On November 28, 2019, President Trump paid an unannounced visit to Afghanistan, where he gathered together with US troops for Thanksgiving celebrations at Bagram Air Base and met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. The trip had rather wide spread repercussions in political circles and the media around the world following his announcement that he was resetting the negotiating process with the Taliban (broken off in September after a US soldier died in a Taliban terrorist attack). The US media quoted Trump as saying that the Taliban wanted to make a deal and “we are meeting with them.” But a peace agreement, he said, could not be signed unless the Taliban agreed to a ceasefire. If not, “We’re going to stay until such time as we have a deal, or we have total victory.”
This statement evinces Trump’s signature rhetoric trick he would use to convince his audience that Washington’s foreign-policy vis-a-vis are eager to make a “good deal” with him. He fell back on it repeatedly in the past regarding North Korea, Iran and China. But if we put rhetoric on the back burner for a moment or two, the reversal of his own decision to suspend talks with the Taliban is a very important event, because it again raises numerous questions related to the Afghan conflict, such as where the Afghan conflict stands when we are speaking about Donald Trump’s political career and what America’s future geopolitical influence in Afghanistan and the Greater Middle East would be like. The current Afghan political elite’s future fate is also unclear as is whether the Taliban is really ready to stop the war and join the existing Afghan political system.
Two reasons, strategic and tactical, seem to have influenced Donald Trump’s decision to reset the negotiating process with the Taliban. Strategically, the United States needs a peace agreement with the Taliban because the US public is so fed up with this war, the most protracted ever in American history and are also no longer willing to pour huge financial resources into this seemingly bottomless operation.
Tactically, the current incumbent badly needs some positive foreign policy news ahead of the 2020 elections that show every promise of being very tense, given his continuing standoff with the Democrats. So far, Trump has little to show in terms of high-profile foreign policy successes.
Superimposed upon this are problems with Turkey, including its demand to extradite Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, its purchase of Russian S-400 systems, and its military operations against the Kurds in northern Syria that are provoking a crisis inside NATO. Add to this the fact that the Europeans are tired of the anti-Russian sanctions and the Ukrainian situation. Thus, a deal with the Taliban is emerging as a really crucial matter for Trump.
According to one of these, the end goal of talks with the Taliban is not only a ceasefire and peace agreement but also continued military presence in Afghanistan. Speaking in an interview with Fox News Radio in August 2019, Trump said that the US, although intending to downscale its force in Afghanistan from 14,000 to 8,600 troops, would be present there indefinitely, including by maintaining a high intelligence presence.
According to the other point of view, a complete US withdrawal from Afghanistan is not ruled out, because, to quote NBC, Trump threatened in December 2018 to both pull out all the US troops immediately and close the US embassy in Kabul because it was too large and costly for the Treasury.] This point of view is borne out by reports that in October 2019 the Pentagon began drafting plans for a snap withdrawal of all US troops from Afghanistan within a few weeks if President Trump ordered them to do so.
Putatively, the US strategists are in doubt as to whether the financial and political tools alone will be sufficiently effective for keeping Afghanistan in Washington’s orbit. There are also doubts as regards the Taliban’s readiness to make part of the existing Afghan political system, when it is left face to face with Kabul. More likely than not, the Americans are also in two minds as to whether the Afghan military are ready psychologically to contain the Taliban without any direct support from US special units, particularly in a situation where the local political elites are split down the middle, as it became evident during the latest presidential elections.
If mistaken in its arithmetic, Washington is at risk of seeing its geopolitical influence in Afghanistan wither, something that would be highly unfortunate for its prospects, given some of the important processes under way in Greater Eurasia that have a potential to recurve many decades-old constructs and ties. These processes are emanating from One Belt, One Road, the EAEU that has set course for signing FTA agreements with the Asian and Greater Middle East economies, the SCO that has been joined by India and Pakistan, the new EU strategy to link Europe and Asia, to mention just a few examples.
