Afghanistan, Imperialism

US-Taliban Deal : Attempt to Afghanize the War or Outcome Foretold

Corona pandemic has put in shadow developments in Afghanistan. US imperialism is trying to implement the agreement it had signed with Taliban on February 29 in Doha (Qatar). Beyond the spotlight, attempts are on to see through the deal.

Recently, on May 8, US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was in Delhi. He met Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. In an interview he emphasized “US-Taliban agreement is a necessary step to transition to the Afghan owned process.” (The Hindu May 9) In that interview he advised, “India should talk directly to Taliban, discuss terror concerns directly.” Khalilazad was trying to enlist India in support of the deal and was exhorting India to have direct talks with Taliban, driving home the point that US has turned a chapter on militarily defeating Taliban.

Khalilzad was here earlier as well i.e. after Doha deal. The immediate context of his visit this time seems to be the deal between two claimants to Presidency in Afghanistan after the so-called election there. It took an aid cut of US$1 billion and threat of some more to bring them to a deal, with Abdul Ghani continuing as President, Abdullah leading the team to negotiate with Taliban and cabinet posts divided among their supporters. With Afghan govt. coerced to support the deal, Khalilzad made one more attempt to rope in India in a supporting role. It is not that US views India as an important player in Afghanistan, but wants to humour India for its role in containment of China and co-operation in policing Indian Ocean trade routes.

How much importance the US attaches to Indian role in Afghanistan was apparent when Trump mocked at Modi’s alleged boast of having built a library in Kabul. Even if that is taken to be in the distant past, only last month i.e. in April, 2020, United Nations Secretariat organized a meeting on Afghanistan. To this meeting it invited six physical neighbours of Afghanistan i.e. Pakistan, China, Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. To this meeting Russia, America and Ghani Govt. were also invited and they participated. Neither US nor Ghani Govt. insisted on India too being invited to that meeting.(The Hindu, 16.5.2020) Interestingly,Khalilzad,in the9th May Interview,had said,“Our strong position is that there shouldn’t be (terror) sanctuaries on either side of the Afghan-Pakistan border…” This was at variance with earlier statements by US President wherein he talked of closure of only Pakistan based sanctuaries.

Deal with Taliban has been in the pipeline for quite some time to provide an escape route to US imperialism from the “Graveyard of empires run amuck”. In the penultimate year of his Presidency, in 2015,Obama had allowed Taliban an office in Doha. This was after the failure of the ‘surge’ that he had opted for to win what he had called “a necessary war”. The frustration in the US Administration with the conduct of the war was building over a long time. Bush Administration had embarked on a ‘nation building’ exercise in Afghanistan to colonize that country and Obama continued the war though without those bombastic phrases. But on the ground, Taliban continued to gain ground and inflict casualties on US and allies. By 2018, UN reports admitted that nearly half of Afghanistan was under the control of Taliban. The report said that Taliban contended for control over 70% of Afghanistan. War was not only in stalemate, in fact Taliban were having an upper hand on the battle field. US supported Afghanistan Govt. controlled Capital Kabul and some other provincial centres but there too, Taliban could strike at will.

While all the ground work was completed for the deal to be inked in Washington in September 2019,then NSA Bolton bolted and the signing was put off. However, Washington Post published a set of internal documents from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. On December 9, 2019 a Washington Post reporter published an article based on these papers, “At War With the Truth.” The documents revealed that war was not going well and the officials leading US troops on the ground were of the opinion that war was not winnable. However, US Administrations including Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump, and military leaders continuously lied to the people the US troops are making progress and they are winning the war while in fact the ground leaders had an opposite opinion. Increasingly larger areas were contested by Taliban and areas under Taliban control kept on increasing.

Publication of Washington Papers brought to the people the truth of the war and further eroded support for the war among the people. To an extent the Washington Papers played a role Pentagon Papers had played in bringing home the truth of Vietnam War. Trump again brought signing the deal on the agenda. Discussions were revived in January 2020 again. Draft was anyway ready for signing in September itself. It was signed on February 29 in Doha.

