Two bloody massacres carried out against civilians in Afghanistan this week, one of which killed two newborn babies, have raised serious questions about the viability of the recently signed US-Taliban peace deal, potentially suggesting that the Trump administration may be better off cutting its losses and abandoning the war-ravaged country altogether.
As part of its so-called ‘Agreement For Bringing Peace to Afghanistan,' also known as ‘The Doha Deal,’ the Trump Administration sought to bring to a close America’s longest running war, which still costs the American taxpayer, according to US government auditors, approximately $4 billion per year. Under the deal, the US would cut its forces in Afghanistan down from roughly 14,000 to 8,600 my mid-July if the Taliban kept to its commitment to reduce violence and engage with the central government. A full withdrawal would ensue within 14 months thereafter.
Furthermore, intra-Afghan talks between the Taliban and the Kabul-based government of Ashraf Ghani were supposed to be initiated on March 10, but both sides have yet to seriously commit to that effort. When they tried to do so in April, little progress was made and the Taliban’s representatives walked out, slamming efforts as “fruitless.”
Two recent incidents further cast any idea of ‘peace on the horizon’ into question. On Tuesday, May 12, 24 people were killed when gunmen disguised as police officers stormed a maternity ward - an attack that evoked nationwide revulsion because it targeted women in labour, new mothers and two babies. Then, on the same day, at least 32 people were killed in the eastern province of Nangarhar when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives-laden vest at a funeral for a local Afghan commander.
Shortly after, in another attack, a truck packed with explosives blew up near a court in the eastern city of Gardez, killing five people. The Taliban claimed responsibility.
President Trump has consistently voiced his desire to withdraw American troops from the Afghan quagmire.
Back in February, during his State of the Union Address to the US Congress, Trump declared that he was “working to finally end America’s longest war and bring our troops back home.”
“It’s not our function to serve other nations as a law enforcement agency,” said the president, echoing the longstanding desire among much of the American electorate to see an end to the US’ ‘forever wars.’
Yet, the president’s ability to reduce US troops and make his pledge a reality is contingent upon a number of factors that are arguably very difficult to achieve, and these are highlighted by the recent attacks.
The agreement says that the Taliban is to not allow territory to be used by Al-Qaeda-like groups. Yet, the local Daesh* affiliate, ISIS Khorasan (ISISK) - which is said to be made of up of the most radical and disgruntled ex-Taliban fighters who oppose negotiations with the US - claimed responsibility for the attack on the commander’s funeral, raising questions about the Taliban’s ability - or perhaps even its willingness - to prevent terrorist organisations from operating on Afghan soil. No group has claimed responsibility for the hospital atrocity.
While the US has blamed both attacks on ISISK, the Afghan government says that they were carried out by the Taliban. Indeed, the ambiguity surrounding such attacks only further highlights the difficulty the US will face in trying to bring the war to a peaceful end on the deal’s agreed terms.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation has been widely quoted as saying that, “there are forces such as ISIS [Khorasan] that doesn’t see peace in Afghanistan in its interests and are trying to increase violence, to undermine the prospect for peace. We’re urging both sides not to fall into that trap.”
Moreover, allegations that Pakistani intelligence has long fuelled extremist insurgencies in neighbouring Afghanistan in order to keep its chief geopolitical adversary, India, out of the country also suggests that the Taliban may not be able to prevent such groups from using Afghanistan as a staging ground, even if it wanted to.
Afghanistan’s National Security Advisor, Hamdullah Mohib, is quoted as saying of the Taliban that, “[if they] cannot control the violence, or their sponsors [Pakistan] have now subcontracted their terror to other entities [ISISK] -- which was one of our primary concerns from the beginning then their seems little point in continuing to engage Taliban in ‘peace talks.’”
Following Tuesday’s attacks, President Ashraf Ghani announced that the Kabul government had decided to resume offensive operations against the Taliban, likely to further fuel the cycle of violence and undermine the prospect for intra-Afghan talks, which is a central demand of the US-negotiated peace deal. In response, the Taliban has pledged to return to hostilities against government forces.
The spike in violence undermines another central tenet of the US’ pact with the Islamist militants that was reportedly hashed out in secret: that the Taliban would work to cut violence in the country by 80%. It appears that so far, the Taliban leadership has been unable to meet that requirement.
President Trump has already had to brake off peace talks - only to reinitiate them later on - with the Taliban once back in September 2019 when a surge in attacks led to the death of an American soldier in Kabul.
However, despite the explosion of seemingly intractable violence, the US maintains that it will continue to withdraw troops as intended from the troubled South Asian country.
Indeed, as the November 2020 election creeps closer, President Trump likely has his eye on the Afghan exit in order to fulfil his central campaign pledge of ending that long and costly war, with or without peace.
This prediction is only further supported by comments made by US Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, back in December 2019 that, in line with the Trump Administration’s National Security Strategy that prioritises competition with China, “[troops currently in Afghanistan will] be redeployed to the Indo-Pacific to face off our greatest challenge in terms of the great power competition that’s vis-a-vis China.” Therefore, Esper said, troops would be brought out of Afghanistan “with or without” a peace agreement.
In other words, considering that peace is unlikely to take hold in Afghanistan any time soon, it appears likely that the Trump administration will be increasingly looking to cut its losses and leave the country.
*Daesh, also known as ISIS/IS/Islamic State, is a terrorist group banned in Russia and many other countries.