Since the tragic death of US Ambassador Adolph Dubs in Kabul during the Saur Revolution in 1979, US-Afghanistan relations have been turbulent. In the four decades since, the aims of both sides have been ambiguous and questioned by the other. At the moment, the question is: Why are the Americans in Afghanistan?
After four decades of American involvement and two decades of physical presence, many Afghans and Americans are still misinterpreting the American goal by wrongly connecting it to reconstruction projects, international aid, the establishment of democracy and good governance, and promoting women's rights. In February 2020, President Donald Trump tried to end this narrative by signing a historic agreement with the Taliban, which paved the way to end the longest American war.
Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from the region created an emotional shockwave among the young generation of cosmopolitan Afghans, the Afghan civil society, Afghan journalists, and women’s rights organizations. Many of them, who supported the US presence in the past two decades, feel frustrated and betrayed by their American counterparts who will now leave them alone at the negotiation table with the Taliban.
The two secret security annexes of the Doha agreement have also raised concerns among Afghan security experts. Some argue that the Taliban has been contracted by Washington to fight al-Qaida, and others suggest that these security annexes will come into effect in the future, preventing the US from sharing its military and intelligence information with the Afghan security forces about the Taliban presence and their activities in Afghanistan.
On the other hand, since the agreement's signing, the Taliban chose to repeat their unpleasant message to the Afghan government that they won the war against the Americans and forced the invaders to leave Afghanistan. In all interviews, including in the recent Aljazeera interview, the Taliban leaders made it clear that they want a “rerun” of their previous time in power in Afghanistan, without a single time mentioning the future role of the current administration.
While the fight between the Taliban and the Afghan security forces continues, more than 4,000 Taliban prisoners have been released, but neither side has yet fulfilled the terms of the agreement, and the intra-Afghan negotiations--which should bring both parties to the table--have not yet started. Besides, President Ashraf Ghani and his inner circle appeared to get personally offended when the Trump administration forced them to form another power-sharing coalition with Dr. Abdullah. All these events further degraded relations between Kabul and Trump’s administration.
As a result, some experts indicate that the Afghan government and President Ghani’s team are trying to postpone the negotiation with the Taliban in hopes that the US presidential election outcomes in November 2020 will change the current course of US policy toward Afghanistan. They hope that if former vice president Joe Biden wins the election, the new policy of the White House administration will be hardened towards the Taliban.
To explain why they are mistaken, and why this prediction is dangerous for the peace process, we have to consider American involvement in Afghanistan in three separate phases. The first phase was the Cold War, where the United States with a “containment policy” supported the Afghan mujahedeen in order to keep the Soviets and its communist regime at the Pakistan border. Once the "godless" communists were defeated, the first phase ended, and Washington left the mujahedeen to their destiny, which resulted in the Afghan civil wars.
The second phase started in 2001 with the American invasion as a response to the September 11 attack and the Taliban link to al-Qaida. This phase also officially ended when the American military killed Osama Bin Laden, and the Obama administration started downsizing the military presence in Afghanistan.
The third and ongoing phase started with President Trump's new South Asia strategy. He prioritized the withdrawal of its troops from the region and intensified the US’s relationship with India to counterbalance the threat of China’s rise.
This phase, one may argue, also officially ended when the historical agreement between Washington and the Taliban was signed in Doha. Even if this phase is not ended yet, it is now past the 135 days--a significant marker mentioned in the document--which US Special Representative Zalmai Khalilzad on Twitter called “a successful milestone in implementing this agreement.”
As I argued in another op-ed here in TOLOnews, the Afghan politicians, who primarily benefited via corruption from the American presence in the past two decades, failed to build a strategic partnership with the United States and missed the changing American policy in South Asia. From the Afghan media landscape, it seems that not only Afghan politicians misinterpreted the primarily goal of the American presence in Afghanistan, but the Afghan civil society, the women’s rights organizations, and the well-educated Afghans misjudged the goal as well. These individuals and groups saw America as primarily liberators who would promote democracy. It seems that many of them became fully immersed in this false narrative, and now they can hardly believe that Americans are leaving them without finishing those tasks.
