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Breaking the Afghan logjam

Courtesy: Saudi Gazette

Many people ask why Afghanistan has not come up in any political debate in this US election year. After all, it is the longest war in American history, heading into its 16th year. The war was authorized by the United Nations and was supported by Republicans and Democrats including President Barack Obama who was opposed to the Iraq war which he described as the “dumb war” in contrast to the “good war” (Afghanistan). Still why this reluctance to mention Afghanistan?

Perhaps the answer is that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the frontrunners respectively of the Democratic and Republican parties, know very well the answer to a question recently posed by John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan. Sopko, in an address at Harvard University on Afghan reconstruction, asked: “What went wrong?”

The whole world knows that many things have gone wrong. “We made a terrible mistake getting involved there in the first place,” Trump said, forgetting he was the Republican frontrunner. After all, it it was a Republican president who ordered the invasion.

But Obama can’t escape blame for the failures of America’s counterinsurgency and nation-building strategy in Afghanistan.

Nothing better reveals the failure of that strategy than the fact that more of the country is in Taliban hands now than at any time since 2001. The US went to Afghanistan to dislodge the Taliban from power and decimate it.
Americans succeeded in their first objective but have been a disastrous failure in the second.

In 2015, some 5,500 Afghan security forces were killed, according to US officials, far more than NATO lost in a decade of war; 3,500 Afghan civilians lost their lives in the same period, mostly at the hands of the Taliban, says the United Nations.

Two-thirds of personnel absences in the security forces are not due to injury, but instead desertion, according to US officials. There is no security although that is where most of the US reconstruction funding has gone — about 61 percent of the $113 billion Congress has appropriated since fiscal year 2002.

Tuesday’s truck bomb attack in Kabul in which 64 people were killed shows how security has collapsed. The Taliban wanted to attack a government VIP bodyguard service, but the bomb detonated in a parking lot just behind its target.

The attack which some say was the deadliest the capital has seen since the Taliban were dislodged in 2001 dashes all hopes of a negotiated end to Afghan violence, a key plank of the US and Afghan strategy.

It is easy to to argue that the Taliban were only picking soft civilian targets as they could not successfully face the US forces. But that does not solve America’s problem which is to reassure the Afghan people that their lives and property are safe in the hands of the Ashraf Ghani
government. The fact is that even after the US has spent more money reconstructing Afghanistan than it did rebuilding Europe at the end of World War II, the country does not have a national government whose writ runs beyond Kabul. So the US has to abandon grandiose hopes of transforming Afghan society for the more modest aim of departing with honor, leaving behind a secure and coherent government.

Now that the Taliban are winning, only imaginative diplomacy, not “war on terror” tactics and terminology will persuade them to enter talks. As a first step, the US should work for lifting UN sanctions that ban Taliban leaders from flying internationally and tie up their financial assets.
Washington also needs to consider the release of Taliban prisoners and the cessation of what the Taliban terms “poisoning propaganda” against them.
The Taliban should realize that the US or Western powers will not announce a date for withdrawal of their troops before negotiations start. The Taliban’s first priority should be to end the suffering of their people which began with the Soviet invasion of 1979.

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