It’s often said that the first casualty of war is the truth. And there can be no better example of a theater of conflict which crystallizes this well-worn cliché more, than Afghanistan.
On February 29, the United States and the Taliban signed an agreement aimed at ending the United States’ longest military action there which has cost almost a trillion dollars and 2,400 American lives. The agreement sketches out a timetable for US troops to leave Afghanistan in return for various security commitments from the insurgents and – perhaps more ambiguously – a pledge to hold talks over a political settlement with the Afghan government in Kabul, which it so far has refused to do.
The deal not only ends the longest war in US history, but it threatens to possibly reshape the geopolitics of the region.
The deal is unprecedented as, not only it ends the longest war in US history, but it threatens to possibly reshape the geopolitics of the region and gives the Taliban a status on the world stage never seen before. Whether that new muscle can be used to leverage the Afghan government into being the third and crucial partner in signing off the deal which will set a timeline of US withdrawal, is another matter.
And then there is the question of relations with Iran.
The Iran question is important, particularly to the Trump administration, as obviously, the deal will be seen as a suicide pill if it backfires with Iran becoming closer to the Taliban and forming a large anti-US footprint in the region.
Iran was never a real partner to the Taliban, despite the group’s allegiance to Saudi Arabia being shattered when Al Qaeda took the credit for 9/11 forcing Riyadh to take stock of its proximity to the Afghan group, which pundits today often forget actually ran the government in Kabul from 1996 to 2001.
The twin towers attacks, it was believed, was the singular reason for US forces to finally oust them. Yet the Saudis pulling away from them at that juncture didn’t automatically push them, once departed from office, closer to their neighbor Iran; although a sticking point to the deal being struck was the depth and value of the relationship with Riyadh’s foe, Iran – which could grow, once the Taliban inevitably take control of the country for the second time.
Iran may well prove to be a partner with the Taliban in the future.
It’s important to remember that Iran may well prove to be a partner with the Taliban in the future, if the local ISIS affiliate ISKP gets a little ambitious in its political objectives. This gets complicated as – the US’ main enemy ISIS – is actually its best friend in Afghanistan in the longer run, as the extremists and Washington share a common enemy in Tehran.
It’s easy to forget why the Taliban coming around again for a second shot at taking power is a bad idea though and why a power sharing arrangement, which might stifle that, is critical.
Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, the Taliban has killed tens of thousands of Afghan civilians, fuelled the illicit opium trade, and sheltered several terrorist groups.
Yet going back to its heyday, it was not only not known outside of the region but reveled in its own brutality.
During its period in power from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban not only oppressed women and harbored Al-Qaeda, but it also ran a brutal regime which banned music, persecuted anyone who didn’t follow the group’s unique interpretation of Sharia law, and – importantly – massacred ethnic and religious minorities. And it’s this last point which needs noting. Shias (namely the Hazara ethnic group in Afghanistan) were persecuted under the Taliban, as they are today in Saudi Arabia, and in recent years we have seen the continuation of Shia mosques being bombed.
The Taliban banned music, persecuted anyone who didn’t follow its interpretation of Sharia law, and massacred minorities.
The Afghanistan government regularly blames the Taliban for these attacks, which are then denied. Indeed, with ISIS entering the conflict in the country, which also strikes Hazara epicenters, many would argue that their role was useful in plausible deniability with the bombings.
Were the Taliban planning all along to strike a deal with Iran? Hence the denials of such attacks on minorities?
One of the grey areas which pundits struggle to demystify is how the Taliban allowed Al Qaeda affiliates into the country in the first place from Syria and Iraq in the last two years, when they really didn’t need to.
Was it part of a longer strategy, based on learning from past mistakes when it lost power in 2001?
And what really happened in 2001, following the US invasion, which, like most of what we know about America’s presence in Afghanistan, was also based on a flat lie? The entirely plausible reason for George W. Bush to bomb Afghanistan and to overthrow the Taliban was due to it protecting Osama bin Laden. In reality, the 9-11 bombings had really very little to do with the decision taken by Bush. It was more to do with a pipeline deal stretching from Kandahar to Karachi, which US oil firm Unocol was anxious to build, being blocked for a decade by the Taliban and George W’s father’s frustration at having to deal with them. They needed teaching a lesson and although they were invited to the US in 1997 by the US oil firm, it was Bill Clinton who really didn’t have what it takes to tackle them head on after his spectacular failure in Somalia and Rwanda left him reluctant to champion international conflicts.
Negotiations over the pipeline collapsed in 1998, when Al-Qaeda bombed US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in East Africa. By then, the infamous terrorist group, led by Osama bin Laden, had relocated from Sudan to Afghanistan, where it was offered sanctuary by the Taliban.
The bombing of Afghanistan was really about settling old scores over energy deals which the Taliban blocked.
The bombing of Afghanistan was really about settling old scores over energy deals which the Taliban blocked, which were set up by Bush senior in his one term in office.
But 18 years later the Taliban today have been made a world commodity by US foreign policy failure and chaos, confusion and desperation by US soldiers fighting a war they can never win. As they couldn’t win against Iraqi insurgents, Vietnamese Viet Cong. The Iran dimension to the deal struck is paramount and now the Kabul government will determine how important Tehran can be in the future months and years of Afghanistan without the Americans who have never been able to understand themselves what they were ever doing there. In fact, at the time of writing, rumors were circulating that Iran’s foreign minister has already had lengthy talks with his counterparts in Turkey and Qatar, displeased with the plan that US troops could leave Afghanistan soon.
Indeed, to try and understand the folly of US foreign policy and why it goes to war against enemies which it fails to understand, for ideologies it rarely comprehends, for territories it never wants, you might as well read the extraordinary account of Michael Herr’s “Dispatches” which takes the reader to the hell of soldiers fighting in Vietnam, which I’m sure plenty of American officers have read while on 12 month tours there.
The sheer senselessness of being and obsolescence of marines in Vietnam is hard to understand completely. But in many respects what Obama and Trump attempted to do, after George W’s decision to invade and overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan, is harder, as US forces there are lost and are having to cope with an 18-year campaign which has slowly emboldened the Taliban and made it the force that it is today. Trump will reduce US forces in Afghanistan to 8,600 within 135 days, presumably tied neatly to the final weeks leading up to the presidential election, while the Taliban promise not to allow ISIS, or Al Qaeda to enter territory which they already control. Along with the penciled in promise not to get too cozy with Iran, these terms are at best tendentious foibles of a US president struggling to understand the bigger picture. Does Trump even know that US forces have been – and are still – fighting the Taliban?
US forces in Afghanistan are lost and are having to cope with an 18-year campaign which has slowly emboldened the Taliban.
According to the BBC, Trump says US troops had been killing “terrorists” in Afghanistan “by the thousands” and now it was “time for someone else to do that work and it will be the Taliban and it could be surrounding countries.”
This statement alone might stun most, if not all, US soldiers, certainly officers in Afghanistan who follow the news and wonder what the real story is, as the chances of this deal holding 14 months seem unlikely. For the deal itself, there are too many things which can fail, even Trump’s own second bid to be president. If that happens, then the Taliban and Iran can call the agreement the “Trump deal” and repeat what he did in 2017 by tearing up the co-called Iran deal made by President Obama. Someone needs to write “Dispatches II.”
Editorial note: The author was in Afghanistan with The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) — a NATO-led military mission in Afghanistan, established by the United Nations Security Council — for Euronews in 2008, making a mini documentary about the EU’s role in a future peace settlement.
* The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Inside Arabia.