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September 13, 2019

Back to square one


September 13, 2019

President Trump’s tweet to call off the secret summit with Taliban leaders and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at Camp David came as a big surprise. President Trump also announced a suspension of peace negotiations with the Afghan Taliban.

The reason given for this abrupt cancellation was that the Afghan Taliban continue to attack Kabul and US and Nato troops. In a recent attack on Kabul, one US and one Romanian soldier was killed. The Taliban claimed responsibility for that attack.

The Taliban’s attacks in Kabul and other places are just one of the reasons used by President Trump to cancel the summit but there are other issues that led to that decision. The Taliban had claimed responsibility for many attacks in Kabul and other provinces during the peace negotiations but the Trump administration did not stop the talks. The staunch opposition from the Afghan government and differences in the Trump administration on a possible deal between the US and the Taliban are the other possible reasons for the decision.

US Secretary of State and former CIA director Mike Pompeo raised his concerns and reservations publicly about a possible peace agreement with the Taliban. The recently sacked national security advisor, John Bolton, also opposed the draft of this agreement.

Similar voices also came out from the Pentagon and Congress as some details of the draft agreement was made public. Even right-wing hawks and neocons in the Republican Party reacted strongly against this deal. So there were differences regarding this deal within the US administration. President Trump probably felt the pressure and announced the suspension of the peace process.

The planned summit at the presidential retreat of Camp David in Maryland was never made public. The main aim of this summit was to bring both sides to the negotiations table. The idea behind this secret summit seemed to be to give the impression to President Trump’s support base that he is a strong leader and can bring such conflicting sides on to one table. But this was not a well-thought-out move and so it subsequently failed.

Whatever the reasons, the cancellation of the Camp David summit and halting of the Afghan peace process is a big blow to the year-long peace negotiations between the US and the Afghan Taliban. The Twitter announcement seems to have ended – abruptly and at least for now – a painstaking diplomatic process led for nearly a year by Zalmay Khalilzad, who held nine rounds of talks with the Taliban in Qatar.

President Trump’s tweet came at a time when most people were expecting that the peace deal “finalised in principle” between the Afghan Taliban and the US would soon be signed. Both sides had given encouraging statements regarding the final agreement. The abrupt end of peace negotiations even for the time being has raised the fear of escalated violence, bombings and killings. Any hopes of ending war and violence in the near future have shattered.

The Afghan people have paid a heavy price of wars, civil wars and continued violence. They desperately want peace, stability and an end to violence. Unfortunately, there is no end in sight.

This arbitrary decision to halt the peace negotiations will not improve or change the situation in Afghanistan. The stalemate will continue. The reality is that neither can the Taliban take major cities and run over the Afghan government under these circumstances nor can the Afghan government impose a crushing defeat on the Taliban in their strong holds.

This stalemate will bring more violence and instability as both sides are not only trying to defend their positions but also trying to gain more ground. Both sides are inflicting causalities and damages on the civilian population.

A UN report released earlier this year and reported by Aljazeera and other international media outlets said that 2018 saw the highest number of civilians killed in Afghanistan’s war than any other year on record.

Civilian deaths jumped to 3,804, an 11 percent increase compared to the year before. The death toll included 927 children, while another 7,189 people were wounded, according to the UN figures, as suicide attacks and bombings wreaked havoc across Afghanistan.

At least 305 civilians were killed by pro-government forces between January and March, with 52.5 percent of all deaths coming in that period.

The Trump administration made two major mistakes at the start of the peace negotiations. One, in desperation it did not push for a ceasefire during the negotiations. So the Taliban continued their attacks in Kabul and other areas while negotiating peace with the US. Two, the Afghan government was kept out of the whole process of negotiations. If the Taliban are major players in Afghanistan so is the Afghan government.

The US decision to keep the Afghan government out of the peace negotiations created the general impression in Kabul that the Trump administration wants to abandon the Afghan government to strike a deal with the Taliban.

The Taliban and their supporters saw this peace deal as a victory and intensified their attacks to gain an upper hand. This violent campaign to gain more ground raised fears in Kabul and hardened opposition to this peace deal.

The situation in Afghanistan is much more complex as many players – both domestic and international – are involved in this long-drawn conflict. There is no simple solution to fix the problems in Afghanistan. The US alone cannot bring peace in Afghanistan without taking all the major regional powers onboard. All the Afghan stakeholders must be included in the peace process.

An inclusive peace process can bring peace, stability and prosperity in Afghanistan, a short-sighted policy will do the opposite.

The writer is a freelance journalist.