The New Cold War
America, China, and the Echoes of History
On the night of August 17, as over 1,000 guests danced at a wedding celebration in Dubai City, a hall in Kabul named after the Afghan elite’s favorite weekend getaway, a 23-year-old interloper detonated his suicide vest by the bandstand. The blast killed 80 people and wounded nearly 200 more, mostly from the Hazara ethnic group, followers of the Shiite sect of Islam predominant in that neighborhood of western Kabul. The groom and bride, who are both Shiite, miraculously survived. “I will never see happiness in my life again,” the groom, a tailor named Mirwais Elmi, told Afghanistan’s TOLOnews.
This was the worst of the bloody events that have punctuated nine rounds of peace talks between U.S. and Taliban negotiators since July 2018. Ten days earlier, a Taliban suicide attack on a Kabul police station left 14 dead and 145 wounded. On the night of August 11, a joint U.S.-Afghan unit of the Khost Protection Force, a “counterterrorist” unit run by the CIA, captured and summarily executed 11 unarmed male civilians in the Zurmat district of Paktia Province, on Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan. The victims were abducted at night while celebrating the holiday of Eid al-Adha and shot in the head at close range. On July 20 and 22, bombing raids by U.S. and Afghan Air Forces killed 12 civilians, including nomads and farmers in Badghis and Logar Provinces.
In what might have been a cruel parody of the origins of Afghanistan’s violence—but turned out to be an even crueler fact—the so-called Islamic State (or ISIS) based in Iraq and Syria issued a statement in Arabic (a language not spoken in Afghanistan) taking responsibility for the attack on the wedding and claiming it had been carried out by one “Abu Asim al-Pakistani,” whose very name seemed to mock the irrelevance of Afghanistan to its own people’s suffering. ISIS claimed that the wedding guests were “polytheists.” The government claimed that the victims in Zurmat were “Taliban.” The Taliban claimed the police station was a legitimate military target that civilians should stay away from.
The bombings and “counterterrorist” operations by both the U.S. and Afghan governments take place under the “relaxed” rules of engagement set by President Donald Trump and about which he boasted in 2017, “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.” For the first time since the beginning of the war, U.S. and Afghan government forces have caused more civilian casualties this year than have the Taliban, according to the United Nations. And so it is hardly surprising that Afghans are not overly optimistic about an impending peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban. It is even less surprising that stalwarts of the U.S. national security establishment such as retired General and former CIA Director David Petraeus warn of the dangers of a “complete military exit from Afghanistan” and claim that “common sense dictates the U.S. must retain its own means to pressure extremist networks.”
After 18 years of “presence and pressure,” and as the U.S.-backed Afghan government continues to lose ground to the Taliban and ISIS massacres civilians in Kabul with impunity, the national security establishment’s version of “common sense” is to double down on failing policies. When you are in a hole, you should make a long-term commitment to digging.
But Petraeus and his colleagues are right to warn of the dangers of a withdrawal that is too abrupt. Trump’s rush to make Afghanistan’s peace process conform to the U.S. electoral calendar risks squandering whatever leverage the United States still has. Afghans rightly fear that an agreement may fail to guarantee the gains that some of them have made as a result of the “nation-building” efforts denigrated by Trump. But the impending withdrawal is a consequence of the situation on the ground in both Afghanistan and the United States, not the result of the peace effort. Trump’s impatience to withdraw both enables and threatens the prospect of peace.
Some of the most important issues at stake in the negotiations have been left ambiguous, perhaps deliberately. Among them is whether the completion of the U.S. troop withdrawal is contingent on the implementation of a political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The sequence and interdependence of the troop withdrawal, cease-fire, and political settlement have yet to be clarified.
