Expert says US looking for ‘face-saving narrative’ in order to exit Afghanistan
[Islamabad] Suhail Shaheen, the political spokesman for the Taliban, has told The Media Line that the group remains “committed to making a peace deal” with the United States.
Shaheen was speaking in the wake of a declaration made last week by US President Donald Trump that suspended peace talks with the Taliban were back on the track.
“The release of Western hostages followed by the release of Afghan troops is the clear evidence of our commitment to peace,” the Taliban spokesman said, referring to a recent prisoner swap involving two Kabul-based academics, one of them American, held by the Taliban for some three years, and three high-ranking Taliban figures held by Afghanistan.
Shaheen said that according to the Taliban, “the peaceful way to resolve the Afghan issue is to implement [a] decisive agreement between us and the United States,” although he went on to warn that the opposite way remained a possibility.
“We are ready to get our independence either [at] the dialogue table or on the battlefield,” he said.
Speaking to US troops at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul during a surprise Thanksgiving Day visit, President Trump demanded a cease-fire with the Taliban but admitted that the war “will not be decided on the battlefield,” adding that “ultimately, there will need to be a political solution… decided by the people of the region.”
Scott Smith, a senior adviser on Afghanistan at the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace, acknowledged that changes had taken place since September, when US-Taliban talks broke down. These include the prisoner swap as well as the September 28 Afghan presidential elections, although the outcome of the vote remains unclear, with two inconclusive recounts.
“Many things, of course, have not changed, including skepticism in Washington about whether the Taliban can be trusted, and the Taliban’s reluctance to talk to the Afghan government,” Smith told The Media Line.
“I believe that Trump needs additional guarantees from the Taliban regarding assurances that Afghanistan will never be a haven for terrorists,” he continued, saying the president “needs more to sell the agreement in Washington” while the Taliban “are unwilling to give more.”
Adil Farooque Raja, an Islamabad-based Afghan expert, told The Media Line that “the US wants an exit from the Afghanistan war with a face-saving narrative.”
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has offered to mediate between the US and the Taliban, and President Trump initially indicated a willingness for this, yet according to Raja, “the US will avoid bringing Pakistan into the spotlight so as not to annoy its Indian partners over sensitive egos.”
Washington and New Delhi have recently become closer, with President Trump heaping superlatives on India’s conservative Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the latter’s visit to the US in September.
Raja also mentioned the latest annual report of the US Congressional Research Service, which said that Afghanistan “may also represent a growing priority for China” in light of Beijing’s goals in Asia.
“The spotlight for the success of [the US] negotiations [with the Taliban] was essentially on Pakistan,’ he said, yet this “never suited the narrative and interest of India, which is in a strategic partnership with the US to counter the rise of China. The Indians must have expressed serious reservations against Pakistan getting all the credit as a peacemaker, forcing President Trump to temporarily back off.”
Naeem Khalid Lodhi, a former Pakistani defense minister, said that Washington, while seeking an exit, wants to monitor other countries that have an eye on Afghanistan.
“The US campaign in Afghanistan has failed to achieve desirable results,” Lodhi told The Media Line, emphasizing political and economic influence. “They [the Americans] are frantically looking for an alternative base in the region to circumvent [efforts by] China, Russia, Iran and Central Asian republics.”
Irina Tsukerman, a New York-based writer on foreign affairs for numerous think tanks, told The Media Line she did not believe a new round of US-Taliban talks would yield anything different.
“The Taliban is still the same organization with the same unacceptable conditions,” she said.
“It will be no different from Hizbullah in Lebanon, and likely worse,” Tsukerman stated, addressing the possibility of the Islamist group joining a new government in Afghanistan.
“The US thus far has shown no evidence of putting forth conditions in which such an entry could be theoretically workable, [including] full disarmament, commitment to liberal institutions and guarantees of women’s and minorities’ rights,” she explained.
Responding to a question on the US rationale for continued talks, she pointed to the upcoming elections.
“The election year and the recent policy failure in Syria [in the face of Turkey’s recent incursion] make this an opportunity to satisfy President Trump’s base, many of whom have expressed strong support for ending the endless war in Afghanistan,” Tsukerman said.
She warned, however, that the Taliban has grown stronger and is now in a position to make demands.
“Even if the US accepts the Taliban’s meager reassurances and turns a blind eye to [its] extremist ideology, this rush for a quick media victory will further cost [it] credibility with its allies and adversaries alike, and sooner or later, the US will have to return. But next time, with… the population betrayed, it will be much harder.”
Syed Sharif Najafzada, former Afghan diplomat, told The Media Line that the people of Afghanistan “are paying a heavy price” for conflicts among foreign powers.
“It is a bitter reality that in the presence of foreign forces and due to the [country’s] corrupt ruling elite, Afghans have lost their sovereignty, and their dignity as well,” he said.
“Our economic, cultural, moral and other aspects of life have been badly disturbed, and still the situation is worsening,” Najafzada said. “The international community and regional allies must take urgent steps for peace and stability in war-torn Afghanistan. Otherwise, the world’s next generations will face dire consequences in the [form] of global terrorism and narcotics.”