2020 has been a busy year in Afghanistan with multiple high-level meetings between the Taliban, ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) and the United States. Last Friday, General Austin “Scott” Miller met with Taliban spokesmen, wearing a wide grin and a traditional kufi. Despite appearances, tensions are high between the negotiating partners. There are signs that the peace process is breaking down, though these signs could also point to tougher negotiation tactics. Undeniably, everyone is disappointed with the lack of progress since the February 29 peace agreement. The U.S. and the ANSF have accused the Taliban of ambushing ANSF positions in remote outposts periodically since the peace agreement was signed, resulting in many deaths. Taliban spokesmen have accused the U.S. of killing 27 militants in a single raid last week, clearly demonstrating the difficulty both sides have faced in honouring their respective obligations in the agreement.
In 2001, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, ostensibly to chase down Osama Bin Laden and remove his support, though those objectives have always been viewed with skepticism. One point of contention has been that Osama Bin Laden and the Al Qaeda group who brought down the World Trade Center were from Saudi Arabia, not Afghanistan, and Osama Bin Laden was eventually assassinated in Pakistan. Furthermore, a full-scale occupation was not needed to accomplish these goals, which is why most academics agree that the U.S. had ulterior motives in the invasion. Those theories range from relatively benign nation-building schemes to gaining control of the world supply of opium, and everything in between. It is also the case that the dual-invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan laid the logistical groundwork for a future invasion of Iran, which is widely regarded as a longtime target of regime change in Washington. With those considerations in mind, America’s demands in February seem inadequate. The U.S.’s willingness in the talks to abandon it’s bases would undermine American preparedness for an Iran invasion. Also, without an agreement that the Taliban would not ban production of opium as they did in 2001, crashing the world supply for heroin, that important piece of the puzzle remains a mystery.
With this murky understanding of U.S. objectives, it’s difficult to tell if the terms of these agreements would satisfy American objectives. The Taliban have only ever wanted U.S. troops out of their homeland, and appear willing to accept recognition of their sovereignty even if it must be through an Afghan coalition with ANSF, represented by a central government in Kabul. That government coalition seems to be on shaky grounds, though, with the Taliban demanding to conduct talks with the U.S. directly after calling meetings with the ANSF “fruitless.” This is because, among many other reasons, the ANSF have been unwilling to release senior Taliban members in the initial exchanges. Both sides continue to engage in hostilities, in violation of their February agreement, and despite a slow trickle of prisoners being released, deadlines have been missed.
Certainly, the meeting in February, as well as on Friday, represents some of the warmest public interactions between Taliban spokesmen and officials from the United States in decades. The release today of dozens of Taliban prisoners brings the total released up to 300 or so – far short of the 5,000 that were supposed to be released by March 10. Ultimately, the U.S. is dealing with a similar situation it found in the early days of the occupation: trying to build a nation in a place that wants to be anything but a nation. Corruption is still rampant in Kabul, and there is little domestic support for the ANSF outside of major cities, to the degree that there is little support for an Afghan national identity at all.
It is interesting to consider what a genuine American withdrawal would mean for the region. President Trump ran on a platform of ending the “forever wars” in the Middle East, and after events in Syria, it might be possible that America is finally abandoning its plans to invade Iran. I think a full withdrawal from Afghanistan would be the clearest message yet to the international community that Israel and America have decided to change tactics in dealing with Iran. I am of the opinion that Iranian rocket artillery developments of recent years, as well as increased Russian willingness to act as a counterbalance to American air power have dramatically shifted the balance of power in the region, sending the Israelis back to the drawing board for now. Only time will tell how committed the U.S. is to this withdrawal, as well as the feasibility of the Afghan nation as a sovereign political unit.