Only the ignorant or incurably optimistic would be encouraged by the situation in Afghanistan right now.
The Trump administration is heading for yet another round of talks with the Taliban in a stated attempt to “facilitate a peace process that ends the conflict”. President Ashraf Ghani, still in office although his five-year tenure ended on May 22, is reduced to a resentful spectator as the Trump-Taliban show goes into its seventh episode in Qatar.
The Taliban continue to excoriate Mr Ghani and, by extension, his whole administration as an “American puppet” while they indulge in negotiations with the alleged puppet master. Meanwhile, another prominent Afghan political actor, former US-backed president Hamid Karzai, is happily engaging with the Taliban in a quite different theatre: Moscow.
Eighteen years after the US invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban regime, the country looks like a stage set for the closing act of a long-running tragedy.
For instance, a UN report forecasts that nearly half the population will need food assistance — up from 3.3 million at the start of last year — and this is partly because of the worsening security situation.
Events in Afghanistan occasionally descend into farce There are many exits and entrances. Some grand and stirring speeches are being delivered. The settings are changing around, as are the props. Relatively minor characters are auditioning for prominent new roles. Mr Karzai’s former national security adviser Hanif Atmar, for instance, is regarded as a key contender for President Ghani’s job when national elections are held in September. Mr Atmar, incidentally, was at the May 28–29 Moscow talks with the Taliban, alongside Mr Karzai. Those discussions, according to the brief closing joint statement, made in Pashto, covered issues such as the “consolidation of the Islamic system” and women’s rights.
Looming over all the dramatic twists and turns is one grimly foreshadowed action
However, looming over all the dramatic twists and turns is one grimly foreshadowed action, which will powerfully affect events. That is Mr Trump’s intention to pull the United States out of Afghanistan, possibly leaving it to be run by the Taliban. Just two months ago, Mr Trump described America’s presence in the country as “ridiculous”.
In the circumstances, it’s surprising to see so many people on disparate sides expressing satisfaction. But Mr Karzai is pleased by his unexpected return to prominence and the chance that he might wield power by proxy in a post-US Afghanistan. Zalmay Khalilzad — the Afghan-born American diplomat who serves as President Donald Trump’s special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation — is hoping to conclude an agreement with the Taliban that allows both sides to claim victory in peace.
And the Taliban is calculating that the Americans will be hasty and rash in the deals they cut as they make for the exit. The Taliban know just as well as everyone else that it’s all meant to be timed so Mr Trump can win re-election in 2020 by telling voters that he successfully ended the loss of American blood and treasure in Afghanistan.
Accordingly, on June 1, Mr Khalilzad saluted the “substantial progress” made in talks with the Taliban last month. The Taliban, however, snarkily hailed the “decent progress” at talks — not with Mr Khalilzad — in Moscow. That America’s envoy and his chief interlocutor for peace in Afghanistan seemed to be talking past each other is just another example of dramatic irony.
Indeed, the state of play is truly bizarre. Multiple Afghan actors are in the spotlight but it is not clear if they are foils, bit parts, or central to the solution. The Americans are talking to the very people whom they ousted in December 2001 for sheltering terrorist conspirators. The US does not seem to mind the invective hurled by the Taliban at the elected Afghan government, which they continue to support militarily. In fact, America’s air force reportedly dropped more bombs over Afghanistan in 2018 than at any other point in the war. Relegated to the political sidelines, President Ghani sulks and slogs away at projects, which, while important, seem peripheral to more momentous matters, such as war and peace. One of these includes trying to clean up the Kabul River. Finally, there is Russia. As the Soviet Union, it suffered an ignominious defeat in Afghanistan in 1989 after a decade-long war. But now, Moscow is now back on stage, this time in the role of peace-broker.
No one is sure how any of this will end. There are far too many known unknowns. Will the US continue to engage with the Taliban despite their belligerence, for instance? Ahead of Eid, Mr Trump’s envoy alternately praised and rebuked Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada for making a statement that spoke in two voices. It “provides some welcome support for the #AfghanPeaceProcess “, Mr Khalilzad tweeted, but “at the same time, the statement’s bombastic tone is unnecessary & only serves to complicate & disrupt as we advance peace talks. The statement suggests the US seeks violence. We do not.”
Another issue may be the Afghan Supreme Court decision that allows President Ghani to remain in office. Mr Ghani’s supporters say it is all in a good cause, allowing the country to enjoy some measure of stability at a time of political uncertainty and public fears about the future. But there are many calls for him to step down to allow the upcoming election to be conducted in an impartial manner. There is some suggestion that, whatever Mr Ghani does, the polls will not be seen as credible, which will further erode public confidence in Afghanistan’s western-backed democratic system.
It’s fair to say Afghanistan is not a linear plot and events cannot be relied upon to progress chronologically. There may not be a denouement any time soon because so much is happening offstage.