Afghan-Taliban talks begin: Will US withdrawal tilt the balance?

Afghan-Taliban talks begin: Will US withdrawal tilt the balance?

Nineteen years after the 9/11 attacks took place by the terror group they hosted, the Taliban will finally come to the table to discuss peace in the war that those events initiated. The Afghan government followed through on an agreement to release six prisoner of war and allow them to travel to Qatar under house arrest. That will provide the requisite act of good faith needed to commence the first official peace talks in the 19-year civil war.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will travel to Doha as a facilitator, but Donald Trump’s statements and actions will likely have more impact:

Following the arrival of the prisoners in Doha, the Taliban announced that it was ready to begin official, direct peace talks with the Afghan government. Taliban spokesman Muhammad Naeem Wardak said in a tweet that the initial meeting would be held Saturday in Doha.

The announcements follow six months of delays, most recently over a handful of high-value Taliban prisoners accused of killing American, French and Australian nationals.

The talks were mandated by the deal signed by the United States and the Taliban in February and were to have begun in March. Political turmoil in Kabul and escalating violence countrywide have also contributed to delays.

The delays might also have been tactical on the part of the Taliban. They might have been hoping that Trump would improve their position by staying still:

Launching official, direct negotiations is one of the few demands of the deal signed between the United States and the Taliban, which sets a timeline for the full withdrawal of U.S. forces. The deal also calls on the Taliban to pledge to cut ties with international terrorist groups. Despite concerns that the group is not upholding that pledge, President Trump is pushing for further troop reductions.

The top American commander in the Middle East, Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie Jr., said Monday that troop levels in Afghanistan would drop to 4,500 by November.

Trump might be too anxious to fulfill his 2016 campaign pledge to put an end to the US involvement in the war before the end of his first term, or so some in the diplomatic corps worry. CNN reports that the concern is that the US will dispense with its leverage too soon, and in doing so hand the Taliban too much of an advantage over the Kabul government:

As the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban begin this weekend, there are concerns among current and former US national security officials that efforts to develop a solid path towards peace in Afghanistan could be jeopardized by President Donald Trump’s goal of declaring victory by withdrawing American troops before November’s election.

“The long-term success of a peace process, which will take a tremendous amount of time and effort once the parties come to the negotiating table, is at odds with short term political win for the Trump administration,” said a State Department official.

Current and former national security officials say that the Trump administration kickstarted the peace process in general, including the intra-Afghan negotiations, because most Americans agree that it is time for the US to withdraw from the country. A peace process involving the Taliban is viewed by many as the only way to accomplish that goal.

“Viewed by many”? Well, only those who are aware that this has been a tribal war all along, with the Taliban primarily representing the plurality Pashtun population and the Kabul government primarily representing the northern tribes. (They weren’t called the Northern Alliance during the Taliban’s reign for nothing.) Unless Afghanistan (and Pakistan, for that matter) gets redrawn into Pashtunistan and Everythingelsestan, any settlement will inevitably have to include the Taliban.

The trick will be to get the Taliban to agree to multi-ethnic and multi-party governance. They might do so only as long as it takes to seize control again and re-impose their seventh-century version of Islamic rule on Afghanistan, but that might depend largely on Pakistan. The Pakistanis cultivated the Taliban and Pashtun to fight a proxy war against India over Kashmir, as well as to curry favor with the tribe for domestic political purposes. Have the Pakistanis learned their lesson? If their footsie-playing with Lashkar-e-Taiba is any indication, no they have not. They will likely draft the Taliban back into their proxy war against India, and that means the Pakistanis will turn a blind eye to any of the Taliban’s atrocities and other alliances.

That doesn’t make a return to the status quo ante before 9/11 inevitable, but it’s pretty likely at some point. Hopefully we can keep that from including al-Qaeda or ISIS cells operating freely to conduct terror attacks against the US. Afghanistan is too remote and too primitive for us to police a peace deal effectively to prevent the Pashtuns/Taliban from seizing power again, so the best we can do is to promise to make their lives miserable again unless they at least police themselves well enough to prevent that. And we can put pressure on Pakistan to do a better job policing it than the last time — perhaps in part by humiliating them again by conducting offensive operations against such terror cells in their territory, as we did with the Osama bin Laden raid.

The bottom line is that this war is not going to end well no matter how long we stay, and no matter the force levels involved, unless we want to commit to a full-blown military occupation and nation-building for fifty more years. Trump is just acknowledging what everyone already knows, including the Taliban.

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