15 August 2018

There’s little to cheer in America’s decision to talk to the Taliban

By Kyle Orton

The Taliban released a statement on Tuesday afternoon about its virtual takeover of Ghazni province in southern Afghanistan. Alongside other recent developments, military and political, the outlook for the Coalition mission is increasingly bleak.

Between 12 and 14 August, about 200 Afghan security forces were killed between Ghazni, Faryab, and Baghlan provinces — covering south, north, and west Afghanistan.

The most serious assault, on Ghazni city, began on 10 August, after months of preparation and shaping operations; the Taliban offensive, consisting of 1,000 jihadists, was apparently buttressed by foreign al-Qaeda fighters, some of them Chechens. The effort by the Taliban was to repeat the capture of provincial capitals in Kunduz, in September 2015 and October 2016, and Farah in May 2018.

The fall of Ghazni, a far more strategically important city than Kunduz or Farah, on the main highway between Kabul and Kandahar, would be catastrophic: it would sever northern Afghanistan from the Taliban heartlands and be a stinging defeat for the US policy of protecting population centres, even at the expense of the rural zones — itself a deeply flawed strategy in counterinsurgency terms.

The Afghan government declared on 11 August that Ghazni was clear of insurgents. “Overall, the situation is under our control in Ghazni, and the problems are not that serious,” Najib Danish, the spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, said at a news conference. “The concern about the collapse of the province to the Taliban is gone now.” A spokesman for the American military, Lt. Col. Martin L. O’Donnell, echoed this, saying that Ghazni was “relatively quiet”, with a mere “clearing operation” ongoing.

A provincial councilman was more honest, saying that as of 11 August, the Taliban controlled 70 per cent of Ghazni city, having the day before “controlled 100 per cent of the city except for the governor’s office and the Police Headquarters.”

By 13 August, it was obvious that — despite the American airstrikes, ground forces, and happy-talk — most of Ghazni city was under Taliban control, as were sixteen of eighteen rural districts. Telecommunications, electricity, and water were down, and residents in the city were struggling to store food.

The dishonesty of the statements from Kabul and the US military on Saturday were, it transpired, a reflection of a long-standing practice when it comes to the realities in Afghanistan. As the New York Times explained:

Seven of Ghazni’s districts had effectively already been under insurgent control before the current fighting, with the Taliban controlling so much territory in those areas that government officials could not remain. But to avoid having those districts counted as having fallen to the Taliban, the district governments moved their offices, including police and other administrative headquarters, to safer areas in other districts. …

The most recent report to Congress by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction [SIGAR], for instance, quoted the military as saying, “Insurgent control or influence of Afghanistan’s districts declined for the first time since August 2016.” Afghanistan’s 407 districts are the basic units of local government. The military estimated in May 2018 that 11 were controlled by the Taliban and 45 influenced by them—a decline of three districts over all from the previous quarter. None of the seven Ghazni districts, however, are listed as under Taliban control.

The announcement on 12 August that an American Special Forces soldier, Sgt. First Class Reymund Rarogal Transfiguracion, 36, of Waikoloa, Hawaii, had died from injuries sustained by a roadside bombing, turned out to be coincidental. Sgt. Transfiguracion had been working alongside Afghan special operators in the Sangin district of Helmand Province when he was struck by an IED on 7 August. It will take some time to learn of Coalition fatalities in Ghazni, and the true death toll among Afghan soldiers and police.

Ghazni city appeared to be back in government hands on 15 August, though the fundamental dynamics are unchanged. If the Taliban has departed, it is a decision by them: they have made their political point, forced the Coalition to do serious damage to the city, and still hold the surrounding areas. The key consideration for a population in choosing sides is personal security, and the population is now aware of the unreliability of the Coalition and the government.

In the midst of all this, the news broke that the US has dropped its insistence on an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” peace process and was negotiating with the Taliban directly, a demand the Taliban has been making for many years. This change had been ratified in rhetoric by the Afghan government claiming it was now open to negotiating without preconditions, recognising the Taliban as a legitimate actor in the war. There are echoes in this of what the Nixon administration did in 1973, forcing South Vietnam to accept conditions that Saigon knew would doom it in order to give the Americans a “decent interval” after withdrawal.

“Four Taliban members met Alice Wells, a senior US state department official, at a hotel in the Qatari capital [of Doha] on 23 July for the first face-to-face talks in seven years”, the Guardian reported. “The first round of basic contacts ‘were very helpful’, [said] a senior member of the Taliban’s Quetta Shura … ‘The next round will be more specific and focused on key issues,’ the Quetta Shura member said.”

The US seems to be impressed by the June 2018 ceasefire for Eid, which the Taliban held to for three days, going back to war even as the Afghan government announced an extension to its adherence to the ceasefire. There are also reports of US negotiators finding “extraordinary flexibility” among Taliban interlocutors, “even a theoretical openness to a residual US troop presence” and US listening posts — once the Kabul government has “amended the constitution, opened up the political system, and accepted Taliban participation”.

The optimism that is spreading through Washington, led by the Pentagon and now infecting the State Department, too, is wholly unwarranted. The path that the Trump administration is taking is not new.

The US has, from the outset, said it would negotiate with elements of the Taliban that met three conditions: they had to be separate from al-Qaeda; lay down arms and cease to attempt to violently overthrow the government; and accept the Afghan constitution, particularly its commitment to human and political rights, as the framework for negotiation.

The US has deceived itself many times, through sheer wishful thinking or concessions, into believing that progress is being made toward these conditions, and every time has been disappointed.

The Taliban statement in February that “we will not allow anyone else to use Afghan territory against any other country” seems to have resonated in the US government as a statement of compliance with condition one. A Pentagon report last month said, “there is no evidence of strategic ties between the [Taliban and al-Qaeda,] and the Taliban likely seeks to maintain distance from al-Qa’ida”. It is difficult to know where to begin with this. The massive al-Qaeda training camp in Taliban-influenced Kandahar that the US had to destroy at the end of 2015 might be one place, though one can take it all the way back to the beginning. The Taliban gave up its regime rather than give up al-Qaeda and Usama bin Ladin in 2001.

If the US is now offering to effectively abrogate condition three by allowing the Taliban to rewrite the Afghan constitution, then perhaps it can get the Taliban to agree to condition two and not to use violence against a government constituted along such lines.

Such terms, of course, would invite the question of why the Coalition paid hundreds of billions of dollars and 3,500 lives over 17 years only to surrender to the fanatics who enabled the 9/11 massacre to take place.

Kyle Orton is a foreign policy analyst.