After more than a year of talks in Qatar, the US and Afghanistan has signed a deal to bring peace to that benighted country. In return for the Taliban agreeing to sever ties with Al Qaeda and other militant groups, the United States will withdraw all its troops by next summer. But the ink on this supposedly landmark deal was barely dry before it began to unravel.
First, the Afghan government said the promised release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners was a matter for negotiation between the Taliban and Kabul, not the US. Then a bomb attack in eastern Afghanistan ended a week-long truce.
The US played it down. Violence in Afghanistan, said Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, “is not going to go to zero.”
Of course, the US doesn’t want anything to spoil the picture of this deal as a success. The withdrawal from Afghanistan is a significant political prize. In an election year, President Donald Trump can say he is doing what he promised – he is bringing American servicemen and women home. How they come home from the longest war in American history and what becomes of the country they are leaving is of secondary importance.
This peace deal is nothing of the sort. It is a mirage. It will not make Afghanistan safer. In fact, America has opened the door to an eventual Taliban victory.
From the very beginning of this conflict, the Taliban has had one huge strategic advantage: patience. They know how to wait out long years of war because they are in Afghanistan, at home. Through two decades and three US presidents, the Taliban have expanded their influence. Every mistake by the West, every civilian death, every airstrike error, every time the Kabul government stayed silent, has increased their power.
In the end, the war reached a stalemate; neither side could win outright. But as they moved from the battlefield to the negotiating table, the Taliban have proved extremely adept at getting what they want. All it took was patience.
At first, the Americans refused to talk directly to the Taliban. Then they wanted talks with the Taliban at the same time as talks with the Afghan government. Then the US flirted with the idea of a ceasefire. Now, US troops are leaving and taking their weapons with them, without so much as a piece of paper to govern future relations with the Kabul government at a time when the Taliban are stronger than at any point since 2001. There’s a word for what’s happening, but no one will say it.
By leaving without a solid political agreement or even a plan in place, the US has handed the Taliban two enormous prizes. First, the propaganda victory; the Taliban can claim the credit for expelling foreign forces from their country. Second, the departure of those foreign troops leaves the Kabul government considerably weaker. The US presence gave Kabul leverage. Now it is the Taliban who will go into talks with the government as the stronger party.
Inevitably, they will win concessions, not least because the Taliban have no intention of treating the Kabul government as a partner, an ally or even a normal political rival. On the contrary, they have stated their intention now is to leave foreign forces alone but to keep attacking the government until it collapses. The peace deal leaves the administration in Kabul dangerously exposed.
Those concessions will certainly involve power-sharing, as that has been the basis of all previous talks. But there are other, significant issues, such as the fate of refugees, disarmament, the release of prisoners (already a stumbling block) and possibly even amnesty for crimes committed over the past three decades. Hanging over it all is the fear that the Taliban will seek retribution against those who worked with the West. And that is before the two sides even begin to address the technicalities of sharing power.
Afghanistan is a complex country, with ethnic, religious and geographical differences, all of which need to be reflected in a future government. The talks could easily take years – years during which the Taliban will continue its armed operations. There is a strong chance that negotiations with the Afghan government could take so long that, by the end, there is barely any government left to negotiate with.
That is exactly the scenario many Afghans fear.
The Taliban may look like freedom fighters up against foreign interlopers but they are nothing of the sort. If they return to power, millions of Afghans will learn the brutal reality that was life under Taliban rule in the 1990s.
Aware of this, the Taliban have in recent years sought to rebrand themselves. “Our return will not be in the same harsh way as it was in 1996,” a Taliban spokesman said two years ago.
But if the only force capable of stopping them is more than 15,000 kilometers away, a degree of skepticism is justified. After all, the Taliban will not march into Kabul as they did in September 1996; they will not, at a stroke, ban women from offices, schools and universities, as they did later that same month. Instead, their influence will grow gradually, insidiously. It will be guerilla warfare in political form.
That is what this peace agreement has opened the door to. After 20 years, America’s parting gift to a new generation of Afghans is a new era of Taliban rule.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.