Afghanistan: The Taliban have reasons to rejoice
Recent ‘disclosures’ by the New York Times about alleged Russian involvement in the killing of US troops in Afghanistan have complicated the Afghan peace process, even if the intention behind such leakage was solely to de-fame Russia.
Whereas the NYT report does also show the extent to which ‘Russophobia’ is institutionalised in the US, the timing of the report--released at a time when the Taliban are already contract-bound not to attack/kill US troops--does show that it was meant as a political provocation, which will still have implications for the end-game that President Trump, with an eye on re-election, is pursuing in Afghanistan.
Already, mothers of US soldiers killed in Afghanistan are demanding a ‘probe’ into the Russian involvement. If this demand gets traction, particularly because the Democrats are already clamouring for it, President Trump will have another ‘Russiagate’ to deal with as he heads into the elections.
For the Trump administration, the ultimate task remains withdrawal from Afghanistan, even if it includes some rescheduling of the earlier stipulated withdrawal dates and plans.
According to some reports in the western mainstream media, America is still pursuing a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan. Even though the future of Afghanistan that the US is leaving behind is still ‘uncertain’, the Trump administration does seem to think that ending the war within this Presidency is more important than a negotiated resolution of the Afghan war.
With the US now already more concerned about ‘ending’ the war and not particularly showing any real concern with regard to initiating and concluding a truly ‘intra-Afghan’ dialogue, what also seems clear is a fast decreasing US ability to influence the Afghan end-game.
In other words, with both Kabul and the Taliban sensing the urgency prevailing in the White House-and the fact that the widespread of COVID-19 has left Donald Trump with no major political victory to capitalise on in his campaign--and the importance that a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan holds for them, it is highly likely that the Afghan parties will not have much to discuss and negotiate with the US other than a complete ceasefire, paving the way for a complete US withdrawal.
Trump had only recently told advisors that a full and rapid pullout could end the controversy that the NYT report has generated. The President, media reports show, has made it clear that he cares little about conditions in Afghanistan, and that he could still order a full withdrawal by November if he decides it would help him in the election.
The Trump administration, accordingly, has been trying hard to keep the process alive and see the Doha agreement being implemented quickly and without any further controversy. In fact, this was the only major issue that Mike Pompeo discussed with the Taliban representative in his recent post-NYT leak video-conference.
Khalilzad has already reached Doha to meet his Taliban counterparts and discuss ways to ‘end the war.’
However, with the controversy already creating difficulties for the Trump administration within the US and even with the US having taken the Taliban into confidence, there is no gainsaying that the current state of US relations with Afghanistan’s regional powers is going to have a significant impact on the actual outcome of the war.
Russia, which has been playing an active role in Afghanistan since at least 2016, has reacted strongly against the allegations made in the NYT report. Inevitably, in future, Russia’s position vis-à-vis US interests in Afghanistan will harden-something that will inevitably allow, besides making things difficult for the US forces in Afghanistan, the Taliban to talk from a position of greater strength.
Similarly, the current state of US-China relations is far from conducive. Russia, China and even Iran are most likely to position themselves in ways that would leave minimum room for the US to manoeuvre vis-à-vis the Taliban, and instead, give them maximum leeway to influence the post-war scenario.
Certainly, all of these powers have major interests in Afghanistan, calling for better relations with the Taliban and to cultivate their support against the possible spread of extremist militancy in Central Asia and beyond.
Given the state of US relations with Russia, China and Iran, it is obvious that Trump’s “regional approach” to the Afghan conflict has already reached a dead end.
Out of the few countries that originally made up Trump’s “regional approach”, only Pakistan remains a somewhat viable ‘ally.’ But even Pakistan does not want a long-term and unspecified US military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2020, leaving the US President with little to no practical and politically viable option beyond a rapid and full withdrawal. The Taliban have all the reasons to rejoice and celebrate their victory.