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Is history repeating itself in Afghanistan?

By Farman Kakar

“History repeats itself”, goes the famous adage. From Alexander the Great around 330 BC to Arab armies to Genghis Khan to Timur and from Mughals to the British to Soviets, Afghanistan has remained indisputably what Seth Jones calls the “graveyard of empires”. As things stand, probably, the US won’t be an exception either.

Going through Bob Woodward 2002’s book Bush at War, the impression one gets from discussions behind the closed doors between then American President George W. Bush and his secretaries is that it was the elimination of international terrorism orchestrated by al-Qaeda which brought the US to Afghanistan in the first place. By that standard, al-Qaeda is no more in a position to carry out any major attack inside the United States. Therefore, Washington should be quitting Kabul; it is not though.

On December 21, 2018, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis resigned from his post citing his differences with President Trump over the latter’s order to pull out all 2,000 US troops from Syria. “We have won against ISIS”, Trump declared in a video message. Currently, Afghanistan houses 14,000 US troops with a contingent of 8,000 NATO and allied troops mainly training and advising the Afghan armed forces. Trump administration has also ordered roughly 7,000 US troops in Afghanistan to return home. This will reduce the troops’ strength to 7,000, the lowest ever since the US launched largest ground Operation Anaconda in March 2002 in the now 17-year-old-Afghan war.

Donald Trump, as early as October 2011, long before he became the US president, censured American stay in Afghanistan. During his 2016 election campaign, Trump had promised that if elected he would bring the US troops home. On the good authority of three officials, The New York Times reported back in July 2018 on the hitherto undisclosed parts of Trump’s South Asia strategy which entailed prodding Afghan soldiers to retreat from rural areas and protect urban centres that housed just over one-quarter of Afghan population as per CIA’s estimates. The retreat indisputably meant leaving the remaining little less than three-quarters of Afghan population at the mercy of Taliban. Ceding control of vast stretches of rural areas to Taliban is as old as 2009 and this started on Obama’s watch.

Secondly, the cost of fighting is becoming unbearable. The US has spent more than $840 billion in Afghanistan fighting Taliban, al-Qaeda and relief and construction.

In the process, according to the war tracking fatalities website, a total of 2,417 American soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. Likewise, 1142 soldiers from other coalition partners have also died in the Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF).

In November 2018, the Afghan government data, shared by President Ashraf Ghani, showed that a total of 28,529 personnel from Afghan police and national army lost their lives in the line of duty ever since the end of NATO combat mission by the end of 2014. Put in context, the figure shows that on average 25 personnel from Afghan police and soldiers die every day.

The flurry of diplomatic activities in December demonstrates that there is some hope about the success of peace talks. Nevertheless, Pakistan appears to be preparing for the fallout of failure of a peaceful solution to the Afghan imbroglio. Islamabad’s fencing of Durand Line is an attempt to stop the spill over effects of the Afghan crisis.

Third, the partial pullout is an indication of Trump’s seriousness to engage with Taliban in a quest for political settlement of the Afghan issue. It has always been Taliban’s demand that US-led coalition should have a timeline for withdrawal and that only then any peace negotiation has a chance to prevail. Withdrawing about half US troops from Afghanistan is the Trump administration’s way to impress upon the Islamist militia that the US is serious about talks. The US is partially pulling out though not quitting.

The latest round of talks in Abu Dhabi included representatives from UAE, the host, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the only three countries that had recognised Taliban government before it was overthrown in 2001. In his interviews with Afghan TV channels Tolo News and Ariana, ZalmayKhalilzad apprised that Taliban stuck to their demand for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan. The US sought assurances from the militia that Afghanistan would not shelter terrorists who may attack the US, stated Khalilzad.

On the authority of a former Taliban official, ‘who remains in regular contact with Taliban leaders,’ Voice of America (VOA) reported in September 2018 that US negotiators demanded the maintenance of two military air bases in Afghanistan. These were Bagram airbase, the largest of its kind in the country to handle aircraft of any size, and Shorabak airbase in Helmand province. The US is the international policeman that has more than 700 hundred outposts throughout the globe.

The flurry of diplomatic activities in December, including ZalmayKhalilzad’s multinational tour and visits of Pakistani and Chinese delegations’ visit to Kabul, demonstrates that there is some hope about the success of peace talks. Nevertheless, Pakistan appears to be preparing for the fallout of failure of a peaceful solution to the Afghan imbroglio. Islamabad’s fencing of Durand Line is an attempt to stop the spill over effects of the Afghan crisis should there be any intensification of the theatre of war.

In December 2018, the DG ISPR tweeted that by the end of 2019 Pakistan will complete fencing of the 2,611-km Durand Line border between Pakistan and Afghanistan at an estimated cost of $550 million. A pair of 3-metre chain link fences with a 2-metre gap topped with barbed wire that will run along the Pak-Afghan border. “It is an effort aimed at restricting terrorists”, said the DG ISPR.

Whereas war weariness is palpable in the case of the US under Donald Trump, Taliban appear determined for victory. The Afghan government, characteristic of its own past, is visible in cities but its authority is fragile in countryside. Pakistan is poised to spare itself from the breakdown of Afghan central authority. Since antiquity, invaders have found no refuge among Afghans; for all practical reasons, so won’t Americans!