Trump’s Afghan error


US President Donald Trump has announced that as far as he is concerned, his peace talks with the Taliban are “dead”. But his concern needs to go a lot further, because if the talks really are dead, then so too will be many more people, mostly Afghans, who are currently alive and dreaming only of peace.

If this is Trump running a script from his seminal book “The Art of the Deal”, then hopefully he has a carefully formulated plan. What he has done is tear up a provisional agreement that had been worked out over nine tortuous bargaining sessions between the Taliban and US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. Hosted by Qatar, because clearly the Taliban feel safe in the emirate, the talks had led to an outline deal for Washington to withdraw its troops within 20 weeks. In return, the Taliban would promise they would never again allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for terrorists, including Al-Qaeda and Daesh (the self-proclaimed IS). Given it is widely accepted that remnants of Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist group are still in the country and Daesh is also known to be operating there alongside some Taliban, this last commitment would require positive action on their part. Yet the Taliban has always been a series of shifting alliances. With the death of founder Mullah Omar, the organization’s cohesion is even less certain. Those Taliban with whom terrorists have found welcome and shelter are highly unlikely to do more than pretend to throw these killers out.

Khalilzad has explained that the “agreement in principle” meant the Taliban would only start talking to the Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani after a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops, all 14,000 of them, had been agreed. This, of course, is a clear hostage to fortune. Talks between the insurgents and the government do not mean that there must be agreement. It was also unclear if the Taliban would call a ceasefire while they spoke to Ghani, or whoever else becomes president after the election this September 28.

It seems that Trump trashed the outcome of the Doha talks because of the death of a US serviceman along with eleven others in a Taliban bombing in Kabul, the sixteenth member of the American military to be killed this year. However, there may be another reason for what the President has done. There had been a plan to celebrate a US-Taliban deal by staging a signing with President Ghani and his Taliban opponents at Trump’s presidential retreat at Camp David. The fury among his opponents was the more predictable because such a ceremony would have fallen painfully close to the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. But this of itself need not have caused Trump to abandon the whole peace initiative.

Moreover, his action seems a huge contradiction of his oft-repeated desire to get the US out of its entanglements in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Unless all American forces are withdrawn immediately in one fell swoop, this loss of the deal hammered out by Khalilzad means that Washington is doomed to maintain its military presence. It is all very well that Trump is talking tough but the Taliban know he wants and needs a deal. Tearing this one up was, therefore, not particularly wise.