Working closely with both the Afghan and American government, I can say that from the American perspective, all three administrations, including the Obama administration--where Joe Biden served as vice president—clearly articulated why Americans went to Afghanistan. In all those years, the White House and Pentagon spokespersons openly communicated that the main reason to engage in Afghanistan is to protect the United States from international terrorism.
It’s also not a secret that the United States used the international development aid budget primarily as a counterinsurgency tool to win the foreign nation’s ‘hearts and minds’ in order to protect US security interests. Therefore, the USAID funding to promote democracy or women's rights in Afghanistan—and everywhere else in the world--always has been an integral part of the US national security policy.
This false narrative--that American troops came to Afghanistan to promote women's rights or build girls’ schools--has been largely promoted in the past two decades by Western NGOs, DC/London/Brussel/Dubai consulting firms, opportunistic Afghan diaspora, corrupt Kabul elites and indirectly by policymakers in Europe. I mention Europe because it was the European leaders who had difficulty at home explaining why EU troops needed to be deployed to Afghanistan. After the mismanaged conflict in the Balkans, the EU leaders--who were reluctant to send their forces outside the European wall--chose to use the cause of women's rights and the building of girls’ schools as a means to cover their military participation in the ‘big brother’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, both wars have already ended for the United States and its allies, and now they are committed to leave Afghanistan. In addition, as Obama’s deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes wrote in The Atlantic, "the 9/11 era is over" and the idea that every day could be September 12 is over. The coronavirus and new American challenges in Asia, where assertive China and revanchist Russia are each trying to become the dominant player in the region, are more substantial problems than the Taliban.
Also, within the United States, the narrative of the War on Terror is outdated. The current generation of Americans, as Mr. Rhodes describes, are now more worried about climate change, student loans, economic and social inequality, than the threats from a group of few hundred disillusioned radical al-Qaida or ISIS-K fighters in the mountains of the AFPAK region. This is not only the mindset of young Democrats or Republicans who are voting for former VP Joe Biden or President Trump but it is also widely shared by members of American think tanks and academia, policymakers, and among diplomats and military officers here in Washington. The majority of former State Department, DoD, or White House advisers who previously thought differently about the Taliban are today in agreement that the United States needs to end this war and leave an unsuccessful Afghanistan chapter behind in US foreign policy.
Therefore, in terms of Afghanistan’s fate, it doesn't matter who gets re-elected in the US in November. The next president of the United States--in January 2021--will primarily be busy with internal affairs or much bigger problems in the world, rather than thinking about new Afghanistan policy.
The fact that some Kabul elites believe that presidential candidate Joe Biden will change the current US Afghanistan policy and keep pouring USAID funding into their corrupt system, proves that Afghan politicians lack the capacity to understand why Americans originally came to Afghanistan in the first place, and why they are leaving now.
In the end, it will be unwise for Afghan officials to postpone the peace process again and demolish the last chance for peace that Afghanistan has. After almost half a century, the Afghans have the right to end this bloody conflict where every day Afghans lose their lives for a war that no one benefits from. The Afghan leaders cannot use any more external excuses to stop the negotiation process, as they have in the past. On the Taliban side, they should stop the violence, accept the current pluralistic Afghan society and demonstrate the willingness and commitment to become normal non-violent political players. Also, the US, EU and other influential “stakeholders” with representatives in Kabul should not keep silent and watch how the leaders of both parties—from their safe palaces in Kabul and Doha—order their forces to continue killing and proudly announce “victories” in the media, while at the same time saying to the world that they are working on negotiation. It’s time for real talks for everyone.
About the author: Arash Yaqin worked previously as a communication adviser for the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, and as Senior Cultural Affairs Adviser for the US Department of State within the US Embassy Kabul. Currently, he is an M.A. candidate for National Security Affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C.
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