When President Donald Trump last year announced a new strategy for south Asia, many in Afghanistan saw it as a much required policy change of the American presence in Afghanistan.
President Trump at that time said, “Conditions on the ground — not arbitrary timetables — will guide our strategy from now on,”. “America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out.” But this year it looks like views in the White House are fundamentally changed.
It is merely because President Trump never had any interest in presence of American troops in Afghanistan. When President Trump detailed his Afghanistan strategy last summer, he described his approach as a retreat from nation-building in favor of what he called“ principled realism”. He said, “My original instinct was to pull out and, historically, I like following my instincts”, “But all my life I have heard that decision are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.”
In 2016 campaign, President Trump frequently questioned the nation’s improvement in Afghanistan, at one point describing it as “, a complete waste.”
The fact however remains that pulling the American troops out of Afghanistan was one of President Trump’s campaign promise, therefore he has been desperately waiting to find out a reasonable way to negotiate an exit strategy to windup the longest war of American history.
The decision to withdraw the U.S. troops from Afghanistan came abruptly after the decision of President Trump to withdraw the U.S. troops from Syria. Initially President Trump ordered a reduction of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan i.e. more than 7,000 which makes about half of the total number of the U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but it looks like President Trump eventually wants to withdraw all of its troops or leave only a small number of forces.
Whatever might be the decision under the right circumstances, American troops reduction will be a boon to peace talks and a demonstration to the Taliban that the U.S. administration is willing to do what is needed to end the bloody war in Afghanistan by a peace deal.
President Trump in his Tweet declared: “after historic victories against ISIS, it’s time to bring our great young people home!” This declaration of President Trump instantly exposed the American political divide as many politicians rallied to voice their opinion regardless of the partisan views. Republican senator Lindsey Graham claimed he had been “blindsided” by the sudden announcement, while Democrat Nancy Pelosi said the decision was based on “personal or political objectives” as opposed to “genuine national security interests”.
While President Trump decision to withdraw troops from Syria was largely criticized by the critics, his decision about Syria was the right thing to do. I argue that his decision to negotiate an exit from Afghanistan is also the right thing to do to end the America’s longest war. But the real question is how to negotiate an exit strategy which won’t jeopardize the achievements of 18 years in Afghanistan as well as safeguard the mutual interests of Afghanistan and the U.S.? The potential peace deal must also mitigate the risk of Afghanistan becoming back a safe haven for international terrorists and also eliminate the chances of conventional radical government of Taliban.
The Afghan war is one of the most costly wars in the recent years around the world. In one estimate approx. US$1.6 trillion is spent on the war and reconstruction in Afghanistan. But unfortunately majority of the analysts all over the world argue that the U.S. has failed in Afghanistan due to their own policy and tactical miscalculations. And, one of the key strategic flaws of the U.S. was ignoring double game, treachery and deceits of Pakistan for more than a decade.
According to the US Department of Defense, 2,216 American soldiers have been killed in action in Afghanistan and more than 20,000 wounded since 2001.Add to this 28,529 Afghan security personnel killed in Taliban attacks, cross-fights and “collateral damage” since 2015. An estimated 2,798 civilians killed and 5,252 others wounded in countrywide attacks this year, according to UN.
Reports suggest Taliban control more territory than at any point since the removal of their regime 17 years ago. It is worth to mention that, after 2014 when foreign troops shifted their mission from combating Taliban to support, train and advise the Afghan force and the responsibility of battlefields were solely given to Afghans forces, there has been a rapid increase in the number of Afghan forces causalities. It is mainly because after 2014, only Afghan forces are fighting the terrorists in the battlefields. Afghan statistics show even a high number of deaths during the last five years.
These figures show that there must be an end to this costly and bloody war.
In meantime President Trump is not only worried about approx. 50 Billion spending per annum on Afghan war but also because apparently there are very limited tangible achievements of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and no prideful victory for Americans to take home at the end of the day.
After testing so many different approaches, now there is a solid national, regional and international consensus that Afghan conflict and war can’t be won by a mere military interventions. Almost all the sides think that the best solution for ending the conflicts in Afghanistan is an inclusive and viable political solution.
President Trump in his State of The Union speech said, “I have also accelerated our negotiations to reach a political settlement in Afghanistan. Our troops have fought with unmatched valor — and thanks to their bravery, we are now able to pursue a political solution to this long and bloody conflict.”
While President Trump from the beginning has been in cognitive dissonance regarding Afghanistan and has made a series of gaffes that had made the headlines but nevertheless his speech regarding Afghanistan in the State of Union is a clear statement in the favor of a political solution for Afghan war.
