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The time for negotiations in Afghanistan was 2001

Only last Tuesday, an anonymous US intelligence officer told The Washington Post that the US military expected Kabul to fall after 30 to 90 days. This came as a shock. Previously, the official assessment had been that the capital would resist the Taliban for six months to a year after the Americans left, already a damning indictment of the Afghan National Army that the US and its allies have spent 20 years and billions of dollars building up.

Yesterday, less than a week later, it was announced that President Ashraf Ghani had abdicated and fled the country just as the Taliban entered the presidential palace and began negotiating a transfer of power.

While even the most cautious of observers were caught out by the speed of the advance in the preceding weeks, it has been clear for some time that the Taliban’s eventual victory was inevitable. Yet calls from international governments and newspapers for a power-sharing agreement between the Taliban and the now-deposed government continued right up until the end. Even yesterday, as the insurgents began entering the capital, The Observer Editorial Board called for “good-faith negotiations'' between the two sides.

I suspect the delusion that Ghani’s government was in any position to negotiate was not shared by many. Nobody wants to admit the alternative. It’s tough for newspaper editors to describe such heartbreaking scenes as those in Kabul yesterday and conclude by telling their readers that their political representatives are no longer in a position to do anything to stop the onslaught. White House secretary, Jen Psaki, has been roundly ridiculed in op-eds for her diplomatic remarks in the face of the Taliban assault, such as on Wednesday when she called for the group to consider “its role in the international community”. But again, what else is she supposed to say?

The window for negotiations closed a while back, arguably a long time ago. Throughout the initial 2001 invasion, the Taliban showed willingness to strike a deal. Even in its final days, when the group was under siege in Kandahar, the Taliban held a press conference for international journalists, distancing itself from Al Qaeda and asking for negotiations. Much like today, though, the pleas of the losing side faced with an overwhelming military defeat for negotiations fell on deaf ears.

After Kandahar fell, President Hamid Karzai publicly supported talks with the Taliban but was rebuffed by the Americans. Karzai had made early attempts to reach out to his adversaries, even promising the Taliban leader, Mohammed Omar, the right to “live in dignity” in Kandahar, which was again ignored by the Americans who continued trying to kill Omar until the aging mullah died of tuberculosis in 2013. The decision not to invite the Taliban to the 2001 Bonn Agreement, which established the new state of Afghanistan, was later described by one UN negotiator as “our original sin”.

President Karzai continued to push for peace talks and, eventually, by 2007 found the backing of the US. But by this point the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan had become a sticking point for the Taliban who rejected talks outright. Discussions between the Taliban, the Afghan government, and the US, continued sporadically for the next few years but never led to anything.

In 2017, America’s desperation to be out of Afghanistan for good spurned the US to engage in serious power-sharing discussions with the Taliban. But by this point, Taliban leaders knew that the winds were in their favour, and preferred to continue fighting its way to Kabul. The assumption was that the US would be leaving Afghanistan come what may, a prediction that proved prescient. Now in control of the whole country, any negotiations or reconciliatory talks will be decided unilaterally by the Taliban. But the country is not unified in support for another militant theocracy. The Taliban might do well to learn from America’s mistakes.

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