It is entirely reasonable that, after 18 years of bitter bloodshed, the Trump administration should be actively seeking an exit strategy from its role in Afghanistan’s bitter civil war.
It has, after all, been the US that has paid the greatest price, in both blood and treasure, for the military intervention that began in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001.
To date the conflict has claimed the lives of more than 4,000 American military and civilian personnel, while a further 20,000 have been wounded, many suffering life-changing injuries including the loss of limbs. American taxpayers, meanwhile, have spent a cool $1 trillion (Dh3.67 trillion) trying to stabilise this benighted country.
Britain, too, made many sacrifices in Afghanistan, not least the 454 military personnel who lost their lives. But such is the government’s total obsession with Brexit that Britain’s voice has hardly featured in the negotiations over what happens now, an oversight that hardly does justice to the families of those who suffered death or serious injury.
It has fallen to Donald Trump, who has made plain his dislike of America’s involvement in what he regards as unnecessary and costly overseas adventures, to make all the running.
According to Zalmay Khalilzad, one of America’s most experienced diplomats and Trump’s special envoy to Afghanistan, the negotiations have progressed to the point where both parties are on “the threshold of an agreement”.
These comments might appear somewhat optimistic given that, no sooner had Khalilzad spoken than the Taliban launched a fresh military offensive to capture the strategically important northern city of Kunduz. Since then there have been further Taliban attacks against the capital of Baghlan province, as well as a suicide bomb attack against the capital Kabul — hardly the actions of an organisation that is serious about peace.
Yet, so far as the Taliban is concerned, this is its way of demonstrating its supremacy. The organisation has made steady gains in reclaiming territory from coalition forces following former US president Barack Obama’s unwise decision to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, to the extent that it now controls about half of the country.
Meanwhile, the Afghan security forces, which were supposed to assume responsibility for safeguarding the country once coalition forces withdrew, have suffered a serious collapse in both manpower and morale, with the result that their force strength is now at its lowest level since 2015.
The Taliban clearly believes that the tide of the conflict is finally turning in its favour, a view that will draw encouragement from the fact that Khalilzad’s proposal for gradually reducing America’s current force of around 14,500 troops, whose main task is to train and support the Afghan security agencies, has been carefully choreographed to coincide with Trump’s re-election bid next year. Trump is already planning to cut the American presence by 5,000 in anticipation of the Taliban signing the peace deal.
It would be an unmitigated disaster for Afghanistan if the ultimate outcome of any peace agreement was that the Taliban was able to re-establish its autocratic rule.
There are, though, compelling reasons why it would be prudent for the Trump administration, as the negotiations enter their final phase, to proceed with caution if the hard-won gains of recent years are not to be lost.
One major shortcoming of the negotiating process is that, to date, the Afghan government, the democratically elected body that is supposed to represent the interests of the Afghan people, has so far not been allowed to participate.
This is because Washington judges it far more important to secure safeguards from the Taliban that it will not allow terror groups such as Al Qaida to reestablish bases in Afghanistan once US forces have withdrawn.
It was the Taliban’s refusal to cut its links with Al Qaida in the wake of the September 11 attacks that led to the US-led invasion in the first place, and not even Trump, with his aversion to military interventions, could countenance an Al Qaida revival.
Assuming the Taliban provides such assurances, Khalilzad’s next step is to persuade the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani to accept the deal before elections that are due to be held later this month.
US officials say they have received a commitment from the Taliban that it will respect the country’s democratic constitution — one of the few tangible legacies of the allied intervention.
Ghani, in common with many other Afghan politicians, will have good reason to be suspicious of such an undertaking.
It would be an unmitigated disaster for Afghanistan, as well as all those countries that fought to give it a better future, if the ultimate outcome of any peace agreement was that the Taliban was able to re-establish its autocratic rule.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019
Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence editor and chief foreign affairs columnist.