These are the bare facts. Following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, it did not take long to establish that responsibility for the onslaught lay with the al-Qaeda movement. The US was convinced that its master-mind, Osama bin Laden, was being sheltered by the extremist Islamist group controlling Afghanistan, the Taliban. As a result, within a few weeks a US-led coalition invaded Afghanistan. The conflict has lasted ever since. In the past 19 years it has claimed the lives of more than 4,000 American military and civilian personnel. Currently about 12,000 US troops are stationed in the country.
Who are the Taliban?
The group emerged following a 10-year occupation of the country by the Soviet Union. The USSR had invaded in 1979 in an attempt to keep Afghanistan within its sphere of influence, but a decade of international pressure and guerilla warfare, conducted by Sunni extremists called the mujahIdeen, proved enough to prompt its withdrawal. Soviet troops departed finally in February 1989, leaving the Afghan government to battle on its own against the insurgents.
A year or so later a new hardline Sunni Islamist group began emerging. They called themselves Taliban (“students” in the Pashto language). From south-western Afghanistan they quickly extended their influence. In September 1995 they overran the province of Herat, bordering Iran. Exactly one year later, they captured the Afghan capital, Kabul, overthrowing the regime of President Burhanuddin Rabbani – one of the founding fathers of the mujahideen. By 1998, the Taliban were in control of almost 90 percent of Afghanistan.
At first Afghans, weary of the mujahideen’s excesses, welcomed the Taliban as they set about stamping out corruption, curbing lawlessness and making the areas under their control safe. But they also employed Islamic punishments, such as public executions of convicted murderers and adulterers, and amputations for those found guilty of theft.
Other hardline Islamist practices were imposed. Men were required to grow beards, and women had to wear the all-covering burka. Television, music and cinema were banned, and girls aged 10 and over were forbidden to attend school. In 2001, in defiance of international outrage, they destroyed the famous Bamiyan Buddha statues in central Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the Taliban continued to wage their two-handed war – against the Afghan government on the one hand, and against the US presence on the other.
From the moment he took office in 2017, US President Donald Trump pledged to put an end to the conflict and bring the American forces back home. It took nearly two years of secret back-channel negotiations before the Taliban announced in December 2018 that they would meet with American negotiators in Qatar.
On February 25, 2019 peace talks began, with the co-founder of the Taliban, Abdul Ghani Barada, at the table. They got off to a good start. Agreement was reached on a draft peace deal involving the withdrawal of US and international troops from Afghanistan, matched by an undertaking by the Taliban to prohibit other jihadist groups operating within the country.
Deadlock soon followed. Among other stumbling blocks was the Taliban’s refusal to negotiate with the Afghan government, which they regarded as a US puppet regime. No less than nine rounds of US-Taliban talks followed, and finally, in September 2019, details of the long-awaited deal emerged. The Taliban would guarantee that Afghanistan would never again be used as a base for militant groups seeking to attack the US and its allies. The quid pro quo, was an immediate withdrawal of 5,400 US troops. A pullout of the remaining forces would depend on a ceasefire and the start of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Despite reservations from Afghan media and government figures, who retained vivid memories of the excesses of the Taliban when they held power, the deal was greeted with optimism by President Trump.
“I really believe the Taliban wants to do something to show we’re not all wasting time,” he said. “If bad things happen, we’ll go back with a force like no-one’s ever seen.”
It soon became apparent that the deal was far from watertight. Two issues were proving a stumbling block: the government’s refusal to release 5000 Taliban prisoners ahead of the ratification of the deal, and the fallout from the disputed 2019 presidential election result.
President Ashraf Ghani was declared to have won a second term, only for his chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah, to reject the result. Abdullah took his opposition to the point of arranging a rival inauguration ceremony, thus creating a presidential schism.
The country’s election commission agreed to investigate allegations of fraud. After five months, it announced on February 18, 2020 that no irregularities had been found. Ghani had received 51 percent of the votes cast; Abdullah had received 40 percent.
Abdullah and his supporters refused to accept the result, and the political stalemate persisted.
With the hard fought deal and literally years of diplomatic effort at stake, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a dash to Afghanistan on March 23 to try to move matters forward. He failed. Ghani and Abdullah stubbornly refused to compromise in any way. As he left Kabul empty-handed Pompeo said America was disappointed in both men, “and what their conduct means for Afghanistan and our shared interests.”
He said their failure to find a settlement, had “harmed US-Afghan relations and, sadly, dishonors those…who have sacrificed their lives and treasure in the struggle to build a new future for this country”.
As a result, he deployed the only effective measure left to him. He said that Washington would immediately cut a billion dollars of aid, and prepare to cut another billion in 2021.
Clearly Pompeo hopes the deal can still be rescued. He told reporters he hoped he would not have to implement the cuts. On his way home he stopped off in Qatar to meet Taliban negotiators, later declaring that he was confident the Taliban were keeping their side of the deal. A Taliban spokesman said that Pompeo had assured them that a withdrawal of American forces “will continue in accordance with the declared timetable.”
That, after all, has been Trump’s aim from the start – an ambition rendered ever more urgent as the US presidential election draws nearer. In the final analysis there may be no deal at all, merely a US troop withdrawal, and an Afghanistan left to the type of political and military civil conflict that has ravaged the country for decades.