In July, US President Donald Trump directed envoys to open direct talks with the Taliban in an effort to end America’s 17-year conflict in Afghanistan, considered a rollback from the previous US position that talks must be led and controlled by the Afghan government. Talks between US envoys and members of a Taliban political commission did take place that same month in Qatar, although the US maintains that negotiations over the political future of Afghanistan will be between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
A spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said, “We appreciate help and support from any side that can facilitate the peace process.” A Taliban participant in the talks said the discussion included proposals to allow Taliban free movement in two provinces (already rejected by Ghani) and from the US side that it be allowed military bases in Afghanistan.
According to the Taliban, this was their third meeting with US officials; they would first exchange prisoners and then discuss other issues. The Taliban are ready for a second round of direct talks with the US, which may have already taken place.
Amid waves of Taliban attacks in Afghanistan in May, Trump picked Lieutenant-General Austin Miller as the new commander of US-led forces in Afghanistan. Zalmay Khalilzad, US adviser on Afghanistan (and former US ambassador to Kabul and Iraq), arrived in Kabul on October 7, met with Ghani, and was expected to visit Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and Qatar on the issue of bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. Pakistan recently released the Afghan Taliban’s former deputy chief, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, after eight years in jail at the request of Qatar.
Afghanistan’s recent parliamentary elections witnessed unprecedented violence by the Taliban, including the killing of Kandahar’s police chief, General Abdul Raziq, delaying voting by a week there. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which was aimed at General Miller. Even then around 4 million Afghans cast their votes despite the risk of violence. More than 400 women are running for seats in parliament, as also a large number of youth, the results of which are to be declared in mid-November.
Everyone has been talking to the Taliban, starting with the now-defunct Quadrilateral Coordination Group comprising the US, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The US also held direct talks with Taliban in Qatar in 2015, without Afghan government participation, during which the November 2012 plan, the “Afghan Peace Process Roadmap to 2015,” by Afghanistan’s High Peace Council that offered Taliban non-elected government positions (including governors) virtually giving Taliban complete control of Pashtun-dominated areas after 2014 elections, was reiterated to the Taliban. In recent years, Taliban delegations have visited Beijing, Russia has been hosting multi-nation talks with the Taliban, and now Uzbekistan is initiating similar talks.
But the Taliban are explicitly clear that they don’t believe in the Afghan constitution; don’t believe in democracy; want all foreign troops out of Afghanistan; and will not lay down arms. It is not that players of the “Great Game” don’t understand this reality, but gaming continues much the same way as it did in West Asia. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan had raised fears of Soviet expansion into the Persian Gulf. Both the US and China trained and armed the Afghan mujahideen to oust the Soviets; the US did so through Pakistan, but China shifted mujahideen training camps from Pakistan to Xinjiang.
During its invasion of Afghanistan, the US permitted Pakistan to air-evacuate a weak Pakistani division-sized force that had been assisting the Taliban. Pakistan brought along hundreds of Taliban and trained them to wage war in Afghanistan. The US assisted the rise of al-Qaeda and ISIS, subsequently fighting both, and yet reusing them when convenient.
Similarly, China has been supporting and arming Afghan Taliban to fight US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces, even providing military advisers. That is why Chinese commercial projects in Afghanistan face no security threat, while China also is also funding a military base and has raised and trained an Afghan Mountain Brigade in the Badakhshan region bordering Tajikistan and the Wakhan Corridor.
Taliban control is on the rise in Afghanistan with support from Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran. The economic mess in Pakistan doesn’t mean it will stop exporting terror. Most Afghans are desperate for better lives, jobs, education and ending the war with the Taliban, but bringing the Taliban around may remain a chimera.
Given their numbers and the extent of territorial control and support the Taliban have, they cannot be huddled into a corner and bombed into submission like the Sri Lankan army did to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
The Sino-US trade war has messed up the situation further. Chinese influence in Afghanistan is expanding, including on the economic front, whereas the US-NATO alliance has contributed little toward elevating Afghanistan’s economy. The People’s Liberation Army is present in civilian garb in Chinese projects in Afghanistan and in uniform under the pretext of counter-terror operations in eastern Afghanistan, and will shortly appear officially in the new Chinese military base in Afghanistan.
China is challenging the US at every opportunity, to firm up its global authority. Some compare Trump to Adolf Hitler, but his Chinese counterpart, having accumulated total power within China and militarization of South China Sea, is showing those traits. There is a prediction that the US and China will likely go to war in 15 years, but conflict may happen earlier – though not strictly “conventional.” Yet neither wants to fight it on its own territory.
Robert Kaplan wrote in his book The Revenge of Geography, “Pressure on land can help the United States thwart China at sea.” But the US appears unsure how even to deal with the Dragon’s nuclear talons, Pakistan and North Korea.
Meanwhile the irregular war will rage on in Afghanistan with the Taliban, Islamic State, Haqqanis and other Pakistan-based proxies milling around. Israeli Special Forces arriving in Afghanistan add to the party.
Two things appear certain – the Taliban may talk to humor the Americans but won’t change their current stance, and Afghanistan is in for continued instability in the foreseeable future unless the Taliban are given the reins of the country.