Optics said it all. A listless Khalilzad and an exuberant Baraderrose to exchange the signed copies of the “Agreement between Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan whom US does not recognize and calls Taliban and United States of America.” The agreement signed at Doha does not hide who won this longest running war in the history of United States sans some face saving clauses. The Agreement entails total withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan within 14 months, nearly half of them in 135 days. The agreement also includes commitment by Taliban not to allow territory under their control for the use by organizations especially Al Queda and ISIS-Khorasan for attacking US and its allies (not named in the Agreement). The other two aspects are intra-Afghan dialogue and ceasefire for which there are no binding commitments. The agreement is basically a face saving device for US Admn. to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan which Trump had promised in his election campaign and on which he wants to show progress when he seeks re-election in November this year.

The agreement was preceded by a weeklong cessation of attacks by Taliban. It was meant to demonstrate that Taliban does exercise control over the forces fighting against US occupation of Afghanistan. With violence free week, the stage was set for signing the Agreement. The agreement envisages release of 5000 Taliban prisoners (of a reported total of nearly 10,000) in exchange for 1000 prisoners by Taliban by March 10 and removal of Taliban leaders from Terrorist List by the end of May i.e. within three months. These commitments are mentioned in the Agreement. It is noteworthy that the Afghanistan Govt. was not a signatory to the Agreement in Doha.

Implementation of the agreement has not been smooth. It reflects the contradictions in the US Administration as well as contradictions among different sections in Afghan govt. installed by US and its allies and the different powers supporting this govt. While US started drawing down its troops, the follow up action ran into problems. Ghani Govt. did not agree to release of Taliban prisoners. It took US Admin. some coercing and cajoling to bring different sections in Afghanistan Govt. to honour the agreement. Release of prisoners started, albeit slowly.

Divisions in Afghanistan set up also prevented the follow-up action i.e. intra-Afghan dialogue. Power sharing arrangement was reached after US intervened. Those who talk of Afghan-led process, simply pull the wool over the eyes that this is the Govt. sustained by US troops. With foreign troops controlling the country, the peace talks have to essentially be between the occupying power and the main resistance group, nobody doubting the latter to be Taliban. The whole propaganda of purely Afghan-led peace process, with US troops militarily controlling the country, is a mere sham which is being thrust on the people. The fly in the ointment is that occupying power does not want to maintain the occupation in the earlier way and would like to reach agreement with Taliban to save some influence.

The hypocrisy of those who claim to defend non-existent democracy in Afghanistan is laughable. Take the recently held election for the President of Afghanistan, held after 18 years of occupation which was meant to bring democracy. The results of the elections are disputed. But leave that alone. Of the 37 million Afghans, around one fourth were registered as voters i.e. 9.6 million. Of these registered voters, only one third. i.e. nearly 3.2 million reportedly exercised their vote. In over a third of Afghanistan no vote could take place and nearly 5000 polling booths remained non-functional. Of the votes cast, over a million were deemed invalid leaving only 1.9 million ‘valid’ votes. Abdul Ghani reportedly got less than a million votes and was declared a winner. His opponent says that nearly 3 lakh of these votes are fraudulent. With a person getting less than a million votes in a country of 37 million, getting elected in a stage managed election is being called democracy! It is hypocrisy even by bourgeois standards. US Administration and Govts. the world over well know that the Govt. in Kabul enjoys no legitimacy among Afghans.

