The Afghan War

Afghanistan being Afghanistan, the much publicised US-Taliban deal signed February 29, 2020, in Doha, capital of Qatar, with a lot of fanfare turns out to be fragile. Since signing of the 'Peace Agreement', otherwise loosely worded, the Taliban insurgents and their franchise terror groups, ramped up violence against Afghan government forces. And in response the US launched a massive air strike against Taliban fighters to defend Afghan forces and thwart Taliban advance. The so-called peace accord brokered by US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, with Taliban political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was actually meant to set up conditions for a complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan within just 14 months. Whether it is going to end America's longest war in Afghanistan is anybody's guess. After losing Vietnam war with humiliation it is now tiring moment for the American bosses as they have already virtually lost the Afghan war without acknowledging it. They are dancing in murky water of Afghan theatre of war, hoping somewhat against hope that the Taliban would oblige them by adhering to Peace initiative halting armed actions. What Americans are doing now is basically defensive, offensive drive lies in the hands of Taliban. The moot question before Trump is how to create a face saving image without complete withdrawal in the all important election year when all competing candidates are bound to say something on Afghanistan. But things are not moving according to Trump's Plan.

After the escalation of violence in Afghanistan's Helmud region within days of ink drying on the well orchestrated peace agreement, and yet less understood, now everything hangs in the balance. The Taliban insurgents continue their killing mission unabated with jihadi zeal, targeting Afghan military installations and forces. Their gunmen have recently killed dozens in a political rally in Kabul making the agreement farcical, the top leadership of Taliban, however, maintained it as lower-level cadre-centric actions. Come what may blood is flowing freely across Afghanistan though Trump didn't attach much importance to Taliban's recent push as he boasted about a "very good" phone call with Taliban chief Mullah Baradar. In truth Trump's statement that America's commitment to the Kabul regime came with an expiry date sent shivers down the spines of Ashraf Ghani and his men in charge of managing Kabul showcase of democracy. In other words Trump signalled the possibility of early withdrawal of American soldiers from Afghanistan without assuring the Ghanis of possible consequences.

The vaguely scripted 4-page agreement is unlikely to end America's longest war any time soon. But America looks impatient to leave Afghanistan at any cost. Even by abandoning its proxies. For one thing Afghans are themselves to blame for the failure of building democratic environment and institutions as Ghani's rival Abdullah. Abdullah stakes claims to form parallel government because he accused Ghani, and not quite baselessly, of frauding the last presidential election through which Ghani came to power.

Only about 10 per cent of the voting age population turned out for elections in Afghanistan in the second half of 2019. Voters were scared away from polling stations by the risk of being murdered and disillusioned by the present rulers. What is more the Election Commission took five months to count the ballots and declare a winner. Ashraf Ghani was declared elected with 50.6 per cent of the vote. Abdullah rejected the result and declared himself president, despite getting only 39.5 per cent of the official tally. Rigging and corruption in reality decided the outcome of the polls. The whole election process was overshadowed by America's continuing negotiations with the Taliban (in Qatar for 18 months). A mere 5 per cent of Afghan adult voters reportedly voted for Ashraf Ghani. What a pathetic scenario of representative democracy! Afghanistan's economy is faltering. Poverty is rising. Around 9.4 million Afghans are in need of charitable food and shelter in 2020, which has increased from 6.5 million in 2019. People in Kandhahar, a stronghold of Taliban bemoan anarchy and lawlessness as Taliban activists extort money from businessmen and government officials. Since the US- led invasion that ousted the Taliban after the September 11, 2001 attacks, America has spent more than $1 trillion in fighting without gaining anything in return in terms of money. About 2,400 US soldiers have been killed along with unknown tens of thousands of Afghan troops, Taliban foot soldiers and Afghan civilians. As per the deal America has agreed to reduce the number of US troops in Afghanistan to 8600, from the current 13,000 within 135 days if the Taliban leadership obeys the letter and spirit of the agreement. With both sides sticking to gun culture it is unlikely that anything positive will emerge in the coming days. The Taliban put a pre-condition of release of 5000 prisoners for signing the deal and in return 1000 Afghan security forces who are under Taliban custody would be released. But Ashraf Ghani refused to release Taliban captives because this is the only chip Ghani has in his arsenal and from where he can bargain.

No doubt the common Afghans are worried about the possibility of brutal return of medieval Taliban with their hard line shariyati rules in a somewhat moderately modernised Afghanistan. Maybe, Afghanistan is heading towards a catastrophe.

For America Afghan imbroglio is a double edged sword that cuts America's body politic both ways. They cannot abandon their valets completely after spending so much money and losing so many Americans in combat in a war that seems endless and the Americans in any case are not going to win this war even if they spend another $1 trillion. They fought communist guerrillas ('Vietcongs), in Vietnam but they are now fighting suicide bombers who have created a completely different ground reality with a totally uncharted territory. not familiar with positional warfare for which American soldiers are trained with.

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Vol. 52, No. 40, April 5 - 11, 2020