Will America’s long and painful entanglement in Afghanistan end with helicopters lifting off from the roof of the US embassy and marines smashing rifle butts down on the fingers of locals desperately trying to climb aboard?
A collapse of the government in Kabul is not the most likely outcome in Afghanistan, but it’s not impossible either. The Taliban have steadily gained ground in the year since President Trump made a deal with them to withdraw American troops first from the battlefield, then from the country. Under Trump’s deal, the last soldier is supposed to go home by May 1, finally bringing American’s longest war to a close. President Biden could keep some forces in Afghanistan — as he promised during his 2020 election campaign — but the Taliban say that would destroy the agreement they made with America. Their spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, told me: ‘If one soldier stays behind, we will continue our jihad.’
In fact the jihad never stopped. As Mujahid pointedly reminded me, the ceasefire was between the Taliban and the US, not the Taliban and the Afghan government. The war was among Afghans, he said, and Afghans would find a way to end it among themselves: ‘It’s nothing to do with the Americans. There’s no need for them to interfere.’
He was talking about the peace negotiations with the government that spluttered into life last September. But while their representatives talk, the Taliban fight. The Islamic Emirate, as they prefer to be known, killed 185 government forces in December. Over the whole of last year, the government lost almost 3,500 men. That is a measure of how the Taliban have used the peace process to strengthen their military campaign, mainly by getting the US out of the war. But what if a deal starts to look possible in the talks with the government? Are the Taliban prepared to compromise for peace?
I asked Mujahid this question on the phone. I’ve never met him; no foreign journalist has. He may have been several different people over the years, but the Zabiullah Mujahid I spoke to said he had joined the Taliban in 1994. That means he was with the Taliban’s founder, Mullah Omar, right from the start, hanging thieves, rapists and warlords from the barrel of a tank in Kandahar. Had he really fought for so long to accept something less than a true Islamic state?
Mujahid began his answer cautiously. Of course, he would accept whatever the leadership agreed in the talks. But he went on: ‘Afghanistan has sacrificed itself for the last 40 years in the cause of Islam, in the cause of the Sharia. We, the Taliban, sacrificed ourselves these past 20 years — everyone knows it. We will never accept half-Islamic government or part-Islamic government… We want an Islamic government and that means a fully Islamic government.’
It’s not surprising, then, that the Taliban’s negotiators are insisting there must be agreement for Islamic rule in Afghanistan before anything else is discussed at the peace talks. The Afghan government also says the country should be an Islamic republic; it’s just that their idea of what this means is not the same as the Taliban’s. Mujahid dismisses the government in Kabul as ‘a few people who came from the western countries’ to impose foreign ways of doing things on the Afghan people. The people were Muslim; so were the Taliban; both wanted the same thing.
Perhaps the Taliban have been taking Donald Trump’s advice about how to negotiate and this is just posturing. If not, it’s hard to see how an agreement is possible. The talks, which are starting again now in Qatar, would be a sham. Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network fears this may be true. She tells me that if the Taliban were really serious about negotiating, they would have prepared their people for difficult compromises ahead. Instead, ‘it’s been exactly the opposite’.
Clark first went to Afghanistan in 1999 as a foreign correspondent for the BBC. Having watched the Taliban closely for two decades, she says they believe they’re stronger than the mujahideen who fought the Soviets, because they’re more united, not a collection of disparate groups. For the Taliban leadership, the peace negotiations were ‘Plan B’. What they really wanted was ‘military victory… total victory’.
Clark reminds me of a truism of the Afghan conflict: big shifts in the course of the war don’t happen because of successes on the battlefield, they happen because one group or another switches sides. One of the most important things about the US deal with the Taliban was how it has demoralized the government forces, she says. A collapse is not necessarily imminent — things would ‘muddle along for a while’ — but it could happen if enough Afghan police and soldiers started to think they were on the losing side.
