Since the American invasion of Kabul, much has changed in relation to the US ties with the South Asian region. New allies have been found, new enemies marked, and a whole new cadre of wheelers and dealers, experts and policy makers, generals and interlocutors have surfaced. Along with this, a new US administration, a new leadership of the Taliban and a new generation of Afghans struggling to get out of the rut have emerged.
The only thing that has not changed thus far, perhaps, is the US policy to engage with the belligerent Afghan Taliban. The US did break away from its strategy of pursuing dialogue to chase fighting on the ground for a short while, but characteristically jumped back to pursuing negotiations albeit without public knowledge. The continuous “talks for talks” initiative to find a path towards peace and stability in Afghanistan precedes the conflict that started seventeen years ago.
To use the words of historian Charles Beard form 1947, it also has become a “perpetual war for perpetual peace”.
The history of the US involvement in Afghanistan dictates that when the Taliban emerged in the early 1990s, the United States appeared reluctant to legitimise their take over. At first, Washington was not outrightly opposed to the Taliban either, considering that the group claimed to represent the predominant Pashtun population reacting against the lawlessness. Through various back-channels and then direct communication, American officials struggled to find a way to work with the Taliban. Soon they found out the group was not willing to allow any kind of freedoms and rights, particularly to women. That initially was the main stumbling block.
Despite these disagreements, the group also “liked the United States, had no objection to elections in Afghanistan, and were suspicious of both Saudi and Pakistani intentions,” according to Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official who had dealt with the Taliban. “This was nonsense, but it was manna for American diplomats who wanted to believe that engagement was possible,” Rubin says in his article published by the American Enterprise Institute in February 2010.
The sore and sole point of contention appeared when the Taliban refused to hand over, and instead provided full sanctuary to, the al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden who had moved from Sudan to Jalalabad.
First the senior Bush and later Clinton administrations remained in contact with the Taliban representatives through diplomats stationed in Pakistan. The Taliban hoping to score funding from the US and legitimacy in the eyes of the western world paddled back and forth. They’d come to deny sheltering al-Qaeda leader but later simply refused to dislodge Bin Laden claiming that his expulsion would violate Afghan culture.
Nonetheless, the American officials kept the lines of communication open and even pampered Taliban leaders, until Osama bin Laden attacked US ‘assets’ in Africa in mid 1998. The horrific act triggered Operation Infinite Reach which severely damaged al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. Bin Laden, however, got away.
In reaction, the Taliban founder and leader Mullah Omar himself telephoned Michael Malinowski, an official of the State Department’s Bureau of South Asian Affairs. “He told Malinowski that our air strikes had been counterproductive, that President Clinton should resign, and that US forces should vacate Saudi Arabia. Rejecting this malarkey, Malinoski pressed Omar to hand over bin Laden and proposed a formal dialogue. Omar agreed to talk,” according to Madeleine Albright, the former US Secretary of State, in her autobiography Madam Secretary.
Albright directed her staff to initiate a series of meetings with the Taliban leaders including Mullah Omar and then Taliban representative to the UN Abdul Hakim Mujahid. In such meaningless tete-a-tetes the Taliban were repeatedly told that Bin laden was a terrorist and should not be provided sanctuary. The Taliban leaders did not say no; but also offered a menu of lame excuses, says Albright in her memoir. The Taliban had the same rundown response that it would violate cultural etiquettes to mistreat the beneficiary of their hospitality and that bin Laden was a hero to the Afghans because of his 1980s’ anti-Soviet role.
Clinton’s team did not lose hope in dialogue and apparently at some point even called off the CIA’s proposals to assassinate Bin Laden. The then US Ambassador to Pakistan, William Milam met with his Afghan counterpart, Abdul Salam Zaeef and with Molvi Wakil Ahmed in Islamabad to convince them, and provide them evidence of OBL’s culpability. Milam also shared intelligence information suspecting another attack from al-Qaeda, and warned that the group would be held accountable for any future terrorist actions traceable to bin Laden.
During all that time when the US was anxious and the Taliban kept stonewalling all negotiations, OBL was planning the 9/11 attacks. Pakistan was in the middle siding with the group because of countless sanctions imposed by the Congress. Ambassador Milam told me that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during an official visit to the Clinton White House proposed that “US intelligence agencies work with the Pakistani army to create some sort of a commando force that would go in and get Osama.” This never matured.
George W. Bush administration, realising that the Taliban were stalling and wasting time, halted engagement attempts, even after Abdul Wakil Muttawakil, the Taliban Foreign Minister, requested to restart talks.
The next round of major and open talk invitation commenced almost a decade later. By then bin Laden had hit America, al-Qaeda had been dismantled and degraded, and the Taliban government was overthrown; but its members had gradually regrouped, resulting in a bloody insurgency where thousands of Afghans had succumbed to violence, and the coalition forces were scrambling desperately to leave the country.
