Is Peace with the Taliban Possible?
by Amin Saikal–CANBERRA – Despite ongoing peace negotiations between the United States and the Taliban, the bloody conflict in Afghanistan continues to take a heavy toll on the country’s people. The recent suicide bombing by the Khorasan branch of the Islamic State (IS-K) at a wedding in Kabul, which killed more than 60 and injured close to 200, is a stark reminder of Afghanistan’s poor security situation. It also shows that the Taliban are not the only armed opposition fueling the conflict. A US-Taliban peace pact is therefore unlikely to bring any respite.
The US-Taliban negotiations in Doha – in which the Afghan government is not a participant – are comparable to two previous peace processes: the Paris talks that resulted in the January 1973 peace treaty between the US and North Vietnam; and the negotiations that led to the 1988 Geneva Accords, signed by the Afghan and Pakistani governments with the Soviet Union and the US acting as guarantors.
These two agreements were designed to enable the US and the Soviet Union to exit with “honor” from wars they could not win, by bringing about, respectively, the “Vietnamization” and “Afghanization” of those conflicts. Both agreements failed to achieve their objectives.
By 1975, Soviet-backed North Vietnamese forces had overrun South Vietnam, humiliating the US. And in 1992, the US-supported Afghan Islamic resistance forces, the mujahideen, brought about the collapse of the Soviet-installed communist regime in Kabul.
Whereas the North Vietnamese soon succeeded in uniting their country and restoring peace, however, Afghanistan has fared much worse. The socially and politically divided mujahideen soon turned their guns on one another. And Pakistan took the opportunity to advance its regional interests by nurturing the extremist Taliban, who in 1996-98 conquered most of Afghanistan and subjected it to strict theocratic rule.
The Taliban in turn harbored al-Qaeda, which carried out the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the US. That prompted America, backed by its NATO and non-NATO allies, to intervene in Afghanistan the following month with the aim of destroying al-Qaeda and dislodging the Taliban regime. The US-led forces quickly dispersed al-Qaeda’s leadership and ended Taliban rule, but failed to defeat either group decisively. The Taliban and elements of al-Qaeda staged a comeback within two years of the US intervention, and have tied down American and allied forces in a low-grade but staggeringly costly insurgency ever since.
Now, after nearly two decades of fighting, US President Donald Trump desperately wants to disentangle America from a seemingly unwinnable war – preferably through a political settlement with the Taliban. Trump’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, the Afghan-American Zalmay Khalilzad, has been engaged since September 2018 in shuttle diplomacy, in an eerie parallel with the unsuccessful efforts of then-US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to bring about peace in the Middle East following the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.