Yearning for peace can be cruel for Afghans

And for the Americans the only near-term option is staying committed to this fight - blood, money and all - as the war on terror becomes a war of attrition.

By Shahab Jafry (Postscript)

Published: Thu 12 Sep 2019, 9:14 PM

Last updated: Thu 12 Sep 2019, 11:17 PM

Don't think, for a moment, that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was the only one left with a smile that said 'I told you so' when US President Donald Trump killed the Taleban deal. Even Pakistani journalists who'd covered even small chunks of this long war from killer-of-empires country, and took comments from Afghan journalists and politicians for their stories, knew this deal was dead to begin with. It just didn't matter how busy US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad looked making all those trips to Doha, Kabul and Islamabad.
Fact is, the moment the Americans sidelined Ghani's government and pursued ceasefire negotiations with the Taleban - only ignoring the legitimate Afghan government in Kabul, really, because the Taleban said so - they betrayed utter desperation. No doubt this was vintage Trump, standing conventional policy on its head, regardless of long term considerations. Clearly, he had decided to leave Afghanistan before he's up for re-election next year.
Also, you'd think the Pentagon went along because the Taleban control more than half the country despite 18 years of war, wouldn't you? Best cut and run now rather than throw more lives and money only to lose further ground and face. And then let Trump sell it as a victory.
But all poor Zalmay could salvage, after a year or so of repeated talks, was all but stripping Ghani of his legitimacy, catapulting the Taleban to centrestage, and no agreement on ceasefire. All Taleban agreed to was a little less violence in Kabul and Parwan, where American forces are concentrated.
Perhaps that, more than the one American death in the latest car bomb attack, made Trump see how ridiculous the whole idea was. Definitely not worth inviting them over to Camp David. How that would have contrasted with President George Bush Jr's proud boast, "We don't negotiate with terrorists." No way voters are going to buy that.
But what now? Ghani might be relieved and even get re-elected in September, yet there's nothing to suggest that the Taleban would stop snowballing just because Donald Trump is angry.
Clearly President Trump forgot, when he wondered how many more decades the Taleban wanted to fight, that time was in fact in the insurgents' favour. As General Kayani, former Pakistani army chief, and ISI chief before that, once told the Americans, "You have the watches, but they (Taleban) have the time."
So in case Trump sticks to his verdict that the talks are indeed "dead," before campaigning completely overwhelms him, the most likely scenario is the Taleban clawing more ground and Ghani becoming more vulnerable. Especially if Trump decides to follow John Bolton's last piece of advice before he was kicked out; that the US can withdraw down to 8,600 troops even without talking to the enemy and making all those concessions. Slightly better sell?
And you can understand why there's considerable anxiety in Pakistan. Everybody in Islamabad half expected Trump to fire his next morning's tweet towards us, for not nudging the Taleban enough. Prime Minister Imran Khan's turnaround with Washington stood on facilitating a deal. Now that that leverage is gone there's no reason not to expect Trump to revert to his frustrated "no more" position. Maybe he will once he's done cleaning Bolton's mess, now former national security advisor thankfully.
Af-Pak meetings will also become more awkward. Count on Kabul to show its anger at being completely left out of ceasefire negotiations, in word as well as action. And surely Ghani will be even more cross with Pakistan than before. Wasn't Imran Khan the first head of state to propose an interim government in Kabul; simply throwing out the constitution and an elected government and bring the Taleban back to power? Yet Ghani can fume and stomp his feet all he wants, he'll still have to play along with the Americans. Without them who is to say the Taleban can't eventually storm into Kabul itself?
And for the Americans the only near-term option is staying committed to this fight - blood, money and all - as the war on terror becomes a war of attrition. Or, maybe, Trump will pull a North Korea here and resume talks, just as he did with Kim Jong Un at the Demalitarised Zone. But all that will achieve, as we have come to see, is giving the Taleban the one thing that has eluded them these long years; forming government again, even under a power-sharing agreement. Even if Trump makes the deal, he will not walk away from it looking any good.
Meantime, ordinary Afghans continue to endure 40-plus years of war. And they'll tell you how ironic it is that the Taleban have been the only people capable of ensuring peace in their country in living memory. There was very little fighting when they controlled Afghanistan. And they're the only ones capable of ensuring peace now. 'Peace of the graveyard,' everybody called it.
Now, after America's long occupation, all they can hope for is that same cruel peace or more years and decades of war.
Shahab Jafry is a senior journalist based in Pakistan

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