This Week in Asia

Taliban ceasefire talks: Trump's need to 'bring boys home' risks wasting lives already lost

Negotiators from the United States and the Taliban held talks in Qatar this week on a ceasefire to the 17-year war in Afghanistan " with a deal under discussion that would result in the withdrawal of American troops, and insurgents promising not to allow the country to host militant groups like al-Qaeda.

The talks came after US Senator Lindsey Graham last Sunday urged Trump to meet Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, saying it was time for both sides to have a "strategic partnership". Khan has long been supportive of a peace treaty to stop the raging conflict between the Taliban and Afghan and US forces.

Concurrently, the US Central Command Chief General Joseph Votel met Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, with the talks confirming that the Afghan peace process was "high on the agenda". The Pakistani daily Dawn then reported the US was considering the offer of a free-trade agreement in exchange for Islamabad's help in talks with the Taliban.

Does this latest of flurry of activity mean that the end of a foreign military presence in Afghanistan is in sight? The signals are mixed and contradictory at this point.

An Afghan boy watches US Marines on a foot patrol. Photo: AFP

Even while the Taliban claims the US is accepting of its demand to pull out troops, Washington's envoy Zalmay Khalilzad added a caveat when he noted military pressure was essential to creating the conditions for the peace negotiations with the Taliban, and promised the US would maintain the security support it is providing to Afghan security forces.

"To achieve peace, we are ready to address legitimate concerns of all Afghan sides in a process that ensures Afghan independence and sovereignty, and accounts for legitimate interests of regional states," he tweeted. "Urgent that fighting ends. But pursuing peace still means we fight as needed."

The fact that the Taliban brazenly claimed responsibility for an attack last week in the Afghanistan province of Wardak that killed 65 people, even while talks were going on, is indicative of the audacity of the group and the perilous security situation within the country.

The inability of the Kabul government to prevent such attacks points to the growing profile of the Taliban in the internal power structure of a war-weary country.

A preliminary analysis of the current developments related to Afghanistan would suggest that the primary driver for this flurry of activity is the domestic political situation of US President Donald Trump. Trump, who is currently battling a severe internal crisis over a government shutdown, is also preparing for re-election and has to deliver on campaign promises made in 2016.

One of the major issues at the time was a commitment to end US military operations abroad and "bring the boys home".

The rapprochement being sought between the US and Pakistan has yielded talk of a possible Trump-Khan summit. Photo: Reuters

US-Pakistan relations soured in the early phase of the Trump term over Pakistan's support of the Afghan Taliban " something Islamabad initially denied, though its foreign office in recent months acknowledged the country had been a "facilitator".

Now, the rapprochement being sought has yielded talk of a possible Trump-Khan summit.

A negotiated peace wherein the Taliban would lay down its guns would be highly desirable after almost two decades of bloodshed, but even if this were deemed feasible, the terms and conditions of this settlement remain intractable.

Among the many contradictions, the one that looms largest is the fact that the Afghan Taliban refuses to accept the government in Kabul as legitimate. Hence, while the Taliban engages in talks with the US, it does not meet President Ashraf Ghani, for the group believes that elections and his government's principles are un-Islamic.

While the US originally intended to unseat the Taliban, the political objective of the long and expensive war remains opaque. Photo: AFP

While the US originally intended to unseat the Taliban, the political objective of the long and expensive war remains opaque. In not calling out Pakistan on the support it provides to terror groups in Afghanistan, such as the Haqqani network " a charge repeatedly made by Kabul " it would appear that Washington is returning to an earlier policy option of appeasing the Pakistan army.

The Taliban swept to power in Kabul in the early 1990s and set out to create an Islamic state in Afghanistan. The tectonic September 11 terror attack brought the group under intense US-led military attack.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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