While peace talks are welcomed by all Afghans, the political playing sides in the equation of Afghanistan have been expanded. From one side, the Russian government is trying to exploit the Afghan political oppositions to sabotage the U.S. peace process and possibly overthrow the Afghan government and from the other side, Pakistan still has a dream of supporting Taliban or Mujahideen to establish a weak, under-controlled and pro-Islamabad regime in Afghanistan; by Taliban or Mujahideen.
There are also allegations on Iranian government supporting the Taliban forces. The recent conference held in Moscow where Afghan demagogue warlords and failed opposition leaders were invited to talks with Taliban about peace in Afghanistan, was a clear signal for the U.S. government that Russians are no more cooperating with the U.S and they will be playing a major role in Afghanistan.
If the U.S. government doesn’t understand the regional dynamics of peace, the chances are pretty high that they will face similar defeat like the U.S.S.R. has experienced in Afghanistan. That is why, it is significant to listen to President Ashraf Ghani as he rightly said in the World Economic Forum of 2019 that a peace deal without considering regional dynamics of peace will be vulnerable to chaos.
While the U.S. government lately shown interest to include countries like India, China, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Iran in the peace process, they were certainly failed to convince Pakistan and Taliban regarding this inclusion. India which should be playing a balancing role is literally out of the game and Iran and Russia are trying to play their own game at their own discretion. While European Union, UN and other humanitarian agencies may play a crucial role in the peace process of Afghanistan, it is seems to they are also isolated by the U.S. This is an example of major strategic and policy failure of the U.S.
But the real question about peace in Afghanistan is what should be the tenets on which the U.S. and Afghan government should negotiate a deal with Taliban which must ensure that the genuine national security interest of the U.S. and Afghanistan are met and meanwhile the chances of Afghanistan going back to war or to Taliban radical government is eliminated? It is specifically an important question because studies on peace show that if peace deals are not vigilantly negotiated, there is a high chance of failure. Therefore only a long lasting peace not a temporary peace must be sought for the solution.
I believe the U.S. government should at least take the following into account while reaching across the aisle with Taliban:
Hurry spoils the Curry
The first principle to consider for negotiating a peace deal in a failed state like Afghanistan is tolerance. A peace deal in hurry must not be something that the U.S. government should strive for. Most of the studies on peace show that any peace deals negotiated in hurry is most likely to be failed. A number of analysis show that without achieving a long lasting and comprehensive peace deal, Afghanistan is likely to go back to even more deadlier internal war. Some analysis shows that even the foreign troops stay or go, the prospect of peace in Afghanistan will remain as distant as ever before.
Therefore, considering these factors, it is perfectly essential to exercise patience and to wait a little longer but at the end of the day; achieve something worthy. President Ashraf Ghani in his speech in World Economic Forum 2019 rightly highlighted the importance of reaching a long lasting peace rather than negotiating a peace deal that is temporary. He has published a paper in 2009 where he has given examples of hundreds of peace deals that couldn’t succeed because of the fact that these were negotiated in hurry.
Cook the curry by all and then divide it among them
Getting to yes in the case of Afghanistan will require a high degree of involving different groups and sides. If the U.S. government wants a long lasting peace, they have to cook the curry by all the sides and then divide it among different sides in a selective political manner; after thoroughly understanding the power sharing dynamics in Afghanistan. While dividing pieces of cheese among different groups, it should be remembered that a proper balance is the key to sharing power in Afghanistan. It is important that no group or party should be excluded in the process of getting to a peace deal. Proper strategy and mechanisms should be adopted to ensure equity and inclusiveness during the peace process.
Full Withdrawal of all the U.S. Troops
The single most important thing, I believe, can immediately change the war dynamics in Afghanistan, is the complete withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Afghanistan. It is because most Afghans are xenophobic about the U.S. forces presence in Afghanistan.
A complete withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Afghanistan will not only largely reduce the cost of war for the U.S. government, but it will also eliminate religious legitimacy of Taliban to fight against the Afghan government. It is because the Taliban and a major portion of Afghans think that Afghanistan is invaded and occupied by the U.S. government, therefore they often hesitate to fully support the government. Hence agreeing on a timeline for withdrawal of the troops will be effective in reaching to a peace deal.
However, the withdrawal of the U.S. forces shouldn’t mean that no American should work with the Afghan government. In fact Afghanistan needs American support in all the levels. Hence, there should be a small number of U.S. Advisors to help, train and advise Afghans in various areas of governance. It is very vital that the U.S. should remain a strong ally and partner of Afghanistan for a longer period.
