Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the leader of the Taliban delegation, and Zalmay Khalilzad, US envoy for peace in Afghanistan, shake hands after signing an agreement at a ceremony between members of Afghanistan's Taliban and the US in Doha Image Credit: Reuters

Saturday, February 29, 2020 is being feted as a historic day signifying the cessation of more than 18 years of conflict. For many the agreement signed in Doha by the US Special Envoy and the Taliban’s chief negotiator represents a clear path to ending one of the longest and bloodiest wars that has stolen the lives of more than 100,000 Afghan civilians, 3,550 coalition soldiers and up to 2,000 foreign mercenaries.

No one can dispute the necessity of ending this fruitless war. The cost to taxpayers has been horrendous. By New York Times estimates the Pentagon has expended $1.5 trillion while many billions were spent on training Afghan security forces as well as economic aid and reconstruction programmes not to mention a failed endeavour to reduce the trade in opium of which 80 per cent worldwide originates from Afghanistan.

Today the Taliban is in control of an estimated 40 per cent of the country which in itself is astonishing given the group has been endlessly pummeled by US bombs and Afghan ground forces since 2001.

Under the Trump administration’s deal the Taliban is obliged to ensure terrorist groups are not permitted to attack US or allied troops on Afghan soil


Run-up to November vote

Most experts agree that throughout the talks with the US the Taliban have had the upper hand particularly given President Trump’s keenness to hold to his pre-election pledge of bringing American troops home in the run-up to November’s vote.

The more jaundiced variety of pundit believes the agreement is a surrender document on the part of the US. Provided the Taliban holds to its commitments under the deal to hold talks with the Afghan government and to cease all links with terrorist entities, all US forces will be withdrawn within the coming 14 months. In the meantime, there will be prisoner swaps; as many as 5,000 Taliban prisoners are currently imprisoned

There is no escaping the fact that George W. Bush’s decision to invade and occupy the nation long dubbed ‘The graveyard of Empires’ to “root out Bin Laden from his cave” and to free Afghans from the Taliban boot was a grossly ill-conceived knee-jerk exercise in response to 9/11 when human intelligence would have been far more effective.

Osama Bin Laden succeeded in evading capture and was found to have hot-footed it to neighbouring Pakistan where he met his end at the hands of US Special Forces in 2011, but his demise did not signal the end of Al Qaida.

Mutually beneficial

On the contrary, the terrorist group retains a powerful presence in country while its relationship with the Taliban “continues to be close and mutually beneficial” according to a report issued by the UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring team. After all these years none of the Bush administration’s goals have been fulfilled.

Under the Trump administration’s deal the Taliban is obliged to ensure terrorist groups are not permitted to attack US or allied troops on Afghan soil. Does this mean the Taliban will turn its firepower on its ally Al Qaida which they considered sacrosanct in 2001 even at the cost of a US invasion?

In short there is scepticism all round and what happened to America’s set-in-stone policy of never negotiating with terrorists? In reality as brutal and authoritarian as the Taliban were as rulers they did not constitute a terrorist group. However in 2018 they were judged by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) to be the world’s deadliest terrorist organisation. The IEP’s Global Terror Index placed the Taliban ahead of Al Qaida for carrying out “nine of the ten deadliest incidents” that year.

Ironically, the situation has come full circle. Hamid Karzai, who was installed by the US as interim leader of Afghanistan on December 22, 2001 prior to his election as president three years later, was keen to hold talks with the Taliban early on with respect to amnesty but Bush’s hard-nosed Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld threatened to deprive the war-torn nation of reconstruction funds unless the Taliban leadership were put on trial and punished.

Loss of eyes and limbs

Then, unlike now, the Taliban were bruised and scattered, almost a spent force. Just think how many lives would have been spared not to mention loss of eyes and limbs had the White House taken President Karzai’s advice at a time when the new Afghan government with US backing held all the cards!

The war in Afghanistan has overall been an exercise in futility but it must be admitted that women, at least those in the major cities, have benefited greatly from educational and employment opportunities denied to them by the Taliban which also deprived women of the right to leave home without a male escort.

I can still picture Laura Bush and Cherie Blair celebrating the right of Afghan women to wear nail polish without risk of having their nails pulled out but there is no mention of women’s rights in the new deal.

Whether this agreement will serve the long-suffering Afghan people or whether it is primarily aimed at oiling President Trump’s efforts to secure a second term is moot. The proof will be seen in the pudding over time. The danger is that the Taliban might play along until it gains sufficient strength to launch a coup, possibly in partnership with other undesirables. The question is what will the US and its Nato allies do then?

— Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.

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