What the Afghan war looks like after 17 years?

What the Afghan war looks like after 17 years?

Salman Rafi Sheikh,

Afghanistan’s geopolitics has changed; the ‘war on terror’ narrative is absolutely dead given that the US is now talking to the Taliban (the erstwhile “terrorists”) and sees them as a political force.

While the war in Afghanistan is still going on between the US and the Taliban, it has certainly slipped out of its hands to the point where the US does no longer have the capability to decidedly be the sole major player. Of course, the US military remains entrenched, but it does not have control over how things happen and which way the wind blows, as in the case of increasing Chinese footprint in Afghanistan.

We have already come to a point where the US wants to get out and is even talking to the Taliban to negotiate an exit, but is unable to do so because of its inability to convince the Taliban of the ‘necessity’ of keeping US forces and at least two military bases in Afghanistan.

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While down scaling US forces from over hundred thousand in 2001 to a mere few thousand in 2018, and in two bases only, may look like a ‘victorious exit’, in reality it only presents the inevitable defeat in a bit more moderate terms to the US public.

The Taliban, of course, have refused this proposal. According to Waheed Muzhda, a former Taliban official, the Taliban have refused to accept anything other than a nominal presence of US forces required only to protect US diplomatic missions. No wonder, no further rounds of talks have taken place since the last confidential meeting in Qatar last month.

While some reports suggest that another round of talks may take place, it is highly unlikely that the Taliban would give up their demand of a complete withdrawal. The Taliban are strong not only militarily, but also politically and diplomatically and there are a number of factors that have made them powerful in these aspects.

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While their hold on the territories under their control remains firm, the fact that the Taliban, as US officials have confirmed, accept almost 80 per cent of the current Afghanistan constitution makes them a politically amenable force at domestic, regional and international levels.

Plus, the fact that they, too, are open, yet not desperate, to talks adds to their strength as a political force. While some suspect that the Taliban, once they enter into power, may return to their traditional methods of rule, there is no gainsaying that their policy of ‘openness for negotiations’ has served them well in terms of enhancing their regional and international profile.

If they had only continued to fight, it wouldn’t have been possible for regional states such as China and Russia to approach them and look for ways to accommodate them in the future political set up. How this policy has served them is evident from the fact that invitations to the Taliban for talks are no longer secret.

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Recently Moscow invited the Taliban to participate in peace talks, and it was only a month ago when Chinese foreign ministry didn’t deny that a Taliban group had visited Beijing. Chinese ministry spokesperson said they support“all Afghan parties in persevering to realise a political reconciliation process as early as possible and to continue playing a constructive function.”

China’s interests are two-fold: on the one hand, China aims to extend the billiondollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan, and on the other, it wants to make sure that Afghan is not used by the Uighurs, who have been fleeing China and organizing in Afghanistan for attacks inside China.

Therefore, it is safe to say that after 17 years of war, it is not the US that has got the biggest stakes in Afghanistan; it is China perhaps, and it has accordingly made a lot deeper in-roads in regional geo-politics than meets the eye.

It explains why China, unlike Russia and the US, has been talking more to the Taliban directly than simply facilitate an intra-Afghanistan dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

While China did also urge the Taliban to negotiate peace, the primary purpose of these meetings remained showcasing China’s progress and how Afghanistan in future could benefit from it. Of course, this also means that economic cooperation between Afghanistan and China wouldn’t lead to any support, material or diplomatic, from within Afghanistan for the Uighurs; hence, the several meeting over the past year alone.

But it is not just the Taliban that the Chinese are talking to or cooperating. Extending its foothold in Afghanistan requires Chinese cooperation across all aspects of polity. Beijing has been cooperating with the Afghan government with regard to training the Afghan forces and beefing up their capability. Latest developments in this behalf have been seen in an official confirmation about the training of Afghan troops in China and provision of arms as well, something that marks a gradual evolution for Beijing, which had previously offered non-lethal assistance while promising to play a “huge” commercial role in the country’s economic development only.

This is certainly not a situation that the US can describe as even a meaningful victory after spending almost one trillion dollars, and getting thousands of its troops killed.

The fact that the US is now forced to negotiate its way out of the country means that the US itself doesn’t see a military victory any more possible now than it thought it was back in 2001, or remained possible throughout the 17 years.

Afghanistan’s geopolitics has changed; the ‘war on terror’ narrative is absolutely dead given that the US is now talking to the Taliban (the erstwhile “terrorists”) and sees them as a political force. The Taliban are talking to all regional states and increasing their (non-military) power to have a greater say and presence in Afghanistan’s future political set up.

After 17 years of war, the inevitable has almost become a fact, and there is nothing stopping it from becoming the new political normalin Afghanistan.