Barnett Rubin is more optimistic. He was a senior adviser to both the US and the UN special envoys for Afghanistan. For talks to make progress, he thinks the Taliban must be forced to accept a ceasefire with the Afghan government: ‘I don’t believe the United States has the capacity to do that.’ But Pakistan could do it, and the US is already asking for Pakistan’s help. A political settlement could be achieved, he says, with — and probably only with — help from a coalition of regional powers: Pakistan, India, Iran, China
Rubin still speaks to Taliban officials. His conclusion is — at least to me — surprising: the Taliban do not want to take Kabul by force. They would be, once again, international pariahs. They would lose the foreign aid, including the American cash, on which Afghanistan depends. Rubin hopes the talks will end with a power-sharing deal and the Taliban part of an internationally recognized government.
That would put the Taliban back in charge in Afghanistan, with all it implies. Joe Biden can probably live with that. As vice president, he didn’t think the US military could or should fix Afghanistan. Richard Holbrooke remembers a telling exchange with Biden about women’s rights. Holbrooke, the special envoy for Afghanistan, kept an audio diary, some of which was published after his death in a brilliant biography by George Packer. Biden’s son, Beau, was serving in the US Army at the time.
‘Biden erupted,’ Holbrooke says. ‘Almost rising from his chair, he said, “I am not sending my boy back there to risk his life on behalf of women’s rights, it just won’t work, that’s not what they’re there for.”’ Holbrooke says Biden told him the US had to get out of Afghanistan, just as it had left Vietnam. ‘This shocked me… I thought we had a certain obligation to the people who had trusted us. He said, “Fuck that, we don’t have to worry about that. We did it in Vietnam, Nixon and Kissinger got away with it.”’
This is Holbrooke’s account. He was an unhappy member of the Biden-Obama team, and it was also just one conversation, a decade ago. Biden described his current thinking on Afghanistan to Stars and Stripes during the US presidential campaign: ‘These forever wars have to end. I support drawing down the troops. But here’s the problem, we still have to worry about terrorism.’ Conditions in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq were so ‘complicated’, Biden said, that he could not promise a full withdrawal of troops. Instead, there would be a small number doing counter-terrorism operations, a maximum of ‘1,500 to 2,000’ on the ground.
The Stars and Stripes interview did not make clear if this was the total for all three countries or just Afghanistan — and Biden barely mentioned Afghanistan for the rest of the campaign. The Pentagon says there are now 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. Even if Biden wants to keep just a few hundred Special Forces, this isn’t what the Taliban agreed.
Mujahid told me they hadn’t made the ceasefire deal with a person or a candidate — President Trump — but with America, and they expected America to honor it. In return, they had promised that Afghanistan would never again be a danger to any country, including the United States: ‘That is what we agreed and we stand on our word. All foreign forces should leave Afghanistan. There’s no reason for any of them to be here.’
I asked him if the Taliban regretted not giving Osama bin Laden to the US in 2001, and if 20 years of bloodshed could have been avoided. No, he said, you could not hand over a Muslim to an infidel power. And there was no evidence against bin Laden; he was just an ‘excuse’ for the Americans to invade.
The Washington Post has reported in a remarkable exclusive that the Taliban are coordinating with al-Qaeda in the peace talks, promising them they would not be ‘betrayed’. If so, the Taliban have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.
Mujahid was right about one thing: the US has lost the war in Afghanistan. ‘It is a big thing for our history that we defeated America. They have to accept that they have lost.’
Biden has no illusions that a US military victory is possible. But he also believes that Trump made a bad deal in his hurry to leave. Perhaps Biden hopes to renegotiate the terms of the ceasefire, bribe the Taliban with foreign aid, slow the withdrawal of regular troops and leave some US Special Forces behind.
But that would mean the ‘forever war’ goes on. Or Biden could accept Trump’s agreement as a great and unexpected gift and stick to the original timetable for withdrawal. Then the risk is that the Afghan government collapses without the US military to prop it up. Either way, given what he said in the campaign, we can expect Biden to make some kind of cut to the number of US forces, however small. And as he surely knows, retreat is often the most dangerous military maneuver.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s February 2021 US edition.