Any agreement is guaranteed to fall short of aspirations—but not because of the failures of negotiators or Trump’s determination to leave Afghanistan (which is shared by nearly all his rival presidential aspirants). Eighteen years of U.S. military strategy have failed to produce stability or eliminate terrorism. There is no reason to believe that a longer time horizon will generate better results. That a U.S.-Taliban agreement may fail to deliver the very same outcomes that have eluded the U.S. military for nearly two decades is not an indictment of the negotiations but rather a reflection of the failure of previous military strategies.
That a U.S.-Taliban agreement may fail to deliver the very same outcomes that have eluded the U.S. military for nearly two decades is not an indictment of the negotiations but rather a reflection of the failure of previous military strategies.
The eventual U.S.-Taliban agreement resulting from nine rounds of negotiations in Doha could still present the best chance to achieve basic U.S. goals, reduce violence in Afghanistan, and make more effective counterterrorist measures possible. The Taliban have agreed to negotiate with the Afghan government and other Afghan political forces over a cease-fire and a political settlement once the question of the U.S. troop withdrawal is settled. Norway is actively working to organize those negotiations, which are expected to start in Oslo in the coming weeks.
The outcome of the peace process is less certain than the foreordained failure of military solutions. Multiple “peace processes” over the last 40 years of war in Afghanistan have led to reconfigurations of hostilities. Peace did not greet the end of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan after the 1988 UN-sponsored Geneva Accords (and the subsequent demise of the Soviet Union itself). The United States supported the mujahideen in their opposition to any negotiation with the Moscow-supported “Kabul regime,” and regional states, above all Pakistan, intensified proxy wars in Afghanistan to ward off perceived threats from geopolitical rivals.
Such a scenario could repeat itself. Without both an internal political system that accommodates major power holders and a minimal international consensus on the political and security dispensation in Afghanistan, Afghan and international actors can easily return to destabilizing what remains the poorest country in Asia, where over half the population lives below an already very low poverty line and young men are vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups. It is important to understand that for many in the region, a U.S. military and intelligence presence in Afghanistan represents a threat on a par with terrorism. Whatever the substance of the impending peace deal, Afghanistan will not become a stable base for American forces, since those who oppose their presence will continue to provoke conflict that weakens the state and provides entry points for terrorism.
Much also depends on how the Taliban reconcile with their enemies in the government in Kabul. Will the Taliban retreat from a desire to reestablish their “Islamic Emirate” on the ruins of Afghanistan’s fragile Islamic republic? While the Afghan government and the diverse coalition that supports the current constitutional order seem prepared to accommodate some Taliban demands, a broad national and international consensus has emerged for preserving the social and political gains of the Islamic republic, including the expansion of rights and opportunities for women. In recent discussions, Chinese, Russians, Iranians, and Pakistanis have all asserted that an Islamic emirate remains a redline for them. Building such an international consensus in favor of the peace process has been one rare diplomatic success for the administration: the United States has issued joint statements supporting the process with China, Russia, Pakistan, and the European Union. All these actors, as well as Iran, will be invited to witness the announcement of any U.S.-Taliban agreement and the subsequent opening of negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Oslo.
Success in these negotiations, coupled with the support of a broad international coalition, should strengthen and focus Kabul’s fight against the Islamic State Khorasan, the branch of the international jihadi group that has gained strength in the north and east of Afghanistan. A government in Kabul no longer distracted by the Taliban’s cross-border insurgency could become a more effective partner in international efforts to stamp out ISIS in the region.
Stability and a modicum of peace in Afghanistan would also require international cooperation to connect the landlocked country to world markets in coordination with various ambitious international development initiatives, including China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Indo-Iranian-Afghan development of the Iranian port of Chabahar and related land routes to Afghanistan and Central Asia, and several pipeline and energy transmission projects supported by the United States. The Trump administration’s policy of confrontation with many of the powers involved in these projects augurs poorly for the future of any Afghan peace agreement, but future administrations may change course. The odds of a positive outcome stemming from the negotiating table are not great, but they are better than the odds that the United States will succeed militarily after nearly two decades of failure.