By Boris Volkhonsky
As reported by Reuters on Saturday, five Taliban detainees held at the U.S. Guantanamo Bay military prison have agreed to be transferred to Qatar.
The move, since long ago regarded as a prerequisite for talks between the Taliban and the U.S., is seen as a step forward by the U.S. authorities in their effort to negotiate a peace settlement in Afghanistan after the promised troop withdrawal in 2014, and to seal their influence in the country thereafter.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government welcomed the move. “We are hopeful this will be a positive step towards peace efforts,” Karzai’s spokesman Aimal Faizi told Reuters, adding the Taliban detainees would be re-united with their families in Qatar if the transfer takes place.
In another move, the U.S. has agreed to transfer the control of its main prison in Afghanistan located in Bagram to the Afghan army. The 3,000 Afghan prisoners held there will be gradually transferred to Afghan custody over six months, and US forces will provide “technical and logistical support” for a further six months.
In fact, what seems like a series of goodwill gestures on the part of the Americans is only a series of forced moves in a lose-lose situation the U.S. and its NATO allies have found themselves in after a decade -long military campaign.
The total negligence of and disrespect for the Afghans’ aspirations has led to a situation when there are no longer any positive moves in the U.S. arsenal. Urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban fighters, burning copies of Koran have alienated and infuriated the Afghans to the extent that no one except the puppet government is ready to endure the Western military presence any longer.
The dilemma is, whether to fulfill the promises made by Barack Obama and withdraw the troops no later than 2014 (and hence, risk that the extremists will gain full control over the country), or sacrifice several more hundreds or thousands of American lives and billions of dollars in order to prolong the stay for a couple more years with the same inevitable end.
In this situation the U.S. is drastically looking for new proxies who could retain their control over the country. It became obvious a long time ago that Hamid Karzai, once the Western troops step out of the country, will not be able to last any longer than the former Communist rulers after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
There are only two options – a war of everyone against all, or the Taliban’s accession to the supreme power. The U.S. has apparently made their choice in favor of the lesser of the two evils. And in order to appease the Taliban, they are now ready to sacrifice an unlimited number of pawns.
Still, it seems highly doubtful that the recent sacrifices could wipe away the memories of the decade-long history of crimes against humanity committed by the U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan. The choice of Qatar as a compromise site for Guantanamo detainees is speaking for itself. The Persian Gulf monarchy is one of the staunchest U.S. allies in the Middle East, and it is highly unlikely that the transfer of the detainees there (even if it takes place, which is not yet certain) will change much in terms of their conditions. And if this becomes obvious to the Taliban leadership, it will definitely not be satisfied, and the prospect of peace talks will once again be pended.
As many commentators ask, why should the Taliban be willing to negotiate anything with the Americans if their withdrawal (and hence, the ultimate Taliban victory) seem inevitable?
There only one answer. The moves demonstrated by Obama’s administration are primarily meant for consumption not in Afghanistan, but elsewhere. One of the addressees is the NATO – Obama drastically needs to demonstrate some political progress by the time of the Alliance summit in May. The other one is the American public – to ensure re-election it is a must for Obama to demonstrate that he is keeping his promises, even if it means the de-facto recognition that the war in Afghanistan is lost.
But this may backfire. Obama’s Republican challengers almost unanimously demand stricter military measures against the Taliban, and have the capacity of mobilizing the public opinion in favor of the prolonged anti-terrorist campaign. But that would only mean that Obama’s attempts to sacrifice pawns will lead from a zugzwang to a checkmate of his whole Middle East policy.
Boris Volkhonsky, senior research fellow, Russian Institute for Strategic Studies