Now that OBL was out of the picture, the only other reason to begin talks with the Taliban was to stop violence, bring stability in the country and end the long tiring war. A major element of this, of course, was the elimination of terrorist threats out of Afghanistan. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who led the Af-Pak strategy as Special Representative, suggested to begin initial talks that could lead to meaningful negotiations. The Obama administration’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton backed him up stating, “I know that reconciling with an adversary that can be as brutal as the Taliban sounds distasteful, even unimaginable. And diplomacy would be easy if we only had to talk to our friends. But that is not how one makes peace.”
These sporadic talks were mostly secret and led by the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai. Pakistan had a tasked to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table. The United States was to play a supporting role to seek a political settlement without compromising on human rights.
“The Taliban today are diverse and fractured. Some old-school leaders, who served in Mullah Omar’s cabinet or as governors during the 90s, belong to a council known as the Quetta Shura, named for the Pakistani city in which many Taliban have enjoyed sanctuary since 2001. This is the group whose members are thought to be most ready to consider coming in from the cold. Other factions, such as the Haqqani network, based in North Waziristan, which has long-standing ties to the ISI, are regarded as more malicious and more susceptible to Pakistan’s control. Inside Afghanistan, young Taliban commanders fight locally and often viciously, oblivious of international diplomacy,” wrote Steve Cole in 2011 for the magazine New Yorker.
Cole added that, “some exiled senior Taliban in Pakistan wanted the United States to leave Afghanistan but, at the same time, they preferred to talk with the Americans directly about the country’s future, both to escape ISI manipulation and because they regarded Karzai as a weak puppet. As long as the Obama administration refused to join in the talks, progress would be impossible, they told me.”
The efforts, as we now know, did not yield anything useful and as a result the US applied reinforcements focusing on countering a resurgent Taliban and stemming the flow of foreign fighters crossing Pak-Afghan border. By then, the US had also concluded that Pakistan, under Musharraf and afterwards, had been conducting a double game.
After OBL’s killing, Pakistan fell out of favour. The bilateral relationship between the US and Pakistan started sliding down rapidly to a level where Pakistan faces punitive measures. The US administration suspects that the Taliban got emboldened in their insurgency because of Islamabad’s support. Hence, the country’s security assistance has diminished, and the US demand from Pakistan — to either expel Taliban factions by denying safe havens, eliminating them altogether, or use influence to bring them to negotiations — has intensified.
Pakistan’s now new Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, commented last month that he has learnt that the road to Washington goes through Kabul. He indicated that his government was ready to facilitate the talks once again. Meanwhile, the Taliban representatives once again rejected formal talks with the Afghan government alleging that it was a puppet government and that they would prefer to talk directly with the United States. The group also insists the US should withdraw foreign troops from Afghanistan and remove Taliban officials from international sanctions list.
After assuming office, President Donald Trump’s first off-the-cuff remark about Afghanistan was boorish and yet understandable. His exact words are mentioned in Bob Woodward’s book Fear, though the sentiments Trump expressed are not different from what others have been wondering lately: what the United States was doing in Afghanistan, and what possible solution could be to end the controversial war?
While Pakistan has once again offered to do what it could, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are in the forefront to facilitate negotiations. The status of “talks-for-talks” seems unchanged so far because the Taliban’s demands for any headway has not altered. But the silver lining appeared when a US delegation met in July with the Taliban leaders in Qatar, and resultantly the group announced a ceasefire for just a couple of days. Another one, when Pakistan released Mullah Baradar, another Taliban founder, late last month.
The Trump administration has also assigned Zalmay Khalilzad as special advisor on Afghanistan to coordinate and lead US efforts for an Afghan-led, Afghan owned reconciliation settlement. Ambassador Khalilzad, during his recent trip to the region, held a series of meetings with Pakistani and Afghan officials. He also visited the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
In an interview to the National Public Radio, Khalilzad hinted that the administration was willing to step back from its long held position to find a way out. “There are complications on both sides. We had some preconditions at that time in terms of engaging the Taliban that they should accept the Afghan constitution, that they should renounce violence, that they should break ties with terrorist groups that would threaten the United States and others. Those preconditions have become more in-conditions that at the end of the talk we would like them to commit to themselves in a way that we can be certain….,” he announced.
Agreeing to engage with the Taliban directly and shifting preconditions into ‘in-conditions’ would still not mean that the US is committed to withdraw from Afghanistan completely. The US Department of Defense has declared that after a peace agreement is reached, the presence of coalition forces in the country would also be condition based depending on the threat level.
Any deal for peace agreement with the Taliban remains as knotty an issue as ever. It’s undoubtedly a multi-tiered process and involves numerous apparent and indefinite covert elements. There are more stakeholders including regional countries, as well as Russia, that are directly engaging with the Taliban. Considering this, no single expert has so far come up with a definite solution but almost everyone hopes that a sincere attempt to hold talks with the Taliban could bring about fruitful results of negotiated political settlement.