The U.S. BATNA in negotiations with Taliban
BATNA is the term coined by Roger Fisher and William Ury in their bestseller book of 1981, “Getting to Yes”. BATNA means the best you can do if the other person/group refuses to negotiate with you or it is the best you can do without them. When you analyze the circumstance in Afghanistan, the BATNA for the U.S. in the peace talks with Taliban is pretty unfavorable or in other words we can perhaps say that the U.S. has no better BATNA except to agree on a peace deal.
The BATNA for the U.S. is to continue its presence in Afghanistan and choose to fight the Taliban until they are totally destroyed and eliminated. But, looking at 18 years of war history in Afghanistan, this seems to be quite difficult and costly if not impossible. If the U.S. chooses to continue war, it will not only cost them billions of dollars and hundreds of lives, but will also put their international leadership and hegemony at stake. It will also lead to a more deadly war in Afghanistan. Therefore, the best option for the U.S. government is to negotiate a reasonable exit strategy and wind up their longest war by a viable political solution.
Taliban Government isn’t a Solution?
When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan their main commitment and mission was to eradicate global terrorists that caused 9/11, overthrow the Taliban government, found a democracy in Afghanistan and ensure Afghanistan achieve stable and efficient economy. After 18 years of war so much has been done in Afghanistan, Afghanistan today is by no mean comparable to Afghanistan under the Taliban reign.
The dynamics have been fundamentally changed in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is now one of the most progressive states in the South Asia. The composition of Afghanistan’s population is now different by number, gender and age. Afghanistan is one of the youngest nations in the world and these youth have grown up under the roof of progressive democracy.
Today, there are more women in the parliament of Afghanistan than in the U.S. congress. Millions of girls are going to school and women are proudly working everywhere including public, private and non-profit sector. These changes simply can lead us to one major conclusion that Afghans will not accept a conventional Taliban government where even basic human rights were not granted. Therefore, thinking of surrendering to Taliban to establish their 1400s old ideological government in Afghanistan of 2019 is, not only a monstrous strategic mistake, but if even such a government is formed, it will not survive for six months. So, the U.S. government should understand that a conventional Taliban government can’t be an option or solution.
Isolating Afghan Government is a dreadful strategic mistake
When the surprise announcement of rapid U.S. troops withdrawal from Afghanistan was declared by President Trump, many of the Afghan government leaderships got shocked. Because they were thinking that the south Asia strategy was the one applicable on the ground. For many in Afghan government this rapid strategic change quickly turned to a sense of betrayal. Not only Afghans, but also some of the most senior American officials working for a peace deal felt undermined.
President Ashraf Ghani in his recent interview with Fareed Zakaria of CNN showed his concern over the secret peace deal and said,” There is discussion, but the discussion needs to be shared back. A discussion that does not involve the region will not last. Afghanistan has national dimensions, neighborhood dimensions, the regional dimension, from India to Russia, the Gulf, Islamic and international. If we don’t get all the pieces right, one piece alone doesn’t suffice.”
He is right, if we are not able to get the consensus at national, regional and international level, the potential peace will be highly fragile. While many think that President Ghani is unnecessarily acting like an obstacle in reaching a peace deal with Taliban, but in reality it is the opposite.
President Ghani as a contemporary theorist by studying history of peace in the world knows that a rapid peace deal by compromising national dignity and constitutional values isn’t a wise solution to end Afghan conflict and war. It is particularly true in the case of Afghanistan because a similar deal was brokered by Benon Sevan who was then, the head of the UN’s humanitarian aid division to Afghanistan with Mujahideen and President Najibulalh. This deal wasn’t only failed, but ended up in killing of the President Najibullah and rise of devastating internal war which literally destroyed the entire infrastructure of Afghanistan and resulted in killing of at least 65000 Afghans; just in Kabul.
Doubting President Ghani’s intention regarding peace is a dreadful strategic mistake. Not to forget that this was President Ghani who has been lobbying the agenda of peace with Taliban and brought the agenda of peace to international platform. He was the one who announced the historic unconditional ceasefire with Taliban and similarly he was the one who negotiated a peace deal with Gulbadeen Hikmatyar.
In his latest exclusive interview with Tolo News President Ghani said, “Not only my chair, I can even scarify my life for attainment of peace in Afghanistan, but being a president I have to be sure about the content of the peace deal.”
He said,“the solution is not a temporary peace but a long lasting and stable peace which can ensure our dignity, values and national interest is safeguarded” Hence, doubting his will on peace is committing a huge mistake.
Ashraf Ghani as the elect president of Afghanistan absolutely has the right to take a careful and correct decision for his nation. He is representing the entire nation so he can’t simply say ‘yes’ to whatever has been cooked by the U.S. and Taliban in locked doors. If he doesn’t have the right to negotiate with Taliban then who should have that right? He is the custodian of Afghanistan national interests. He is responsible and accountable for the future of Afghanistan, hence he has every right to accept or reject any deal. Therefore, he should be allowed to exercise his constitutional authority and perform his job.
