Many still remember that during the 2008 election campaign, Democratic president Barack Obama intended to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan, but after almost 12 years (which is symbolic per se) this still hasn’t happened. The “Afghan Syndrome” is plaguing, to a large extent, American political life. It seems that now Donald Trump has decided, regardless of the consequences and in the absence of other bright achievements in the international arena, to wrap this long-playing story in his favour.
The previously-agreed-to emergency withdrawal of US troops is highly likely to lead to an uncontrolled increase of Taliban influence in Afghanistan, yielding another round of redistribution of power and spheres of influence. In fact, this means the restart of a full-fledged civil war, resulting in obvious humanitarian and security threats to the entire region. Incidentally, Siddiq Siddiqi, the press secretary of the President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani, warned of this. Ghani postponed his visit to the United States immediately after it was reported that an agreement had been reached with the Taliban.
Of course, the final decision will be taken by Trump, but earlier he had already repeated his intention to withdraw the American military from Afghanistan. In late July, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed the US Commander-in-Chief’s desire to complete the withdrawal of troops by 2020. Thus, the Afghan issue is becoming more acute and relevant in American domestic politics, which is often characterised as a zero-sum political game. A similar situation can be observed with respect to the example of Afghanistan.
The logic and symbolism of the political struggle in the “heart of the empire” is inexorable. In February 2020, the primaries will kick off in the United States; after approximately 4.5 months (about 135 days), the Republicans and Democrats will square off in earnest. And this is the deadline for the withdrawal of 5,000 troops from five military bases in Afghanistan, agreed upon by US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad. This strange coincidence in matters of maintaining or losing power, as a rule, is not accidental. From the point of view of strengthening its positions, it would be extremely desirable for the current team in Washington to use the “Afghan card”, playing it to the detriment of competitors from the Democratic Party under the “Obama said – Trump did” scheme.
So, in Doha, the capital of Qatar, last week a preliminary agreement was signed between the United States and the Taliban (banned in Russia) on the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. Obviously, this agreement was not a simple step for both parties. Many observers even concluded that the United States de facto recognized the Taliban.
However, a few days after the conclusion of the agreement, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on television that Washington would not agree to any agreements with representatives of the Taliban movement until it demonstrates a readiness to take these obligations seriously and fulfil them. It should be noted that the wording, used in a typical-for-Americans manner, is vague and indicates that the US retains the ability to refuse or suspend the obligations undertaken earlier. It all looks like a betting game.
This combination of actions can be explained by only one factor – the start of the presidential campaign. The Trump administration is considering the possibility of playing the Afghan card, while Washington is well aware that without reaching an agreement with the Taliban, it is not necessary to talk about maintaining, even formally, its current level of influence in Afghanistan. However, in the framework of this process, one of the pre-established standards of US foreign policy – not negotiating with terrorists – appears to be an obstacle. Washington de jure recognises the Taliban as a terrorist group. This political contradiction, which has resonance in both the media and in domestic politics, needs to be resolved by the Trump team, so that opponents from the Democratic Party wouldn’t be handed the opportunity to accuse the current leadership of “conspiring with terrorists.” Therefore, the September 5 terrorist attack in Kabul near the US Embassy provided formal reason for a vocal refusal to keep contact, for the time being.
Now, the Americans, in their usual manner, seem to be trying to impose new conditions on the Taliban for a deal. For example, they will raise the question of organising direct contacts, with the mediation of Washington, between the Taliban and Afghanistan’s government. At the moment, the Taliban is in every possible way evading contact with the official authorities of Afghanistan, but a set of measures, including strengthening the government armed forces, could change its decision.
In addition, the current pause in contact with the Taliban is necessary to prepare public opinion within the United States for complex agreements on Afghanistan. But no one can guarantee that the Taliban will be no less negotiable in a few months, understanding how some people in the USA are interested in a new agreement during the first half of 2020.
So, Afghanistan again has the chance to become a rather heavy weight on the scales of the US presidential race. However, the Afghans themselves are unlikely to become easier or more pleasant from this “honourable” role.