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Emerging U.S.-Taliban Deal Will Give Iran Leverage to Expand Influence

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Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, center, speaks to U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad at the presidential palace in Kabul, January 28, 2019.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, center, speaks to U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad at the presidential palace in Kabul, January 28, 2019.Credit: ,AP

In the news that emerged from Doha, the capital of Qatar, that apparently there is an agreement between the United States and the Afghan Taliban, the key word is “apparently.”

Appearances, chances, possibilities and cautious optimism have accompanied the innumerable talks that the Americans have held with Taliban representatives since Afghanistan was occupied by the United States in 2001, in response to the 9/11 attacks. Even now, it would be best not to hold one’s breath in anticipation of a cease-fire, let alone a peace agreement, in this divided land, where some 45,000 Afghan fighters and tens of thousands of civilians have been killed since 2014

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The primary American goal in these negotiations is to be able to withdraw most of its roughly 14,000 combat soldiers, and to assure that Afghanistan does not become a new base for Al-Qaida and ISIS activity.

At this stage, the talks are not about reconciliation between Afghanistan’s elected government and the Taliban, or about the country’s political future. It’s a limited tactical objective that if achieved, won’t necessarily guarantee quiet and stability in Afghanistan, but could achieve a quiet withdrawal of the U.S. forces. In Israeli-Palestinian terms, we’re talking about a “tahadiyeh,” a lull, and not a diplomatic agreement.

The Taliban’s agreement in principle still hasn’t been translated into practical terms like a timetable for signing the deal, stages of the American withdrawal, the security arrangements that would accompany the withdrawal, and the measures and security arrangements that will guarantee the Taliban’s commitment to foil the activities of Al-Qaida and ISIS. Nor is it clear what financial and military assistance the organization will get from the United States to implement the agreements, and, no less important, what leverage will remain in U.S. hands if the Taliban don’t uphold the deal.

Nevertheless, the American representatives attribute great importance to the fact that the Taliban’s deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, is heading the delegation to the talks. This, they believe, indicates the Taliban take the talks seriously and are seeking to expedite their results, since by virtue of his position Baradar can make decisions without having to consult unnecessarily with a series of leaders in the organizational hierarchy.

In the past, there were times when the Taliban sent dummy representatives on their behalf, likes a store owner who was introduced as a “senior member of the organization” or “a representative of Mullah Omar,” who had been killed a few years earlier. The American representatives who are praising Baradar’s presence refrain from referring to the rest of the Taliban delegation, some of whom spent long periods in Guantanamo prison.

FILE Photo: U.S. soldiers inspect the site of a suicide attack in the heart of Kabul, Afghanistan, August 22, 2015. Credit: /Massoud Hossaini/AP Photo

Short memory

Aside from a cease-fire agreement, the United States is seeking to push the Taliban, which controls about half of Afghanistan’s population, into negotiating with the Afghan government, and may link its withdrawal to the start of domestic negotiations. But at this point the Taliban have no intention of conducting such talks, which for them would constitute recognizing a government that was elected under the bayonets of occupation.

On the other hand, the Afghan government headed by President Ashraf Ghani fears that the American desire to bring about internal reconciliation may give the Taliban too many concessions in power sharing, which would lead to serious human rights abuses and constitutional amendments that would nullify many of the government’s achievements in the realms of personal status, the status of women, education and justice. These values, the regime fears, may undergo Talibanization, modeled after the Taliban regime that ruled between 1996 and 2001.

Meanwhile, the United States is evading explanations about how it views the Taliban’s participation in the government in order to avoid a confrontation with the official Afghan leadership. But ahead of the July presidential elections there will be no choice but to formulate an American policy on the Taliban’s status as a legitimate political body. The Taliban may demand that the United States formulate such a policy as a condition for upholding the agreement being drawn up in Doha. Judging by U.S. President Donald Trump’s conduct in other Middle East conflicts, it is doubtful whether he will have any interest in the nature of the Afghan government after he withdraws his forces. Nor will he be the first American president to kick Afghanistan around after achieving his goal. The elder President George Bush “forgot” where Afghanistan was after the Soviet forces withdrew.

Negotiating with the Taliban might seem to represent a fundamental shift in the traditional U.S. policy of not negotiating with terrorist groups, but there’s nothing really new here. Senior officials in the State Department and the CIA met openly with Taliban leaders in the 1990s, when the brutal nature of their regime and their mass murder of civilians whom they believe had “deviated from the true Islam” were already known. In 1997, a Taliban delegation visited the headquarters of U.S. oil giant Unocal in Texas to discuss the construction of a gas pipeline between Turkmenistan and Pakistan that would pass through Afghanistan. The Taliban were supposed to secure the pipeline in exchange for handsome royalties. Although the agreement was not implemented due to public pressure, the American administration saw nothing wrong with promoting other projects with the Taliban until September 11, 2001.

Other parties

The war between the Taliban and Afghan government forces, which dramatically reduced the government’s control over the country’s territory, has drawn in foreign rivals seeking to expand their influence on the country.

During Afghanistan’s war against the Soviet Union between 1979 and 1988, Pakistan armed and financed (with American money) the Mujahideen, which fought against the Soviet forces, and turned the Taliban, the alumni of that war, into its protégés. It would be correct to state that the Taliban as an organization began military activities when they were refugee students who fled the Afghan civil war to Pakistani territory. From there they left in 1992 to conquer their homeland from warlords and Afghan tribal leaders who fought for control of the country after the withdrawal of the Soviet forces. Pakistani intelligence services used the Taliban as political and military agents.

Saudi Arabia, Pakistan’s ally, has also done its part by streaming hundreds of millions of dollars to the coffers of Pakistan and the Taliban as part of its effort to strengthen its influence in the Sunni countries, even though the Taliban cooperated with Al-Qaida. In recent years Saudi Arabia has increased its aid to the Taliban as part of its struggle against Iran.

The involvement of Iran in Afghanistan is nothing new, but recently it has developed broad ties with the Taliban to build a defensive wall against possible ISIS attacks on its territory and to ensure the safety of the Shi’ite Hazara minority that lives in central Afghanistan near the Iranian border. The choice of Qatar to host the negotiations was made in consultation with Iran, after the Taliban refused to conduct the talks in Saudi Arabia, which is pressuring them to reconcile with the Afghan government. The cooperation between Iran and the Taliban confounds the theory of the Shi’ite axis that threatens the Middle East, since the Taliban are radical Sunnis while Iran is a Shi’ite state. It seems that on both sides, interests can overcome ideology.

Afghanistan is no gold mine – “it has no wealth,” as Trump said of Syria. After the withdrawal of American forces it could become a battleground for political and military control between Middle Eastern rivals and could even tempt Russia, which fled from there three decades ago. But after losing more than a trillion dollars and the lives of thousands of American soldiers, one can’t blame the United States for wanting to extricate itself from this swamp, which no country has ever managed to conquer.

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