Surprisingly while some American might think that President Ghani is losing people base in Afghanistan because of its failure in ending war, he has recently mobilized more people and popularity than ever before; especially after standing firm against the radical and anti- Afghanistan terms of Taliban.
President Ghani though couldn’t do much to end the war, he brought the kind of reforms in Afghanistan that are needed to build a modern state in Afghanistan. His international policies have been unique and undeniably beneficial, his creative economic reforms proved to be reviving the economy, and turning the corner. His economic policies and projects are creating a new hope for attainment of stable, efficient and self-sufficient economy in the long run, his policies to isolate tribal leaders and warlords is highly welcomed by entire nation. Because putting an end to warlordism, feudalism and traditional political structure is considered by Afghans as a much needed thing to fix Afghanistan. His reforms in bringing youth in power and giving them high public positions is laying down the strong foundation for the bright future of Afghanistan. His policies of boosting appointment of educated women in key governmental positions can be considered as a major achievement for democracy and women rights in Afghanistan. Therefore, any effort to undermine the Afghan government especially President Ghani will be a major strategic mistake by the U.S. government.
Ambassador Khalizad is looking for a shortcut
Ambassador Khalilzad is no doubt one of the best U.S. experts in the politics of Middle East and Asia. He has done such a great job in negotiating a peace deal with Taliban, but it seems that he is looking for a shortcut to the U.S. troops exit from Afghanistan. He might be under pressure of the Washington but it isn’t the right thing to do for Afghanistan. He must not do something which will put Afghanistan’s future at stake. The U.S. government should realize that a short term solution isn’t worthy at all.
Negotiable and Non-negotiable things
In the process of getting to peace deal, there are some negotiable and some non-negotiable things. For example you can agree on the U.S. forces withdrawal from Afghanistan but you can’t handover the entire government to Taliban, for establishment the conventional Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Similarly, you can agree on amending the constitution law for a peace deal, but not agree on amending the main pillars and values of Afghanistan constitution and so on.
Therefore I think the U.S. demands should be at least the following:
- 1. Taliban should not allow Afghanistan territory to become safe haven for international terrorists.
- 2. Taliban should accept a democratic government
- 3. Taliban should not implement Pakistan destabilizing agenda in the region
- 4. Taliban should not try to weaken or wind up Afghan forces or governmental establishments.
- 5. Taliban should go through Disarmament Demobilization and Reintegration(DDR) program.
When you analyze the latest standing and positions of so called Taliban delegates in Qatar and Moscow, one can easily understand that Taliban demands are not very costly. While Abas Stanikzai of Taliban previously talked about dissolving of Afghanistan National Army, today in the Moscow, he corrected himself and said Afghans should focus on reforms in Afghan forces.
The U.S. government should agree on:
- 1. Withdrawal of all American forces from Afghanistan
- 2. Getting Taliban out of International Terrorist List
- 3. Accepting Taliban as a legitimate political group
- 4. Minor Amendments in Constitution of Afghanistan
Upon exit of the U.S. troops, the U.S. government should agree to the following:
- 1. The U.S. government will remain ally and partner to Afghanistan
- 2. The U.S. government will support Afghanistan till achieving self-sufficiency.
- 3. The U.S. government should defend Afghanistan in the case of foreign military intervention.
- 4. The U.S. government should support Afghans in strengthening of democracy, women rights and economy.
- 5. The U.S. government should help Afghanistan national forces (Army, Police and National Directorate of Security) for the long term. They should enable them to form a regional level army.
To conclude, the U.S. government should understand that Afghanistan is their ally and partner, therefore they shouldn’t regard Afghanistan as a charity. They should understand that Afghans are fighting in the forefront of battlefield for the world and has been losing uncountable lives in fighting of global terrorists. It is important to mention that, the U.S. government is not in Afghanistan because of Afghans, but because of 9/11. The U.S. government should understand that all Afghans want to end this bloody, levied and proxy war, but there will be no time in the history of Afghanistan that Kabul will surrender to a radial government of Taliban under Pakistan’s leadership. I would like to put my last statement as below:
If a peace deal against the grassroots and silent majority of Afghans is negotiated by the U.S. government, in that case, Afghans will fight for their dignity and values with or without the U.S. government. I strongly believe that such move by the U.S. government will be considered as political suicide by the U.S.
*Zarif Aminyar is a professor and politician in Kabul, Afghanistan. He is an Alumni of Harvard and Columbia University. He can be reached via [email protected] or twitter @zarifaminyar