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APRIL 26, 2020 PRINT EDITION
Business

An unending war

Two brutal attacks in recent days in Afghanistan have laid bare the fragility of the so-called peace agreement struck between the US and the Taliban in Doha in January 2020. The first attack was on a hospital in Kabul that specifically targeted the matern

May 19, 2020

Two brutal attacks in recent days in Afghanistan have laid bare the fragility of the so-called peace agreement struck between the US and the Taliban in Doha in January 2020. The first attack was on a hospital in Kabul that specifically targeted the maternity ward run by Doctors Without Borders and in which 24 people, mostly mothers of newborn infants, and two children were killed. The second was a suicide bombing on a funeral in eastern Afghanistan that killed 32 people. Horrible as these barbarous massacres are, what has transpired afterwards is cause for greater disquiet. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Envoy who negotiated the deal with the Taliban, felt constrained to deflect responsibility, especially for the horrendous attack on the maternity hospital in Kabul, from the Taliban. Instead, he asserted, the US's assessment was that it was ISIS-K that was responsible, given the target chosen, the mode of the attack, and the fact that the Taliban have denied responsibility. The Afghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani, however, did not buy into this 'soft peddling' the Taliban's possible role, and ordered the Afghan forces to go onto offensive mode against the insurgents. Even before the ink had dried on President Ashraf Ghani's announcement, the Taliban carried out a truck bombing on a military courthouse in Gardez, killing five people. The war that may have seemed heading for a peaceful end after the Doha agreement therefore seems set to continue indefinitely.
The reasons why things have come to such a pass are not difficult to discern. In an eerie reminder of the manner in which the US ditched its 'ally' the South Vietnam government during what was till then the US's longest war (the Afghan conflict has since replaced Vietnam for that honour), the Doha negotiations and final agreement did not even include a bare nod towards the Afghan government. The reason is that the US is, as anticipated at the start of the invasion and occupation following 9/11 by informed observers, tired of committing troops and huge resources to what has clearly by now emerged as an unwinnable war. Not only have the Taliban, despite the bigger US troop presence earlier, captured or controlled huge swathes of the countryside in classic guerrilla fashion, they clearly have eroded through their resistance the will of the US administration and people to continue what increasingly appears a futile effort. Critics of the Doha agreement, including some Democratic legislators, have pointed to the one-sided nature of the deal. The Taliban have obtained through it their most earnest wish: the withdrawal of US troops. In return, they have put their signature to conditions whose letter, as admitted even by Zalmay Khalilzad, does not commit them to much in return. Reducing violence was a prime condition amongst those, but if anything the agreement seems to have freed the Taliban's hands to refrain from attacking the US-led foreign forces while stepping up their attacks on the Afghan security forces. The reduction in Taliban violence against the Afghan government forces was supposed to pave the way for talks between them, a prisoner exchange, and discussions about Afghanistan's future. When the first, primary condition, a reduction in violence, has been breached freely, how can the rest follow smoothly? For US President Donald Trump, the Doha agreement was intended to boost his re-election chances in November 2020. However, since the Afghan government was not even at the negotiating table, it was effectively told to take it or lump it. This is the same pattern as in the past of the risks and limitations of relying on the US to ensure any allied government's survival. Effectively, the Doha deal has ensured a Taliban victory and exclusive capture of power given the momentum of the US withdrawal will not be reversed despite the truth staring everyone in the face. A fresh debacle a la Saigon awaits the Afghan people, with troubling implications for their future.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020