/ December 8, 2019
By John J. Metzler
UNITED NATIONS — President Donald Trump put Afghanistan back in the news again after his surprise Thanksgiving visit to U.S. troops stationed in the embattled South Asian country.
Besides bringing holiday cheer for American forces serving in the eighteen-year long conflict, the President again offered a conditional olive branch to the Taliban insurgents.
After a meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Donald Trump in his classic style stated, “The Taliban wants to make a deal, we’ll see if they make a deal.” He added, “If they do, they do, if they don’t, they don’t. That’s fine.”
The President’s broad brush offer to resume long-stalled negotiations with the Taliban militants while offering more style than substance, addressed one of Donald Trump’s key objectives, indeed campaign promises; winding down the Afghanistan commitment and reducing America’s military footprint.
U.S. forces have been in Afghanistan since late 2001, when George W. Bush, in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks on America, intervened militarily to crush the Al Qaida network and topple their Taliban regime protectors.
Yet. eighteen years later the ousted Islamic Taliban militants still control large swaths of the country, the central government in Kabul is hopelessly dependent of foreign aid and troops, corruption flows rampant, and “the security situation remains volatile,” to quote a recent UN report.
“The war in Afghanistan has been long and brutal, and the path to peace will be challenging,” adds the report by the UN Secretary General.
Approximately 12,500 American troops are still serving in the war weary land with 8,500 of them specifically part of a multinational NATO operation <em>Resolute Support</em>. Mission strength stands at 17,000 troops largely from the USA, Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy. Many American troops are deployed in a train, advise and assist mission to the Afghan army.
President Trump apparently wants to reduce overall American force strength by about 4,000.
Last week in the Security Council an Australian delegate stated, “There is no military solution to the conflict. Dialogue and negotiation are the only path to a permanent settlement…We condemn the Taliban’s ongoing use of violence. We are disappointed that the Taliban continues to resist direct talks with the Afghan government.”
Afghanistan’s UN Ambassador Adela Raz stated, “On the security situation, the Taliban and the other transnational terrorist groups have continued be relentless and violent to create terror and fear.” The other “transnational groups” include Islamic State and Al-Qaida terrorists who continue to sow hideous violence in Afghan cities.
As the Afghan delegate stressed, “Fighting terrorism is the basis of our critical partnership with the United States and our NATO partners, one to which Afghanistan remains firmly committed.”
Afghanistan remains a frazzled quilt of tribes, ethnicities and warlords more than what we would understand as a formal nation state. Nonetheless, over the past fifteen years the country of 38 million has assumed the trappings of modernity with regular elections for Parliament and the Presidency, notably expanded freedoms for women, and rebuilt infrastructure. Yet entrenched corruption and a lucrative narcotics trade bedevils what positive strides have been made.
A UN Report concedes, “Despite some progress, corruption remains a pernicious challenge in Afghanistan, diverting valuable resources from where they are needed most and eroding public confidence in State institutions.” Corruption particularly affects the National Police.
So what about an long elusive political settlement? Peace negotiations have continued but not inside the country. Some Taliban factions want to settle; but the gap between “tribal nationalist insurgents” vs “Islamic fundamentalist internationalists” remains deep.
Terrorists inside Afghanistan; such as Islamic State and Al Qaida clearly are not part of any domestic solution. Taliban would be wise to distance themselves from these foreign forces.
Notably there’s the surreptitious role Pakistan has long played in its bordering country. Factions in the Pakistan military such as the secret military parallel government the ISI have used the Taliban as a cross border cat’s paw to advance Pakistani interests. Now that Pakistan has a reasonably forward looking government with Prime Minister Imran Khan, it’s time overdue for Washington to press for a deal here first.
President Trump is absolutely right to insist that a serious ceasefire must preclude peace negotiations; naturally Islamic State and Al Qaida will deliberately try to sabotage the peace process through brutal terrorist attacks throughout the country.
Then Taliban must talk directly with the Kabul government with whom it must ultimately settle.
For the USA it would be rash and shortsighted to set any phased withdrawals from Afghanistan until the situation has seriously stabilized. That will still take time.
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014).
Free Press International