Govt. of India finds itself in a bind over the change of strategy of US imperialism in Afghanistan. Indian ruling classes have viewed the question of Afghanistan solely through the prism of Pakistan, viewing success of Taliban as gain of strategic depth by Pakistan. They have further endangered the traditional relations between people of India and Afghanistan. Earlier they had supported occupation of Afghanistan by the then social imperialist superpower Soviet Union. Support of US occupation of Afghanistan has not endeared India to the people of Afghanistan who have fought against foreign occupation of their land. India has not been in a position of taking up combat role in Afghanistan and has been asking US to continue its occupation of Afghanistan. Now with US deciding to reduce its military presence in Afghanistan, Indian Govt. does not have a clue of how to cope with this situation. Had India opposed the US invasion of Afghanistan, India would have earned the goodwill of the people of that country which had historically been a gateway to India prior to the advent of Naval powers. But the Indian ruling classes, subservient to imperialist powers, squandered that opportunity to earn goodwill. And that would have happened without spending any public money. India should also have opposed invasion and military occupation by US and its allies as an attack on a sovereign country despite all imperialist powers lining behind this attack in the then unipolar world. Now India, having spent over 3 billion US dollars, finds itself increasingly isolated in that country. Indian media noted that Taliban thanked all regional powers – Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia etc. in their address but did not include India in that list. Who is to blame for that except rulers in Delhi who have abiding faith in imperialist powers? Afghans view Pakistan differently despite its support to US ‘global war on terror’ because Pakistan was threatened by the then Bush Admn. but India chose to support that foreign occupation on its own.

Here it is worthwhile to comment on some apologists of colonial occupation of Afghanistan who cite medieval, archaic, anti-democratic nature of Taliban. That is the case but that is the case with Afghanistan society. Extending support to progressive forces or progressive movements there is not the same thing and cannot be the excuse for supporting colonial occupation of that country. Imperialist US had been a supporter of the forces that led to the emergence of Taliban and still does not mind cutting a deal with them. So any talk of progressivism in this colonial occupation reminds one of the non-sense of ‘white man’s burden’ which had attracted a good number of coloured compradors and continues to do so.

To many commentators, the situation is reminiscent of US withdrawal from Vietnam. Despite obvious differences, parallels are indeed being drawn between the two. However, the outline post US reduction of forces to nearly half is hazy and will probably be determined by the ground situation. But one thing is clear, and everybody is recognizing this that Taliban will play a dominant role in the new dispensation. It is noteworthy that attacks between US troops and Taliban are forbidden in the agreement, including drone attacks by USA and suicide bomb attacks by Taliban. There is no bar on the attacks between Taliban and Afghanistan govt. There is only talk of reduction of violence. In fact violence between Taliban and Govt. forces has continued but it has not stopped US from continuing its drawdown. What will happen to Afghanistan Govt. is anybody’s guess. With the writing on the wall being clear some sections supporting Kabul Govt. may switch sides and negotiate their terms with Taliban. Or Taliban may simply unseat the govt. post withdrawal. When asked if the US withdrawal might result in the Taliban eventually unseating the existing Afghan government, President Trump told the press that it is “not supposed to happen that way but it possibly will.” Trump added that “Eventually, countries have to take care of themselves. We can’t be there for another 20 years… You can only hold someone’s hand for so long.”

No wonder this scenario is reminding the people of the fall of US propped up South Vietnam govt. once US withdrew troops. In 1973, the then US President Richard Nixon had referred to the peace accord between US and North Vietnam as ‘Peace with honour’. US attempted what was called Vietnamization of war. The US wants the same in Afghanistan and probably the period of 14 months envisaged for total withdrawal is meant to see the progress of the conflict between Taliban and Kabul Govt. However, the ultimate outcome may not be very different in respect to the fall of US propped up Govt. except the time line. Though stakes for the US Govt. are quite high, with nineteen years of war, nearly three thousand military casualties and anther thousand from the allies, tens of thousands having sustained injuries and trillions of dollars disappearing in labrynthine caves, the outcome stares starkly in the face. US imperialism may be left to rue the inhospitable scorching desert plains and commentators may figure  in leisure the fatal universal pull of Afghanistan for powers looking for world hegemony, a trophy sought by many but won by none.