Taleban have won, US is leaving Afghanistan with bloody nose

The government in Kabul has no role in transition which is a recipe for disaster.

By Shahab Jafry

Published: Tue 27 Aug 2019, 9:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 27 Aug 2019, 11:07 PM

I suppose it's not really very surprising that only the odd old timer in the foreign press, like that icon of foreign correspondents Robert Fisk, took any note of Afghanistan's 100th anniversary of independence earlier this month; August 8 to be more precise.
Back then, by the end of the Third Anglo Afghan War, Kabul had extracted a major strategic concession from the greatest empire the world had ever seen until then (Great Britain) and regained sovereignty over its foreign policy. And the Brits had scored enough of a tactical win to force the Afghans to finally accept the Durand Line as the official dividing line between Afghanistan and the Raj. And, just for good measure, the Pashtuns promised not to create any trouble on the British side.
The Brits fought three bitter, brutal, very costly and utterly ridiculous wars because of Afghanistan's strategic placement in the so-called Great Game. Best get a foothold there now, reckoned the British elite in Calcutta as well as London quite early in the 19th century, before the Tsar sends his imperial army marching into Afghanistan to knock down the doors of India itself.
But by 1919 much of Britain's celebrated martial youth had died, for king and country, in the trenches of western Europe. And the Bolsheviks had already rubbished the Romanovs, and their imperial expansionist ambitions, to the dustbin of history forever. Moscow wouldn't be interested in crossing the Volga River, with hostile intent, for another seven decades. So the Great Game could wait for a while as both England and Afghanistan declared victory and breathed a sigh of relief.
Fast forward a hundred years and you notice echoes of the old conflict as the United States bends over backwards to end its military campaign in Afghanistan. Once again, the largely poor, backward, tribal soldier-clerics of the area have exhausted the mightiest army that history books have yet recorded. Everybody is looking for a settlement that both sides can celebrate as victory. And, once again, there's the same sweetener; the Afghans, specifically the Taleban, will not poke their nose into affairs outside their own borders.
But it is far more complicated this time around. For example, everybody's stopped talking to the official Afghan government and started negotiating with the Taleban, trying to get them to stop winning more land every month and just agree to peace terms; an exercise made infinitely more complicated than it has to be due to the Taleban's refusal to even recognise the government in Kabul.
That is odd, to say the least, because it was the Americans that declared war on the Taleban, literally created the Kabul government and poured billions upon billions into erecting an army to help rout the insurgency and keep the government safe and functioning.
Now, suddenly in the last 10 months of this 18-year war, it turns out that the Trump administration's smart idea of ending the fighting is simply standing the two-decade approach on its head. Poor Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, meanwhile, is reduced to following developments in the evening news as the Taleban dictate the conditions of the US withdrawal and the type of government to follow. "Any US-Taleban deal must first be shared with Kabul," he thundered the other day, probably in front of a mirror, and promised to "save the system at any cost."
Seeing the panic in Kabul, as ministers and generals fret the prospect of an interim government dominated by the Taleban, US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad tried to put his weight behind the government.
"We will defend the Afghan forces now and after my agreement with the Taleban," he tweeted, adding that "Afghanistan's future will be determined in intra-Afghan negotiations."
But it might already be too late. The insurgents understand only too well that the Americans would have a deal before their presidential elections one way or the other. That's why they're more than happy to dump the government in Kabul. Besides, the Taleban will only gain more ground and become stronger if the fighting drags on.
And their tweets are far more telling. "No puppet government or organisation has delivered success and progress to Afghanistan and its people in the way that the Islamic Emirate has," they said, already reminiscing about their days in power before the war.
They had something to say about the future, too. No doubt the Americans believe that burying the hatchet with the Taleban in exchange for a promise to behave themselves and take care of politicians, minorities, and women is all they need to finally wrap up this war and win the election back home.
But others - who remember the disintegration and civil war of the 90s, especially how Taleban fighters tortured and killed former president Najibullah and his brother - are not so convinced. And the insurgents' latest boasts aren't making them sleep any better.
"Only those sections of Afghan society that were imposed on Afghanistan with the help of American weapons and dollars remain terrified of the Islamic Emirate's reign," said the Taleban after the latest meetings in Doha.
Reign? They seem pretty sure of what is to come. And it doesn't look anything like what the Americans think. A century after gaining 'independence' from British interference, the Afghans are within reach of imposing their will upon the Americans as well. From the 19th to the 21st century, between the UK, USSR and now the US, they have given a red nose to one superpower per century.
Shahab Jafry is a senior journalist based in Lahore

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