The end of America’s forever war
There was little surprise in President Joe Biden’s announcement that the US will unconditionally withdraw all its military forces from Afghanistan by September and end its ‘forever war.’ The US President had long been of the view that retaining troops in Afghanistan was not only untenable but lost any rationale once the Al Qaeda threat had been degraded. That is how he framed it in his much-anticipated April 14 address.
“We delivered justice to Osama bin Laden a decade ago,” he said, but “stayed in Afghanistan for a decade since… our reasons for remaining in Afghanistan have become increasingly unclear.” He added another compelling reason for his decision – new strategic challenges that Washington needed to focus on.
To preempt expected domestic criticism especially in view of the Pentagon’s advice for a gradual conditions-based drawdown he said: “We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result.”
With this announcement, the US is set to start pulling out its forces from May 1 and completing the drawdown by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the attacks on America that led to the US invasion of Afghanistan.
Indications now are that the US will intensify its diplomacy to push the Afghan parties to break the stalemate in Istanbul and then start substantive negotiations in Doha. Whether the announcement that the Americans are leaving will force the Afghan parties towards accommodation, as some hope, is yet to be seen.
What does this mean for the future stability of Afghanistan? How will this affect the Afghan peace process deadlocked for months now? What of peace plans Washington unveiled over a month ago which envisage UN-mediated talks between the Afghan parties in Turkey scheduled for April 24- May 4 as well as a conference of regional states to mobilise consensus to support the peace process?
The Taliban, even before Biden’s announcement, said they would not participate in the talks in Turkey and threatened “consequences” if the withdrawal deadline under the US-Taliban February 2019 Doha accord was shifted. Their initial response to Biden’s announcement reiterated the position that a delay in the withdrawal was violation of the Doha agreement which freed them to take “every necessary counter-measure.”
Otherwise, the statement was nuanced enough to leave space open for diplomatic engagement. It is possible that they may come around to accepting the new drawdown end date as it is clear and unconditional and also rethink their participation in the Istanbul conference. Having won international recognition, the Taliban are unlikely to risk losing it by adopting an intransigent stance. Their leaders may also see this as an opportunity and therefore take a restrained position.
The focus will now be on the upcoming diplomatic parleys in Turkey – ‘Istanbul Conference on the Afghan Peace Process’ – which aims to accelerate the intra-Afghan dialogue and take it forward from where it was left in Doha last November. The prolonged impasse that followed had much to do with the wait-and-see posture adopted by both parties in light of the review by the new US administration of its Afghan policy. The UN mission has described the Istanbul conference as an "important opportunity to put in place a concrete plan to end the war.”
Indications now are that the US will intensify its diplomacy to push the Afghan parties to break the stalemate in Istanbul and then start substantive negotiations in Doha. Whether the announcement that the Americans are leaving will force the Afghan parties towards accommodation, as some hope, is yet to be seen. What is known about the UN-led peace summit is that talks between the Afghan government and Taliban will be preceded by a meeting of foreign ministers and representatives of regional states, which is expected to evolve a ‘unified approach’ in support of an inclusive peace process and call for a reduction of violence.
Two critical factors for whether the Turkey peace process will succeed – or start – are how seriously the US engages, especially the pressure it brings to bear on President Ashraf Ghani to abandon his uncompromising stance and how the Taliban play their cards. US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is in the region intensifying efforts to persuade the two sides to go to the Istanbul conference with an open mind – a formidable task. The US certainly has an interest in leaving Afghanistan having achieved progress in negotiations for a peace settlement. But the question is how much leverage does it have – now that it is leaving – and what tools is it prepared to use to achieve this outcome as its last-ditch effort.
As for the Taliban, who have been wily negotiators, the unanswered question is whether the leadership will be able to resist the view of those among them who may want to wait it out for the Americans to depart from Afghanistan and see no value in resuming intra-Afghan dialogue.
On the other hand, Taliban leaders may calculate that after two decades of military struggle, the opportunity to secure their desired outcome also presents itself through negotiations – an option that would help them receive international support and assistance they will need in post-America Afghanistan and most importantly, offer a better chance of achieving lasting peace.
The danger however looms that if the path of negotiation is spurned and talks fail, Afghanistan could once again descend into chaos and a bloody civil war that would only prolong the tragedy for its long-suffering people who yearn for peace. In that case Afghanistan’s ‘forever war’ will continue even as it ends for the US.
- The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha