By Arun Anand
This is the 26th part of the 30-part series on the Taliban. You can share your feedback at [email protected]. Here is the 26th part-
By 2010, many decision makers and analysts started pressing for negotiations with the Taliban as they felt that the war with the Taliban could prove to be an unending one. Thus, the US started reluctantly looking beyond war as an option even as in a significant move, Afghan President Hamid Karzai set up an Afghan Peace Council in 2010 to coordinate the efforts to reach out to senior Taliban figures. Initially, the Obama administration in US let Afghan President handle this move to negotiate with the Taliban. But things moved at an extremely slow pace not yielding any concrete results. The Taliban refused to negotiate with Karzai government as it didn’t want to provide it legitimacy. It had already termed Karzai and his government as the puppets of the west.
Even as the efforts were on to push forward these talks, Burhanuddin Rabbani, the 71-year-olf former Afghan President who led the peace council was killed by a suicide bomber who claimed to have brought a ‘message’ to Rabbani from Taliban. This was a big jolt to the efforts to start talks with the Taliban.
Undeterred by these developments, however, US diplomats continued with efforts to have backchannel communications with the Taliban leadership. As a part of these efforts Washington supported Qatar government to grant permission to the Taliban to open their political office in Qatar.
The intention apparently was to provide Taliban leaders a neutral location where Afghan and US representatives could hold talks with them. But Taliban after having its pound of flesh, ditched the US as t refused to hold preliminary talks with the US representatives. The Taliban charged the US for not meeting the pre-condition of releasing Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay.
The Afghan government distrusted the Qatari back-channel because it feared losing control over negotiations. Ryan Crocker, who served as US ambassador to Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012, said he warned the State Department officials that they risked alienating Karzai by endorsing the Taliban’s presence in Qatar, but they didn’t listen. Hamid Karzai was just incensed over the whole think. An attempt by the US officials to restart talks the following year blew up again before they got very far. In June 2013, the Taliban, finally opened their office in Qatar. But the group also raised a flag and banner advertising the premises as the home of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan-the old name of the Taliban government. The action antagonized Karzai who saw it as in-your face attempt by the Taliban to win diplomatic recognition. He halted the nascent negotiations with the Taliban and refused to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States that the Obama administration had been pushing. With the number of US troops in Afghanistan dwindling, the Taliban felt less urgency to rekindle talks unless the terms suited them.1
The Taliban held another advantage: a US prisoner of war. In 2009, insurgents captured Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after he wandered away from a US military base in eastern Afghanistan. The Pentagon had been trying to get him back for years, but the Taliban was driving a hard bargain. It demanded the release of Taliban leaders from Guantanamo. After painstaking negotiations brokered by Qatar in May 2014, the Obama administration finally agreed to release five Guantanamo inmates who had held senior roles in the Afghan government during the years of Taliban rule. In exchange the Taliban freed Bergdahl in a carefully orchestrated handover with US Special Forces at a remote rendezvous in eastern Afghanistan. At first the Obama administration celebrated the deal as a diplomatic breakthrough and hoped it might lead to further talks with the Taliban. But Republicans in Congress blasted the release of the Taliban prisoners and accused Obama of endangering US national security…The political backlash killed off any chance of a further rapprochement for the rest of Obama’s tenure. For the next four years, unabated warfare consumed Afghanistan and crushed the tepid attempts to make peace.2
By 2018, the fighting escalated to a new level. The casualties, especially those of civilians, soared. The Afghan security forces were now on forefront on the ground fighting the Taliban even as the US warplanes kept on dropping record number of bombs.
In February 2018, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (who had taken over the reins from Hamid Karzai) tried to break this stalemate and restart the negotiations with the Taliban. He offered to hold unconditional peace talks and also showed readiness to recognize the Taliban as a political party. The Taliban, however, refused the offer saying it preferred to hold negotiations directly with Americans.
Four months later Ghani declared that his government would observe a unilateral ceasefire to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan. The Taliban relented this time and for three days both the sides observed a truce. After 2001, it had happened for the first time that both sides had put down their weapons, even though, for a brief period. Though the fighting resumed after three-day period, the Trump administration in US took advantage of this moment and authorized, for the first time, high-level talks with the Taliban.
In July, 2018, a senior US diplomat Alice Wells, held a preliminary meeting with The Taliban in leaders in Qatar. In a major concession to the insurgents, officials from Ghani government were excluded from the meeting. Soon after, the Trump administration called Zalmay Khalilzad, the veteran Afghan-American diplomat, back into public service to lead the negotiations with the Taliban. Khalilzad dove in. He met with Taliban im Qatar in October. Days later he persuaded the government of Pakistan to release the Taliban’s deputy emir, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.3
In September 2019, when the members of Congress reacted strongly when they came to know that Trump had invited Taliban leaders to Camp David to sign an accord. Trump declared talks with the Taliban were “dead’.
However, as the dust settled down after this brief political storm, Khalilzad resumed negotiations with the Taliban and on February 29, 2020, the two sides signed an agreement to end the war.
The Trump administration pledged to withdraw US troops in stages, with all forces leaving by May 2021, and to press for the release of 5000 Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government. The Taliban promised to begin direct negotiations with Ghani’s regime and provided assurances that Afghanistan would not be used to launch attacks on the United States. But the accord was fraught with gray areas, contingencies and unresolved issues. After dragging their feet for several months, representatives of Afghan government and the Taliban finally met in September 2020 in Qatar for official talks. But fighting continued apace as the Taliban pressed for the military advantage. Pentagon officials lobbied Trump to slow down or postpone the US troop withdrawal. But after Trump lost his bid for reelection, he ordered the military to reduce the number of US forces in Afghanistan to 2500 by the end of his term in January,2021. That marked the smallest US troop presence since December 2001, back when Afghanistan seemed like a manageable, short-term challenge. 4
Whitlock says in ‘The Afghanistan Papers’, “Like Bush and Obama, Trump failed to make good on hid promise to prevail in Afghanistan to bring what he mocked as ‘the forever war’ to completion. Instead, he handed the unfinished campaign to his political rival Joseph Biden, (who defeated Trump in polls to become) the fourth commander in chief to oversee the longest armed conflict in the American history.”
Interesting during Bush administration, Biden had called for sending more troops to Afghanistan but as vice president to Obama, he started taking an about turn. Whitlock says,” Biden had grown skeptical of what the United States could accomplish there.”
Biden became US President in January 2021. On April 14, Biden announced his decision. In a speech from the Treaty Room of the White House, he promised to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021-the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.5
The Taliban, had shrewdly, not sealed any deal with the Afghan government by that time. It seized the opportunity and, in a blitzkrieg, captured the power by mid-August 2021, forcing Ghani to flee and his government to collapse even as the last of the US troops left the country. On August 15, 2021, Taliban was formally back in Kabul, ruling Afghanistan again.
(To be continued)
- The Afghanistan Papers by Craig Whitlock (Pp270)
- The Afghanistan Papers by Craig Whitlock (Pp270-271)
- The Afghanistan Papers by Craig Whitlock (Pp272)
- The Afghanistan Papers by Craig Whitlock (Pp273)
- The Afghanistan Papers by Craig Whitlock (Pp274)