US policies on Afghanistan continue to delve deeper into total strategic dissonance. Many observers used to mock the fact that after 2001, the US fought to depose the Taliban after weakening the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan throughout the 1980s, something which led to the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The left-wing Afghan government eventually fell in 1992 and the Islamic State of Afghanistan (no relation to the group ISIS/Daesh which coalesced 10 years later in Iraq) was established. Beginning in 1996, the ethnic Pashtun Sunni hard-line group Taliban took full control over most of the country and proclaimed the Islamic State of Afghanistan. After 2001, the US fought to destroy a Taliban it had a hand in bringing to power.
While the US is now fighting a group whose prescience in Afghanistan was made possible due to the strong US backing of Mujaheddin terrorists in the 1980s, in their fight against the socialist Afghan government of the time, this is no longer even the most embarrassing feature regarding America’s Afghan debacle.
Today, most of the world understands that peace in Afghanistan will not be possible while the Taliban remains excluded from any formal peace process. This has less to do with the Taliban’s ideology, than with the ethnic complexities of Afghanistan and the territorial realities on the ground.
First of all, the Taliban are ethnic Pashtuns who are the ethnic majority of Afghanistan. Because of this, they have accrued a natural support base which due to Afghanistan’s tribal nature, will not be easily broken at this point in history. This helps explain why the Taliban control as vast amounts of Afghan territory. By some accounts, the Taliban control 40% of all Afghan territory while others put Taliban control at over 50%.
Making matters all the more awkward for the US, while the US continues to attempt and fight the Taliban while treating the group as a kind of terrorist organisation, in reality, the Taliban are in fact the “moderate rebels” which the US once spoke about in Syria, even though in Syria, moderate rebels objectively do not exist. Yet in a country, where there is a “moderate rebellion”, the US continues to take a generally hard-line approach. This attitude goes against the grain of world opinion including that of Russia, Pakistan and China who each favour military de-escalation and a peace process that, once certain conditions are met, would include the more amiable factions of the Taliban.
As I previously wrote:
“Many have long lamented and continue to lament the fact that the US hasn’t really had a plan for Afghanistan since the time in 2001 when George W Bush formally ousted the Taliban who had controlled virtually all of the country since 1996. Since 2001, the official US plan has looked like a strategy best defined as “now what?”
The truth, however, is that the Americans do more or less have an Afghan strategy. The problem is that they don’t know it. All one needs to do in order to find it is dust off Barack Obama’s Syria strategy.
In Syria there was and there remains an experienced, broadly popular, secular central government whose Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party has governed the country effectively since 1963 and governed it stably since 1970, the year Hafez al-Assad (the current president’s father) came to power.
Nevertheless, the Obama administration insisted that it should fully back and arm the “rebels” it had largely created along with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with Israel providing the hallelujah chorus of “intelligence” to back the operation all the while.
In spite of reams of evidence to the contrary, Obama and his secretary of state John Kerry insisted that the future of Syria lay in the hands of the so-called “moderate rebels” and that no peace could be brought to the country without such “moderate rebels” playing a leading role.
Then two things happened. First of all, it became apparent that the only effective forces opposed to the Syrian government were those moderate enough to behead civilians with a sharp rather than a rusty blade. No matter how much the mainstream media tried to suppress this grim truth, it gradually came out.
Second, when Russia began helping Syria militarily after 2015, it became increasingly clear that the previously strong central government of Bashar al-Assad was not going anywhere.
Today, the myth of moderate rebels has been abandoned quietly by its former champions in Washington and Ankara. The Saudis and Qataris have descended into a moderate cold war in the desert and Israel is kicking and screaming about the fact that it didn’t get its way and likely never will in respect of seeing through regime change in Damascus.
This same plan of Obama’s that has abjectly failed in Syria is ironically one that, with slight modifications, could succeed in Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, there exists a very weak, divided government with an extremely dubious historical pedigree. The opposition Taliban factions have perversely become forces that, in spite of an ideology that would be as foreign in Los Angeles as in Pyongyang, are increasingly seen by many Afghans – and crucially many former opponents both in Afghanistan and in the wider world – as a force that must be dealt with diplomatically if there is to be any lasting compromise settlement for the turbulent country.
After years of war between feuding warlords, militant factions and former governing factions, the Taliban are all of a sudden those “moderate rebels” that the US tried so hard to create and then locate in Syria”.
Adding confusion to the hypocrisy and shortsightedness, Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump’s deeply compromised Secretary of State, has said that the US is willing to speak to the Taliban, but only after a further period of fighting them.
Tillerson said during his recent stop in Afghanistan,
“There are, we believe, moderate voices among the Taliban, voices that do not want to continue to fight forever. So we are looking to engage with those voices and have them engage in a reconciliation process leading to a peace process and their full involvement and participation in the government. There’s a place for them in the government if they’re ready to come renouncing terrorism, renouncing violence and being committed to a stable, prosperous Afghanistan”.
However, Tillerson also stated that the fight against the Taliban would continue “in order for them to understand they will never win a military victory”.
If Tillerson admits that there are moderate voices among the Taliban, something Pakistan, China and Russia have been alluding to and in some cases stating directly for years, then what is the point of a prolonged military engagement before an inevitable negotiation? The only answer other than utter stupidity, is that a prolonged crisis in Afghanistan will allow the CIA to continue their exploitation of poppy harvesting in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan has a lucrative poppy sector as well as untapped minerals worth millions. While the US will find it hard to get its hands of all of Afghanistan’s wealth as perpetually unwanted “visitors”, what the US can do is prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe and prosperous state, one which borders key areas along China’s One Belt–One Road. Indeed, Afghanistan could potentially be part of One Belt–One Road were the situation to stabilise. While America cannot win the war in Afghanistan, they can attempt to make sure that others, namely China, lose out. This is the key element behind America’s strategic dissonance in Afghanistan. On the one hand, they want a good clean win for US business interests. On the other hand, knowing such a thing is next to impossible, they want to proverbially salt the earth before China or any other potential economic partner can reap any benefits from Afghanistan.