The Economist has published an opinion that can be taken as an indicator of fears felt by the US elite. According to the publication, Trump’s decision to suspend talks with the Taliban “came as a relief to many, who had feared that Mr Trump was ready to sign any deal with the Taliban, no matter how humiliating for America or catastrophic for Afghanistan, just to keep a campaign promise to stop America’s ‘endless wars’ and bring the troops home.”
As for the Taliban, Trump’s decision to resume the talks gives them a psychological advantage, as they see that the Americans, under current circumstances, have no options other than to try and come to terms with them. At the same time, it could be assumed that for the Taliban itself the nature of possible final agreements with the Americans is no less a headache than it is for the United States, given that the movement is witnessing some splits between the leaders of the political office in Doha (Qatar) and the faction of irreconcilables at the Quetta Shura over the search for those responsible for the death of Asim Umar, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s personal envoy to Afghanistan, who was killed in the province of Helmand.
Keeping this fact in mind, we can assume that the most radical Taliban leaders and field commanders will not be satisfied with a partial withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. Originally, the Taliban insisted on the full withdrawal as a precondition for a ceasefire and probable beginning of direct talks with Kabul. If, however, the negotiators from the political office in Doha, who enjoy support from the “moderate” wing of the Taliban, prove unable to come to terms with the Americans on their full departure and agree to a partial withdrawal, it can’t be ruled out that the Taliban will develop an internal split and that the irreconcilables will continue to fight against the Afghan and US forces. Some radicals are likely to join the Afghan branch of ISIS. The rift, if it does occur, may devalue the results of the negotiating process.
There is no doubt that the Taliban strategists are looking beyond the negotiations with the Americans and assessing the Taliban’s future within the political system of Afghanistan which is yet another serious challenge to both the Taliban movement itself and the country as a whole. The Taliban are known to hold fundamentalist views on the state system and public values, views that are unacceptable for the current ruling elite in Kabul, the intelligentsia and a considerable share of the modernist-minded population, particularly in big cities. The fundamental divergence on this issue is likely to get in the way of a conflict settlement as part of the possible negotiations between the official government and the Taliban. If however, some Taliban leaders decide to meet Kabul halfway and somewhat ease their fundamentalist requirements, this may trigger off a conflict inside the movement between the moderates and the radicals, something that will have a negative effect on the Taliban movement’s influence in Afghanistan.
As for the future of the government in Kabul, in the current situation it looks rather shaky: of course, the official authorities would like to sign a peace deal with the Taliban, but only on their own terms, one of which is the Taliban agreeing to become transformed into a legal political party. It must be mentioned that a considerable share of the Afghan elite and intelligentsia are feeling an utter distrust towards the Taliban. In their view, the movement is wearing a mask and its strategic goal is to oust the legal political groups and seize power in the country rather than to find a formula of coexistence with the latter. The Afghan media are rife with scenarios of how the Taliban can do this, starting from provoking a split between the authorities and the legal opposition, whom they would subsequently take under their wing, to implementing a strategy of a stage-by-stage coup through making a deal with the Americans on the withdrawal of the Afghan army and police from a number of key provinces and their transfer to the Taliban control.
Given these sentiments, the Afghan government will certainly be against the complete withdrawal of US troops that guarantee the stability of the current regime and are the reason why Washington and its allies remain concerned with financing the Afghan army and state budget. Therefore, Kabul will seek to convince the White House to leave the troops in the country. But if the withdrawal does take place after all, it is more than likely that the Americans will shift their focus from Afghanistan, something that may encourage the Taliban to take resolute action and seize power in the country. In this connection, the Afghan media and analysts increasingly often mention the bitter fate that befell President Najibullah and his government, who were defeated by the Mujahedeen after the discontinuation of the external support.
Thus, we can state that for now the sides have only agreed that it is necessary to hold talks. However, for the talks to bear fruit in the shape of a US-Taliban peace agreement that will hopefully be achieved by November 2019 and the start of an intra-Afghan negotiating process, the United States, the Taliban and Kabul will have to find a mutually beneficial formula that would primarily remove the sides’ distrust towards each other and solve the problem of their divergent strategic interests. This is, without a doubt, a most difficult dilemma and the effort to solve it is likely to emerge as one of the key Afghan political issues in 2020.