By Tom Squitieri, Talk Media News
WASHINGTON — Late last month, U.S. military units went into rural Afghanistan and took out a top al-Qaeda operative.
This would be October 2020 — 19 years after U.S. troops first entered Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, attacks, in October 2001 to do the same thing: take out al-Qaeda.
Today, the Taliban government that provided sanctuary to al-Qaeda and was scattered is back in business. It holds half the territory in Afghanistan.
A highly touted peace deal between Washington and the Taliban — who President Trump had wanted to bring to Camp David a year ago — is being shredded by ongoing violence that can no longer be papered over with bureaucratize. The meeting in Doha between the Kabul government and the Taliban is essentially mum — far from walking the walk, let alone even talking the talk.
It has become a Potemkin peace, with all three sides exchanging words and blows. Like many roads throughout Afghanistan, the road to peace just ends suddenly.
“It really is a mess,” is the most common response when Afghan advocates, observers, and those on the group say when asked about the situation.
There are 4,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan today, down from 14,500 at the start of the year. Almost all are on a timetable to be withdrawn by spring 2021.
For years Pentagon officials candidly said — on deep background or off the record — that a military victory in Afghanistan would be a Pyrrhic victory at best and that some political exit ramp was critical. That has resulted in viewing how things have changed since 2001 akin to peering through Alice’s looking glass.
Washington and the Taliban — adversaries — struck a deal in February to stop fighting. The deal left out Washington’s ally in the fight, the Afghan government. Violence continued and increased until the U.S. could no ignore it.
In October the U.S. hit back and it was the Taliban that issued an ultimatum. It would stop fighting — now — if the U.S. ends airstrikes. It was a complete reversal of the February deal made with the U.S. Now both sides are going to “re-set” actions “by strictly adhering to” the terms of an agreement reached between the two sides in February — and the one the Taliban broke.
Meanwhile, President Trump said all remaining US forces in Afghanistan could be home by Christmas; Pentagon officials dispute the contention and exchanged sharp words with White House potentates.
Some Pentagon officials also dispute suggestions and amplifications that the Taliban has severed ties with al-Qaeda. They say the relationship between al-Qaeda & Taliban has not substantively changed by the February agreement. They also say al-Qaeda elements participate in military action and training activities with the Taliban and that its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is believed to still be based in Afghanistan along with other senior figures in the malevolent galère despite the recent U.S. strikes.
The U.S. envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, even agreed the Taliban has failed to keep its word and had not fulfilled its February accord commitment to breaking ties with al Qaeda.
He concurred the violence was excessive and implored the Kabul government and Taliban insurgents to work harder toward crafting a ceasefire at their talks.
“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he wrote in a tweet.
Talks between a government delegation and the Taliban have been going on in Doha since mid-September. Progress has been scant and diplomats and officials fret that rising violence in coutry is sapping trust. The sides are often at odds with even the most basic issues.
“The sides must move past procedure and into substantive negotiations,” Khalilzad’s office said in a statement, toward “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.”
U.S. forces, after staying low for most of the year, are ready to again engage, Gen. Scott Miller, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said.
“We’ve shown a great deal of restraint because we’re trying to make this peace process work,” Miller said in a statement in October. “At the same time, we’ll defend our forces.”
“The violence is too high,” Miller said. “What we’ve said all along is that all sides need to bring it down.”
The Pentagon and its NATO allies follow the mantra that further troop withdrawals from Afghanistan will be “conditions-based” and conducted in unity.
“We decided to go into Afghanistan together; we will make decisions about future adjustments together, and we will leave together when the time is right,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said at the conclusion of a two-day virtual defense ministerial in late October.
Stoltenberg struck the same chord as U.S. officials.
“The Taliban must reduce the unacceptable levels of violence. To pave the way for a ceasefire, they must break all ties with al Qaeda and other terrorist groups,” he said. “It is important to preserve the gains made over the last two decades with so much sacrifice, not least for women and girls, so that peace benefits every Afghan, and is sustainable in the long-term.”
That is the part no one can answer.
(Photo: Resolute Support Commander U.S. Army Gen. Scott Miller shakes hands with a resident in downtown Kabul Feb. 26, 2020. Photo by U.S. Army Reserve photo by Spc. Jeffery J. Harris)