The Taliban remain strong despite everything the US is throwing at them – but how serious is Trump about a peace deal?
The US and the Taliban have agreed that they would like to hold a seven-day ceasefire. The chances of it actually happening varies by the day, and it's not clear whether Donald Trump and those close to him do genuinely want a deal. Beyond those hurdles, however, could a short-term ceasefire open into a lasting peace - one that brings stability while ensuring respect for human rights?
From the US perspective, the war is low profile but extraordinarily intense. The country's armed forces are dropping many more bombs than a decade ago, when they had many more boots on the ground. Back in 2010 and 2011 there were 5,100 and 5,411 munitions dropped each year respectively, both missiles and guided and unguided bombs, and 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. Compare this with 2018 and 2019, when the troops numbers were down to 13,000 but munitions used were 7,362 and 7,423 respectively.
Under such a barrage the Taliban should be desperate for peace talks, but the evidence suggests otherwise. As The New York Times reported recently, "Despite a concerted bombing campaign and American and Afghan offensive ground operations, Taliban fighters are still able to attack at levels similar to a decade ago." The Taliban mounted 8,204 attacks in the last quarter of last year - more than any fourth-quarter total since the record began in 2010 - and 37% of them inflicted casualties. US Special Forces attacks more than doubled between 2018 and 2019, but evidently failed to repress the Taliban.
These numbers and other reports show that the Taliban is not remotely near being defeated. In fact it controls substantial parts of rural Afghanistan and can also operate in cities, including Kabul. Its leaders have the freedom to decide just how far and how fast they will go in a negotiated settlement. They have insisted that the US must remove all its forces before they engage directly with the government in Kabul, but the very fact that they are willing to talk about a seven-day ceasefire indicates that they are prepared to move on.
For the country as a whole any prospect of a longer-term ceasefire would be welcome. Eighteen years of war have had an appalling impact on ordinary Afghans. Since the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) began compiling records in 2009, more than 100,000 Afghans have been killed or injured, including nearly 34,000 civilians, many of them children.
This means little or nothing to the Trump administration where re-election is the overriding need. Indeed, it is probable that much of the current Taliban strategy revolves around this window of opportunity stretching through the next six months. And even if it is just a pre-election ploy, pollsters are already casting doubt on its electoral impact. One view is that domestic issues are far more important and that these revolve far more around Trump's personal conduct and style than bringing the troops home.
One reason for this is that US military action in Afghanistan has become a classic example of remote warfare. There may still be thousands of US troops in the country, but the great majority are involved in training and defensive security. Real US fighting relies mostly on air strikes, drones and low-profile Special Force operations, plus the use of private military contractors and local militias. Little of this ever gets anywhere near the mass media so for most people it is now simply a small war in a far-off place.
Still, even if getting the troops back is not as important to Trump as it seems, it could be represented as a significant achievement in an election campaign.
In Afghanistan, the prospects for the Taliban are good. If a stable war-ending agreement is reached over the next year or two, its current position of the Taliban means that it will have a significant role in whatever form of governance evolves in the country. For western states involved in the war the end result will have been a disastrous intervention leaving a divided and unstable country, with the original al-Qaida movement and its ISIS and other offshoots embedded in Syria and Iraq, and increasingly rampant across the Sahel.
If the unexpected does happen and western forces are almost entirely withdrawn from Afghanistan, we can expect that it will not be a matter of lessons to be learnt but an experience best forgotten. There might perhaps be just a little more caution in going for new interventions, but not much more than that. The military-industrial complex will just roll on.
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