Now that Donald Trump has peremptorily cancelled an unprecedented Camp David meeting with the Taliban, the Afghan peace negotiations remain just as impenetrable as the day they began 11 months ago.
Where do they go from here, and should they go anywhere in the current format? What were the peace talks really about if the Taliban was not required to maintain the peace, even during negotiations, by ceasing violence and mayhem? And what sort of harmony was the US president’s special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, working towards — especially when his interlocutors were allowed to be publicly dismissive of and hostile towards the internationally recognised, US-backed government in Kabul?
Throughout the nine rounds of US-Taliban talks, doggedly conducted by Mr Khalilzad mainly in Doha, the insurgent group continued to attack disparate targets in Afghanistan. There were three attacks in just the past week, when a peace deal had supposedly been agreed “in principle”, to use Mr Khalilzad’s words. Two were audaciously executed in Kabul and another in Puli Alam, capital of the eastern province of Logar. Two Nato soldiers — an American and a Romanian — as well as several Afghan civilians were killed in Thursday’s Kabul attack. The Taliban brazenly admitted to targeting the vehicles of “foreigners”. It seemed not to care about the mismatch between talking peace and waging war at the same time. Neither did the US, until Mr Trump suddenly decided he did care.
The week before, the Taliban had thumbed its nose at America’s peace-making efforts in even more scornful fashion. Even as Mr Khalilzad arrived in Kabul to brief President Ashraf Ghani on the peace deal, the Taliban launched an attack on Puli Khumri, capital of Baghlan, a province in northern Afghanistan. The day before that, the group struck Kunduz city, capital of the northern province by the same name. In fact, in the seven days from August 30, roughly 35 attacks with the explicit or suspected imprint of the Taliban occurred across Afghanistan.
The Taliban has expressed no remorse, nor any sign it wants to rethink its usual tactic — the induction of terror — to achieve political objectives. This raises two crucial questions. Do the Taliban leaders at the negotiating table even speak for the fighters on the ground? And does the US even care one way or the other?
Through all of this bloodshed, the Americans have continued to talk to the Taliban. And President Trump’s shocking revelation on Twitter of the now-scrapped Camp David summit, showed the lengths this US administration was prepared to go to close a deal on Afghanistan. Mr Trump was willing to meet Taliban leaders on American soil in the very week that the US solemnly marks the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. He was prepared to do so without Taliban disavowal of violence or any particular expression of grief over 9/11 and the fact that it provided sanctuary to Al Qaeda before and after it plotted those attacks.
Unbeknownst to almost everyone, the major Taliban leaders and, separately, the President of Afghanistan, were going to secretly meet with me at Camp David on Sunday. They were coming to the United States tonight. Unfortunately, in order to build false leverage, they admitted to..
– Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 7, 2019
Mr Trump stood ready to grant the legitimacy of his office to the Taliban, which the US Treasury Department has listed as “specially designated global terrorist” entity since 2002. And his administration continues to ignore the Afghan president’s mildly worded but measured plea to judge the Taliban by actions, not words. After the Kabul attack that left the US serviceman dead, Mr Ghani cautioned: “Peace with a group that is still killing innocent people is meaningless.”
There are three takeaways from the dispiriting sequence of events. Mr Trump’s only interest in Afghanistan appears to be the point at which it intersects with US domestic politics and his bid for re-election in 2020. The Taliban knows this and is prepared to help along a mutually beneficial agreement. And there is little to suggest any peace deal struck by the US with the Taliban will be worth the paper it’s written on, for Afghanistan as a whole. With Afghanistan’s presidential elections scheduled for September 28, Mr Ghani is struggling to project authority, premised on support for his government of its main ally and sponsor, the US.
It is possible that the US and Taliban will resume their conversation, and that the Afghan government will still be on the sidelines. Even though Mr Trump has said talks are “dead”, there is some speculation the cancellation of the Camp David summit was a blip, and probably a temporary one. The Taliban initially lashed out. On Sunday, it said, “More than anyone else, the loss will be for the United States.” But it also cannily indicated a willingness to return to the negotiating table. As for the US, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo bristled on Sunday about the propriety and good sense of negotiating with the Taliban. He told the American television show Face the Nation: “I’d say to anybody who say you shouldn’t negotiate with the Taliban, tell me how else they’d like us to talk to — to try to get reconciliation…”
But the point was never that the US should not negotiate with the Taliban. It is about the parameters and preconditions. As things stand, the peace negotiations seem unlikely to offer any more than a sequential US drawdown of forces and an eventual exit from Afghanistan, just in time for Mr Trump’s re-election on the triumphal declaration he ended America’s longest war.
Colombia may seem a poor example of conflict-resolution because commanders of its demobilised Farc insurgent group recently announced a return to war. Even so, its four-year peace process is still worth considering. The 2016 deal with Farc ended half a century of conflict, the longest guerrilla war in the Americas, on a clear prospectus. This included Farc’s eventual participation in national politics and the end of armed conflict, alongside good faith measures such as a ceasefire.
That’s not the way it is with Taliban. And that’s the problem.