the same time, the Americans told the Saudis and Emiratis to send their forces into Afghanistan.
The Taliban reacted angrily to the Saudi move. Should Saudi and Emirati troops enter Afghanistan, the Taliban would make mincemeat of them but the sinister nature of this plot cannot be ignored. It is intended to make Muslims fight among themselves to cause confusion and shed their blood. The Taliban should be extremely wary of taking any American promises at face value. As the saying goes, when supping with the devil, use a long spoon. The Taliban would need a very long spoon indeed.