US President Donald Trump, on a surprise Thanksgiving trip to Afghanistan on November 28, announced that the stalled talks with the Afghan Taliban are back on track. Speaking to the US troops at the Bagram Airbase, Trump demanded a ceasefire from the Taliban to resume peace talks. Trump’s announcement has created more confusion about the current US policy on Afghanistan.
Over and above demanding a ceasefire from the Taliban, Trump remarked, “We’re going to stay until such time as we have a deal, or we have total victory.” This is in sharp contrast to his own announcement in the same speech to reduce the number of US troops in Afghanistan to 8,600 from 1,200 to 1,300.
In October, the Resolute Support Mission commander general, Austin Scott Miller, revealed that the US withdrew 2,000 troops from Afghanistan in 2019. A consensus exists among all the stakeholders that there is no military solution to end the 18-year war in Afghanistan and a politically negotiated settlement in the only viable option.
Trump’s bold remarks at the Thanksgiving address caught the US diplomats involved in backdoor diplomacy to revive the stalled peace process with the Taliban by surprise. Such a demand has not been part of unofficial meetings with the Taliban. This constitutes a major shift in the current US position on Afghanistan and requires a significant concession from the Taliban. By changing the Afghan goalpost yet again, Trump has made the job of his chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad more difficult.
The Afghan Taliban’s stance on a ceasefire remains unchanged. Reacting to Trump’s announcement, a member of Taliban’ Qatar Office Suhail Shaheen said, “The Americans walked away from the negotiating table, and now the ball is on their side – it is up to them to come back if they want to solve this and get the document to signing and to the stage of implementation.”
It remains to be seen how the American diplomats muddle through these confusing policy iterations by President Trump and bring clarity on the issue. This practically nullifies the two prisoner-swaps in the recent past between the US and the Taliban as confidence-building measures to revive talks. In September, Trump abruptly cancelled a secret signing ceremony with the Taliban at the Camp David presidential retreat despite agreeing to a draft agreement.
Since coming to power, this is the third time Trump has shifted his position on Afghanistan. In his election campaign, he promised to withdraw the US troops immediately if he was voted to power and end the longest war in American history. However, his South Asia policy announced in August 2017 was a complete departure from his pre-election stance on Afghanistan.
Trump’s South Asia policy adopted a hard line towards Pakistan along with following a condition-based approach in Afghanistan as opposed to a calendar-driven policy. This policy gave more powers to US military commanders on the ground and curtailed the US State Department’s clout in Afghan policy. In 2018, however, Trump changed his stance again and reached out to the Taliban’s Qatar office through Zalmay Khalilzad and the balance of US’ Afghan policy swung back in favour of the State Department.
The latest somersault by Trump sums up the inconsistency of the US approach to Afghanistan. Such inconsistent polices and confusing messaging have generated hedging attitudes from the regional states on Afghanistan. By indicating that the US will withdraw from Afghanistan in his Thanksgiving address, Trump has eroded any semblance of leverage the US had on the Taliban. It is unclear how Trump will achieve a complete victory over the Taliban or force them to a ceasefire when the US is reducing its troops in Afghanistan.
For Pakistan, which has high stakes in Afghanistan and is directly involved in peace talks as a facilitator, difficulties are likely to multiply if Trump sticks to his demand. The Taliban are unlikely to fulfil this demand. It will be difficult for the top Taliban leadership to convince their fighters and military commanders in the battlefield to agree to a ceasefire as a pre-condition. Given that the Taliban have an upper hand in the battlefield, they will prefer fighting than obliging Trump with a ceasefire.
At the same time, the US has endorsed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s position by demanding a ceasefire prior to resuming talks. The condition of ceasefire was mentioned by Ghani in his seven-point peace plan for Afghanistan in September. By agreeing to prisoner exchanges, Ghani seems to have won Trump’s vote of confidence. The fact that Dr Abdullah Abdullah’s supporters were protesting in Kabul against election fraud when Trump was meeting Ghani at the Bagram airbase is a clear indicator that Ghani is likely to continue as the president.
As things stand in Afghanistan, it will be unsurprising if Trump withdraws from Afghanistan out of frustration and disappointment. The Pentagon has already prepared contingency plans if Trump announces a sudden withdrawal without a peace deal. Trump’s thanksgiving address has added more uncertainty to the already volatile situation in Afghanistan. Things are back to pre-prisoner swaps, and fresh diplomatic efforts would be needed to remove confusions in order to move forward.
The writer is a research fellow at theS Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.
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