Will US negotiate an exit strategy with the Taliban?

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Eight months after the announcement of US President Donald Trump’s strategy for Afghanistan, and the tough rhetoric used by the US military against the Taliban, pessimism and uncertainty about security and political stability in the country have become dominant sentiments among a majority of Afghans.

The experience of four years of a dysfunctional National Unity Government (NUG) in Kabul has been very costly in blood and in treasure for us Afghans and for our international partners. Not only have we missed another golden opportunity in terms of generous international financial donations and tremendous investments in the Afghan security sector by the United States, we have also lost an internal political consensus, and the country has further sunk into deep political and ethnic crises.

In fact, one of the main sources of conflict and people’s legitimate grievances in Afghanistan has been a perpetual kleptocracy in Kabul that has seriously undermined US stabilization efforts since 2004. In many cases, the insurgents have successfully exploited abuses by government officials and the general absence of good governance to attract popular support and fuel growing public disdain toward the state.

Meanwhile, various factions within the Taliban have been able to overcome their leadership struggle after the death of Mullah Omar in 2015, and the assassination of their new leader, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, by a US drone strike in Pakistan in 2016, before they could agree on a little-known leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada. In addition, they were able to put an end to their fratricidal fights and adopt a common strategy against their new rival, the Islamic State (IS). Furthermore, they were able to expand their support network in the region and beyond by creating direct contacts with Iran and Russia and renewing their dialogue with China.

President Ashraf Ghani’s recent overture to the Taliban and its unilateral concessions, including giving up on some of the achievements of the past 16 years, is seen by many of us in Afghanistan as an indication that the US is looking for an honorable exit from the country.

President Ashraf Ghani’s recent overture to the Taliban and its unilateral concessions, including giving up on some of the achievements of the past 16 years, is seen by many of us in Afghanistan as an indication that the US is looking for an honorable exit from the country

One of the main reasons why the Taliban are insisting on direct negotiations with the US is that the NUG is a non-entity to them, and without the United States’ military presence and financial support it will collapse in no time. Therefore, they believe that the US will have to negotiate its way out of Afghanistan with them.

When the former Soviet Union decided to take the Red Army out of Afghanistan in 1989, they left in place a dedicated communist party and a strong military loyal to the party, which was committed to fighting to the end. The Afghan communist army was able to prevent a brutal collapse of Kabul and many other major cities before it lost its financial and military support after the breakup of the former Soviet Union in 1991.

However, the US could not count on a similar scenario, where it could leave Afghanistan peacefully and prevent an immediate collapse of the government in Kabul, and thus avoid responsibility for its aftermath.

From the successful political consensus in Bonn, Germany, in 2001 through successive parliamentary and presidential elections, we were confident that, despite numerous challenges and a contested presidential election in 2014, we were engaged in an irreversible political process. We were proud of our democracy, free speech and respect for women rights  enshrined in our constitution.

However, in the past four years, Ghani’s divisive ethnic agenda has destroyed the internal political consensus and widened the ethnic faultlines. In addition, he has meddled politically in the Afghan security sector and manipulated security sector reform to serve his long-term narrow political agenda through an army loyal to himself. Therefore, we have lost our trust in the political process, particularly in the context of the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections respectively in 2018 and 2019.

For a long time, we have been hoping that the US legacy in Afghanistan would be a democratic system and an impartial and secular military, which would become the guarantor of the Afghan constitution. But we seem to be shifting back and following the example of other autocracies in our region.

Meanwhile, the entire Afghan political leadership, including senior government officials and even those in the security sector, have developed their own individual exit strategies. In fact, the influx of unaccounted donor money mixed with revenue from narcotics, and an ingrained culture of corruption in society have enabled most of them to steal money from one of the poorest nations in the world and invest it in businesses abroad, particularly in real estate in the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.

If the United States decides to negotiate directly with the Taliban and announces its exit strategy from the country, the Afghan political leadership and the wealthy ruling elite, who have benefited from the US and Nato’s military presence in Afghanistan over the past 16 years, will abandon the country before the US starts pulling out its troops, and thus the collapse of the government in Kabul will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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