Strategically important throughout history, known as “the gateway to India”, Afghanistan has been fought over by foreign occupiers many times. At other times, and sometimes simultaneously, warring Afghan tribes have battled it out between themselves for power and control. The pattern persists even in 2019.
There has been an armed insurgency in Afghanistan over the past 18 years. It is being waged by the extremist Muslim organisation called the Taliban, and directed against coalition troops led by the US. A breakthrough aimed at ending the conflict seems to be within sight. Nine painstaking rounds of talks between the US and the Taliban over the past year appear to be resulting in an agreement. But as yet everything is still in the balance
In 1978 Afghanistan’s new secular pro-Soviet government – in power by way of a coup – was beset by an Islamist group known as the Mujahideen. Hafizulla Amin, the Afghan leader, sought the protection of the USSR. At his urgent request, the Soviet Union invaded. The subsequent guerrilla war lasted nearly ten years. In 1989 the USSR admitted defeat and withdrew.
During that decade of turmoil the Mujahideen morphed into an organization calling itself the Taliban, and as soon as the Russians had departed, it started on a military effort to seize control of the country. From the mid-1990s until 2001 the Taliban ruled Pashtun areas straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan, imposing an oppressively strict version of Sharia on the population. A second hard-line jihadist group, set up by Osama bin Laden, had emerged alongside the Taliban. It called itself al-Qaeda.
In its long struggle against the Soviet forces, the Taliban in thought to have received clandestine support from the US amounting to billions of dollars. If that is so, it is evidence of years of back-channel communication between the US and the Taliban – channels that re-surfaced earlier this year.
In the interim, however, US-Taliban relations ruptured. It was quickly established that the terrorist attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001 were the responsibility of the al-Qaeda movement, but the US was convinced that the Taliban was sheltering its master-mind, Osama bin Laden. As a result, shortly after 9/11 a US-led coalition invaded Afghanistan, and America embarked on its longest war.
In 2009 President Obama came into office pledging to end the US military role, but in his first few years he dramatically ramped up the US military presence in Afghanistan from a little over 30,000 to more than 100,000 troops. The plan was to cripple the Taliban, train the Afghan military, stabilize government and then withdraw the US forces.
It didn’t work. The Taliban actually gained ground, in part because of increased support from Pakistan, Russia and Iran. According to a December 2018 Congressional Research Service report, the “insurgents are now in control of or contesting more territory today than at any point since 2001.”
Coming into office in January 2017, President Donald Trump promised a quick win against the Taliban followed by the withdrawal of American troops. Later that year he changed tack, announcing an increase in troop levels to 14,000. What he did not disclose was that this was a first step in a strategy aimed at opening negotiations with the Taliban to try to reach a deal. It is entirely reasonable for Trump to be seeking an exit strategy from Afghanistan. The conflict has claimed the lives of more than 4,000 American military and civilian personnel.
In December 2018 the Taliban announced that they would meet with American negotiators in Qatar. On 25 February 2019 peace talks began, with the co-founder of the Taliban, Abdul Ghani Barada, at the table. They got off to a good start. Agreement was reached on a draft peace deal involving the withdrawal of US and international troops from Afghanistan, matched by an undertaking by the Taliban to prohibit other jihadist groups operating within the country.
Deadlock soon followed. Among other stumbling blocks was the Taliban’s refusal to negotiate with the Afghan government, which they regarded as a US puppet regime. But on September 2, 2019 Zalmay Khalilzad, head of the US negotiating team, revealed details of the long-awaited deal in a TV interview. The Taliban would guarantee that Afghanistan would never again be used as a base for militant groups seeking to attack the US and its allies, In exchange for the withdrawal of 5,400 of the 14,000 US troops. A pullout of the remaining forces would depend on conditions, including a ceasefire and the start of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
US officials say they have received a commitment from the Taliban that it will respect the country’s democratic constitution – one of the few tangible legacies of the allied intervention. But with the Taliban still engaged in military activity affecting Afghan civilians as much as US-backed forces, public support for a deal is tempered with a great deal of scepticism.
Many fear that it could see hard-won rights and freedoms eroded. The memory lingers of the strict religious laws imposed on the population, and the brutal treatment of women, when the Taliban ruled large areas from 1996 to 2001. President Ghani, in common with much of Afghan public opinion, knows that It would be an unmitigated disaster for Afghanistan if the outcome of any peace agreement was a resumption of the Taliban’s tyrannical rule.
The deal is being studied by Trump as well as Afghan president Ashraf Ghani. “When you sup with the devil,” runs the old adage, “be sure you use a long spoon.”