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Why Trump calls off dialogue with Taliban?

US President Trump’s Saturday (7thSept) announcement on Twitter that he had “called off” talks which he was to hold in a “secret meeting” with the Taliban and separately with President Ashraf Ghani on Sunday (8th September) at Camp David, a landmark venue for big deals and agreements and, of course, a symbol of prestige for incumbent presidents to display their feats.
The whole announcement seems unusual if not bizarre at a time when US Special envoy on Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad had generated glimmer of hope for a breakthrough with the Taliban and the latter also endorsed of an agreement hinting at American withdrawal from Afghanistan in the coming months. The euphoria generated thus far by Mr. Trump could be seen from his future plans for the 2020 elections in which he would be able to ensconce himself as a peace maker who not only brought back the American soldiers but also saved US$ 50 billion a year for the country.
Another intriguing but expected development relating to President Trump’s Twitter announcement was President Ashraf Ghani’s reported “regret” from visiting Camp David on Friday, a day earlier of Mr. Trump’s breaking news. This was very much on the cards as President Ghani felt humiliated at the hands of Americans who not only bypassed Ghani during the whole process of talks but offered very little to the Ghani government in the wake of American troops withdrawal from Afghanistan. Prima facie, Americans had accepted the Taliban as heir apparent once they departed from Afghanistan. This left very little for Mr. Ghani to celebrate and convinced him to cancel the visit.
Taliban reaction was on the expected lines. Its spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid pledged to continue their struggle till they achieved “the ultimate goal of expelling all the foreign forces from Afghanistan”. While Taliban did not give the real reasons that prompted President Trump to call off negotiations, the persistent demand of a ceasefire from the Americans apparently became the major reason for this decision. Differences over the phased withdrawal of American troops also became a bone of contention with the Taliban as after agreeing for initial withdrawal of 5000 troops in 135 days the Americans were dilly-dallying over the remaining troop withdrawal, which was unacceptable to the Taliban.
The question is whether these negotiations were being held with the purpose of bringing peace and stability in the country? During the past 18 years that the US-led coalition forces have been in Afghanistan, the country has seen gradual deterioration of security situation and growth of Taliban influence in the country. Certain hard and bitter facts need to be put on the drawing board to understand the flaws in the strategy employed after dislodging the Taliban.
First, the leadership in Afghanistan was parachuted from abroad whether we talk about Mr. Hamid Karzai or Ashraf Ghani. These gentlemen had no experience of running tribal or state affairs and played marginal role in the political development of the country which would have made them acceptable to the wider spectrum of Afghan populace. At the political level they do not formally head or receive support from a political party, which keeps them vulnerable to political blackmailing.
Second, despite lapse of 18 years, Afghan political parties are mostly run by the warlords which means very little for political development. The Afghan parliament is elected on non-party basis which deprives members of parliament to adopt a common position on an issue. There is no opposition per se in the parliament and no training of the political cadres to argue and lobby on a particular issue in the parliament. Consequently, the president can manoeuvre with the parliamentarians through carrot and stick policy which incidentally has been the case from the beginning. Therefore, the essence of democracy taking roots in a conservative society is missing.
Third, linked to the above two issues would be the place of Taliban who have yet to disclose their plans for the future political setup in the country. Apparently, they are averse to the idea of elections or western form of democracy; they perceive themselves as victims of American onslaught after the 9/11 and that their government was dislodged. They would prefer handing over of power by the Americans to the Taliban and only then would decide about the contours of future Afghan government including, inter alia, fate of the present dispensation supported by the US.
Fourth, while President Trump was convinced of the sheer waste of men and material resources in Afghanistan, it was Pentagon and CIA which from the beginning opposed the idea of complete withdrawal from Afghanistan and emphasized for extracting verifiable guarantees from the Taliban that apart from denying space to the Al-Qaida/ISIS, would not disturb the present governmental setup in the country. Concurrently, President Ghani succeeded in convincing President Trump’s advisors that the bulk of Afghan security forces may join Taliban once the US hastened its withdrawal from the country.
Fifth, Taliban tried to overplay their hand by boasting that victory was round the corner; they refused to recognize Ashraf Ghani government or allowed his officials to participate in intra-Afghan dialogue in Doha and Moscow in their official capacity. Taliban’s attitude towards women’s rights was equally non-committal when they would close the conversation by saying that women’s rights would be observed according to the “Islamic principles” without explaining whether it would be the repeat of “Taliban-era Islamic principles” or universally accepted principles in the Islamic world. Simultaneously, they continued with attacks on American and Afghan forces which also caused civilian casualties.
The question is whether negotiations have been called off for good or still some hope left to pickup the threads from the 9th round of talks in Doha? Certainly, being a businessman Mr. Trump must have counted his gains and losses of staying or quitting Afghanistan. For the time being Taliban are the gainers as from a pariah status to interlocutors Taliban have gained legitimacy and while holding nine rounds of talks they could establish contacts with major powers.
During the past 18 years the US has used massive force but could not cow down the Taliban and is unlikely to achieve its objectives in future even if it raises the force level many times. The problem lies with the American approach to mold Afghanistan, a conservative society, according to its definition of statecraft. There is a need for the Americans to revisit the whole situation and find out the pitfalls in their approach while engaging with the Taliban, who have gained popularity and credibility in the country even in those areas considered strongholds of anti-Taliban warlords.
Meanwhile, American handpicked “democrats”, who actually are “rent-seekers”, enjoy American largesse and preside over a war economy run through narco-business. They would prefer permanent presence of American troops. It is, therefore, not surprising that ratio of Burqas (head-to-toe tent-like covering used by women) have suddenly increased in the cities of Afghanistan, including the capital of Kabul, probably a precursor to return of the Taliban. Mr. Trump will have to think hard before trying hammer and anvil approach in Afghanistan, especially when he is desperately looking for his re-election next year.



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