There is a backlash in the Washington Beltway against President Trump’s resolve to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. Yet, Trump’s Oval Office remarks on Tuesday underscored that he finds continued involvement of US military in Afghanistan, basically performing the role of policemen, too “ridiculous” for words.
Trump’s critics are scaring him by resuscitating the memories of 9/11 attacks. To quote Senator Lindsey Graham, “A bad agreement puts the radical Islamist movement all over the world on steroids. Be smart, take your time, and listen to your national security team.”
Graham added later in a tweet that the US must have a “robust counter-terrorism force with intel capable no matter what the Taliban demands in order to protect the USA.”
These sceptics echo opinions of the US security and defence establishment who have also been arguing for continued military presence in Afghanistan and counter-terror operations.
All sorts of interest groups — Afghan as well as American — have joined hands to mount this rearguard offensive against the agreement with the Taliban that US negotiators have painstakingly reached at the Doha talks.
However, the good part is that Trump’s remarks on Tuesday testify to his grasp of the issues involved. Being a smart politician, he cannot risk another terror plot against America being hatched in Afghanistan under his watch.
‘We’ll always have someone there’
So, he plays it safe by agreeing that “we’ll always have intelligence, and we’ll always have somebody there [in Afghanistan].” Having said that, Trump probably understands as well that all this is actually a shadow play by vested interests.
In his remarks on Tuesday, Trump actually said: “If the Taliban were — were really right in what they’re saying, they would stop that [surge of terrorism] from happening. Because they could stop that from happening very easily.”
It not only takes gumption but a deep understanding of what motivates the Taliban for Trump to make such a remark.
Trump was spot on in his assessment that the Taliban has the capability to ensure that Afghanistan doesn’t again become a revolving door for international terrorist groups. What he implied, perhaps, was that the US must make an offer at Doha that the Taliban cannot afford to reject.
Pakistan is also keen to bring to a close the massive enterprise of the past four decades to create “strategic depth” in Afghanistan (vis-a-vis India) and declare Mission Accomplished. A new matrix has appeared with China’s Belt and Road, which demands the stabilisation of Afghanistan.
Nonetheless, Trump won’t take chances. He accepts that “We are bringing some of our troops back. But we have to have a presence.”
In reality, though, it is a preposterous thought that another 9/11 can be staged from Afghanistan. The vast improvement in communication technology alone makes operation in remote, distant and landlocked Afghanistan no longer a strategic benefit for terrorists plotting transnational attacks, as John Glaser, the director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, recently pointed out.
Glaser rightly flagged that there is “an entirely different dynamic” today, as compared to 2000-01. The principal terror threat comes from a small group, which calls itself the Islamic State Khorasan, or ISK.
Now, Taliban regards ISK as posing an existential threat to it and has been doggedly fighting this group on the battlefield. To be sure, Taliban will never tolerate the ISK group gaining ascendancy, leave alone take over.
Suffice to say, the smart thing to do will be for the US to co-opt the Taliban as its key ally to decimate the ISK.
There are critics galore in such situations when a war has gone on for almost two decades. But the choice ultimately narrows down to ending the war or keeping it open-ended for uncertain gains.
Western assistance needed
Trump should make an offer at the Doha talks that Taliban cannot resist. The Taliban is willing to make concessions provided that the US leaves Afghanistan so that their mission is accomplished.
The US’ main trump card is that any future Taliban regime in Afghanistan will be in critical need of western assistance and international legitimacy.
Equally, the US should offer a full-bodied relationship to Pakistan that makes it a stakeholder in regional security and peace. Pakistan’s influence on the Taliban leadership is immense.
Above all, despite the cold war conditions in world politics today, when it comes to Afghanistan, a congruence of interests is available among regional states as regards the stabilisation of Afghanistan. No regional state is likely to play the role of “spoiler”.
China is in a position to leverage its influence on the Taliban leadership and Pakistan. And from all indications, Beijing is lending a hand to encourage the peace talks at Doha.
Countries such as Russia, India and Iran may keep sulking for a while, chaffed at their marginalisation. Russia feels ignored; India doesn’t like Pakistan’s centrality; while Iran has to cope with the the standoff with the US.
But their rhetoric does not reflect their policies. None of these three regional states has anything to gain by torpedoing a settlement in Afghanistan if it can provide peace and stability, simply because the US mentored it.
The bottom line is that these are also countries that prioritise their own relationship with the US.
Craved international acceptance
Finally, the Taliban too has diversified external relations today. Even in the late nineties, Taliban had craved for international acceptance.
If only the US had accepted Pakistan’s advice and established a relationship with the regime in Kabul, the subsequent history of the region would have been very different.
People tend to overlook that the Taliban regime got along well with the American oil major Unocal. The signs continue to be that the Taliban will accept help from all quarters for the Afghan reconstruction — be it Iran, Russia or India.
A Taliban delegation led by Mullah Baradar which visited Tashkent recently expressed disappointment that the Uzbek projects in northern Afghanistan, sponsored by the Kabul government, are making tardy progress.
Suffice to say, Trump’s instincts are sound insofar as the conditions have never been as favourable as today to reach a settlement with the Taliban and end the war.