US peace pact with Taleban may not solve Afghan issue

Schoolchildren leaving after class at a destroyed high school in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan last month. The Taleban has not let up on its military operations, including attacks on civilians.
Schoolchildren leaving after class at a destroyed high school in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan last month. The Taleban has not let up on its military operations, including attacks on civilians.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

More complicated problem is power sharing between govt, Taleban

America's longest war may officially end soon, or will it? An imminent peace deal between the United States and the Taleban may turn out to be the easy part but leave Afghanistan with an uncertain and highly volatile future.

More complicated will be intra-Afghanistan negotiations between the Taleban and the Afghan government on power sharing, which are likely to take place in Oslo within weeks of a deal with the Taleban.

One potential complication is Afghanistan's Sept 28 presidential election.

US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has been working on the deal with Taleban delegates in Doha, and is due this week to brief the Afghan government on the details, which it must agree to, to go into talks in Oslo.

Meanwhile, the US is trying not to sound too eager to get out of the Afghanistan quagmire; General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Wednesday said it was premature to use the word "withdrawal", but a peace deal with the Taleban was worth trying.

"I believe that what is needed is some type of disruption to the status quo," he said.

President Donald Trump said yesterday that 8,600 US troops would remain in the country if a peace deal is reached with the Taleban, and that the US would maintain a permanent presence.

The Taleban is in control of roughly 15 per cent of Afghanistan, with the government controlling about 60 per cent, and the rest contested.

The Taleban has not let up on its military operations, including attacks on civilians. It has rejected a ceasefire, believing that would cost it leverage; the language in the peace talks is of a "reduction of violence".

Gen Dunford, in Wednesday's press conference - the first in a year at the Pentagon - alongside Defence Secretary Mark Esper, tried to nuance the perception that the US' goal is withdrawal of its approximately 14,000 troops.

Mr Khalilzad has also insisted in public statements that the US is aiming at a peace deal, not a withdrawal deal, with the Taleban, which it drove out of office in 2001 when the group continued to give safe harbour to Osama bin Laden, who masterminded the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US.

On Monday, Mr Khalilzad tweeted: "Let me be clear: We will defend Afghan forces now and after any agreement with the (Taleban). All sides agree Afghanistan's future will be determined in intra-Afghan negotiations."

The vastly experienced Gen Dunford, who is due to retire in roughly a month, is seen as a realist who is respected by the President. "He is smart, he understands the need for a deal and the need for a drawdown of US troops, but he is also reassuring the Afghan government and the critics who say this is about America's domestic politics," an Afghanistan expert told The Straits Times (ST) on condition of anonymity.

But worries remain. The US will walk away with assurances from the Taleban that Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) will not be allowed safe haven in Afghanistan. The Taleban, meanwhile, knows the US wants to withdraw. But whether any agreement will be worth the paper it is written on is questionable.

"There is no reason to trust it," said the expert who spoke to ST. "This is the same Taleban that denies that Al-Qaeda did 9/11."

The Taleban views the current Afghan government as a US puppet. It can bide its time, drawing out negotiations until the international community's attention shifts.

The Afghan government wants Afghanistan to be a democratic republic - something the international community, including Russia, China and India, also supports. But the Taleban wants an emirate with syariah law.

On Tuesday, Taleban forces stormed a checkpoint in western Herat province, killing 14 pro-government militia members.

"America needs to be clear it will not draw down troops below a certain level, so as to maintain some leverage and not give total freedom to the Taleban, and monitor its sincerity in implementing any deal," the analyst said. Or else Afghanistan could lapse into a protracted civil war and provide fertile ground for groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS - exactly what the US does not want.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 30, 2019, with the headline 'US peace pact with Taleban may not solve Afghan issue'. Print Edition | Subscribe