President Donald Trump’s assertion that the United States could kill 10 million people in Afghanistan “if I wanted to win the war” was just another insulting remark targeted at domestic and international audiences. And the relatively mild reaction to such an unprecedented statement signifies the growing insulation and indifference of the world to a maverick and gangster-like US president.
What cannot be ignored though is Trump’s desperation and determination to extricate the US from Afghanistan via a deal with Pakistan and the Taliban, regardless of the consequences. As many seasoned observers have warned, a Trumpian deal would unravel the nascent constitutional order of the post-Taliban era and wreak havoc in the country, its surrounding region, and the wider world.
Unlike his bombastic rhetoric, Trump’s strategy and intent are similar to his predecessors’ approach and legacy, beginning with Jimmy Carter: using Afghanistan to pursue the US’ geostrategic and ideological interests; seasonal, half-hearted, reactionary strategies; dubious domestic and regional allies; and ‘have your cake and eat it too’ sense of imperial entitlement.
US’ record of regime change
There is fatigue in Washington over the US’ endless wars in the Middle East that began in late 2001 in the badlands of Afghanistan. In the eyes of the ahistorical Americans, their country has been dragged into centuries-old tribal and sectarian warfare, and is being manipulated by an inherently corrupt culture and divided elites. The factual history is very different.
The US war in Afghanistan began in March 1979, when Washington started funding Islamist insurgents against the United Nations-recognised secular government of Afghanistan. That support was accelerated eight months later when the Soviet Union intervened in support of its Marxist-inclined client government in Kabul in December. The Soviet’s failed intervention to stabilise the Afghan government led to negotiation and the Geneva Accords in 1988. While Moscow and Kabul largely honoured their obligations, Washington and Islamabad deliberately breached it, paving the way for the collapse of the Afghan government and the rise of a factional war.
During the UN-recognised Mujahideen government, Washington once again chose to see future in the Taliban’s rule rather than working on an inclusive political settlement. US envoy for peace talks Zalmay Khalilzad was key to the Taliban’s introduction to US firms and influential circles.
Even the horror of 9/11 terrorist attacks did not alter the fundamentals of the US’ Afghanistan strategy. Washington’s preference to work with malleable, Pakistan-approved, Taliban/Islamist-friendly individual Afghans went into full swing. At four important junctions, the US manipulated national and democratic processes to impose its choice: the 2001 Bonn Conference to choose the head of the interim government; the 2002 emergency loya jirga (grand assembly) to choose the transitional government; and the 2009 and 2014 presidential elections. Washington’s favourite choices then were Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani. The challenge has not been the imposition of democracy on Afghans, but Washington’s preference to bypass democratic processes and outcomes.
Washington’s manipulation of the democratic process was compounded by its appeasement-centric Pakistan/Taliban strategy. Since its inception in 1994, the Taliban has not been included by the US in its list of proscribed terrorist groups, while Pakistan has been designated as one of the major non-NATO allies, alongside Australia, Israel and Japan.
The tragic events of 9/11 prompted the policy community in Washington to redeem the US by partnering with the Afghans to establish a new type of relationship. This sentiment was duly reciprocated by the Afghans who wanted to bury their xenophobic tendency. The two governments negotiated hard and successfully concluded two important agreements: the Strategic Partnership Agreement in May 2012, and the Bilateral Security Agreement in September 2014. Notwithstanding then-President Hamid Karzai’s intransigence, there was national consensus and support for both agreements. The spirit of mutual cooperation and strategic partnership culminated with the release of the US’ South Asia Strategy in 2017.
Return of the past
Zalmay Khalilzad’s re-entry into the Afghan political scene has revived the memory of the recent past and the fear of return to that era. Similar to the US’ exit from Iran’s nuclear agreement and other international accords, current peace efforts have effectively disbanded the US’ accords with Kabul. More importantly, the legitimacy and viability of the post-Taliban constitutional order in Afghanistan has come under immense stress and doubt. While individual Taliban members in luxurious hotels in Doha and Pakistani prison have been elevated into a government-in-waiting, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan has been reduced to a number of individuals, who are struggling to negotiate with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in their individual capacities.
Islamic Republic 2.0 vs Islamic Emirate 2.0
While the Afghan conflict has impacted many nations and individuals, the Afghans have borne the brunt of the conflict. Peace is what Afghans have been striving for nearly five decades. Afghanistan is at a crossroads: will it witness a transition to the second Islamic Republic or to the second version of the Islamic Emirate of Taliban? Many Afghans are sceptical and fearful of the continuation of the conflict via a hasty deal between a desperate US president in an election year and a skilled player – the Pakistani military, which has perfected the game of manipulation and multiple-crossing.
The concerns of the Afghans are being increasingly echoed by regional and European countries that are afraid of the Syrianisation of Afghanistan; while some in the US warn of ‘a second Vietnam’. Globally, dismantling the Islamic Republic and re-imposition of the Islamic Emirate would amount to the victory of Islamofascism and ensuing marginalisation of the voices of moderation, pluralism, democracy, and cooperation in the wider Islamic world.
The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan has the capacity to accommodate Pakistan and the Taliban’s legitimate concerns as well as other constituencies. Despite its shortcomings, the post-Taliban constitutional order has been able to pacify a number of drivers of the conflict.
The second republican order has to address key issues that the first order failed to do: mainstreaming the Taliban into civilian and political lives; replacing the current imperial presidential system with a more democratic one; finding effective mechanism for greater regional contribution and ownership; and more importantly, putting in place an effective enforcement mechanism and multilateral guarantee. The second republican order should be seen as the framework, both conceptually and institutionally, to bring peace to the country, rather than a rival or a substitute to peace.
Davood Moradian is director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies and former senior policy adviser in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.