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Despite U.S. Talk Of Withdrawal, Afghan War Expected To Continue

An Afghan man looks out from a damaged building after the July 28 attack in Kabul.
An Afghan man looks out from a damaged building after the July 28 attack in Kabul.

The United States is seeking to end its 18-year war in Afghanistan by negotiating peace with the Taliban and persuading the hard-line Islamist group to prove its commitment to counterterrorism, a lasting cease-fire, and a political settlement with the Afghan government and other factions in return for U.S. withdrawal from the country.

But while the current process could bring the longest conflict in U.S. history to a close, it does not necessarily signal an end to Afghanistan’s four-decade war, which has involved global superpowers, hard-line ideologues, and meddlesome neighbors, and led to immeasurable bloodshed among Afghan factions.

In Washington, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration hopes to end his country’s war in Afghanistan by reducing troop levels ahead of the next presidential election in November 2020.

"He's been unambiguous: End the endless wars, draw down, reduce,” said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. "That's my directive from the president of the United States."

Pompeo said the administration is looking to protect Washington’s interests and encourage reconciliation among Afghans.

“We think there’s a path to reduce violence, achieve reconciliation, and still make sure that the American counterterrorism effort in Afghanistan has a value and the potential to reduce risk here in the States,” he said on July 29. “We want to reduce what is, for us, tens of billions of dollars a year in expenditures and enormous risk to your kids and your grandkids who are fighting for America.”

But on the ground in Afghanistan, the reality is far from simple.

Confusion clouds the prospects of direct peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban as the insurgents once again refuse to negotiate with the government before Washington agrees to a schedule for withdrawing its troops. Violence is escalating in the run-up to the Afghan presidential election in September, which further diminishes the likelihood of the Afghan elites uniting for talks with the Taliban.

Marvin Weinbaum, director of Afghanistan and Pakistan studies at Washington’s Middle East Institute think tank, says there is a real chance that the war in Afghanistan will continue.

“With the U.S. determined to extricate itself from the conflict and none of the ingredients for a peace settlement among Afghans in place, what else is left?” he asked.

Weinbaum says there could be hope, however, if the United States and its allies live up to their promise of not disengaging without a sustained cease-fire and if intra-Afghan negotiations move swiftly toward defining a future Afghan state.

“Even then, it might not end well if the Afghan political elites cannot pull themselves together,” he told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website.

But Barnett Rubin, a leading Afghanistan expert and a former U.S. State Department adviser, says he is optimistic about U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s repeated assertion that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”

Khalilzad has held eight rounds of talks with the Talban to work out a comprehensive agreement, which in his words would include “counter-terrorism assurances, troop withdrawal, intra-Afghan negotiations that lead to a political settlement, and a comprehensive and permanent cease-fire."

Rubin, a longtime advocate of ending the war through talks, regional cooperation, and reconciliation among Afghans, acknowledged that every component of the peace process is challenging but sees no reason for giving up.

“If or when the U.S. and Taliban announce the terms of their agreement, [a] cease-fire is one of the four pillars it will include,” he told Gandhara. “I don’t know what it will say, but [a] cease-fire is one of the components of ‘everything’ in ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.’”

A peace agreement, however, could potentially be ruined by ongoing violence. An unsuccessful attempt this week on the life of Amrullah Saleh, a former spy chief and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s running mate, underscores the fragility of the environment in which the talks are being held. Known as an ardent critic of the Taliban and Pakistan, Saleh has pushed a hard line on negotiating with the insurgents.

A new report by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) recorded a 27 percent drop in casualties for 2019 compared with the same period last year, which is a record. Even with such a drop, the July 30 report said the killing and injuring of more than 3,800 Afghan civilians in the first six months of this year is “shocking and unacceptable." The violence comes amid peace negotiations that first began in September 2018. On July 31, at least 35 civilians were killed and another 27 injured when a roadside bomb hit a passenger bus in the western Afghan province of Farah.

If successful, the current peace effort is likely to end some insurgent attacks in Afghan cities and fighting between the government forces and the Taliban. But some hard-line groups will continue to represent a threat.

Senior NATO and U.S. military officials warn of the dangers posed by the ultra-radical Islamic State (IS) militants, who have controlled slivers of territory in the east and north of the country and frequently claim credit for attacks in Kabul.

Rubin says the battle against IS, which has seen large-scale NATO and Afghan military offensives and occasional Taliban raids against the group in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar, and Nursitan since 2015, is far from over. Afghan forces and the Taliban have also fought separate large battles against IS in some northern and southern provinces.

“If the peace process succeeds, the Taliban will join a new government, which will be stronger and control more territory than the current one, and that government will be a much better partner for the international community in fighting IS,” he noted.

Afghanistan’s neighbors, in particular Pakistan and Iran, have featured prominently in previous phases of the country’s war since a communist coup ended the Durrani dynasty in April 1978.

Islamabad recently made pledges to Washington about assisting the Afghan peace process. But given its past status as the Taliban’s principal backer, most Afghans remain skeptical of Pakistan’s commitment.

Iran, on the other hand, is at loggerheads with Washington. Its influence over the Taliban has increased in recent years, and Tehran is skeptical of U.S. peace efforts in Afghanistan. This, Rubin argues, could prompt Tehran to sabotage the talks.

“Iran’s hostility to the U.S.-Taliban talks is based on some misconceptions, but it is inevitable that misunderstandings arise between enemies who don’t speak to each other,” he noted. “Some dialogue on this issue is urgent.”

Given their current standoff in the Persian Gulf, the prospects of such a dialogue are slim. The Afghan war has been a catalogue of broken promises, misconceptions, and dashed hopes, which have ultimately only resulted in more bloodshed for Afghans.

The 1998 Geneva Accords between the Soviet Union, Afghanistan, the United States, and Pakistan resulted in the Red Army’s departure in 1989, but the war dragged on. The collapse of the Afghan socialist regime in 1992 precipitated a brutal civil war among the former anti-Soviet mujahedin guerillas. By 1996, their fighting turned into into a war between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban that ended with the demise of the Taliban regime in late 2001 as a result of a U.S.-led military offensive that began less than a month after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.