Amid rubble in Kabul, fatigue with ‘talking while fighting’

Why We Wrote This

“The first law of peace is a cease-fire,” a business owner told the Monitor’s Scott Peterson at the site of a fateful bombing in Kabul. With U.S.-Taliban talks halted, it’s a point of consensus for Afghans.

Rahmat Gul/AP
NATO forces and Afghan security personnel clear debris at the site of a car bomb explosion in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 5, 2019. An American soldier was among more than a dozen people killed in the blast, which led to the suspension of U.S.-Taliban talks.

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For 10 months, the United States and the Taliban have held negotiations on a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan that would pave the way for an intra-Afghan peace process. The suspension of those talks following a Taliban car bombing in Kabul has created a perilous moment for Afghanistan.

With both the U.S. and Taliban having followed a “fight and talk” strategy, the current high level of violence creates its own self-fulfilling dynamic. And there’s no consensus path forward that addresses the interests of both Americans and Afghans, who are torn between their desire for peace and their distrust of the Taliban.

The Taliban, meanwhile, are sounding relatively upbeat despite the end of the negotiations, says a Western official in Kabul. “That might have been the best deal they [the Americans] could have gotten,” says the official. “If the Taliban had been willing to give more, then they would have given it, but they did not.”

At the site of the Kabul bombing, the owner of an event hall damaged in the attack echoes Afghan government officials. “If they want peace, first all sides should stop the conflict,” he says.

When the Taliban car bomb detonated on a busy Kabul street, it ripped through a corner event hall, turning glass into shrapnel that shredded the trousers of the shellshocked owner.

The explosion looked like so many other Taliban suicide attacks: It killed a dozen Afghan civilians, several Afghan intelligence officers, and an American and another NATO soldier who were passing in a convoy.

But the blast on Sept. 5 – and the fact that an American serviceman died – may be the most consequential, since President Donald Trump cited it to abruptly end 10 months of peace talks between the United States and the Taliban that were described as on the cusp of final agreement.

All sides have escalated violence since the summer, pursuing “fight and talk” strategies to gain advantage in the controversial negotiations aimed at withdrawing some 14,000 U.S. troops and ending America’s longest war.

But this attack has proved to be one Taliban strike too far, not only for the White House, but also for many Afghans suspicious that the jihadist insurgents are not serious about peace, and that the Taliban have not tempered their archconservative social views since they were toppled from power in 2001.

“We see the result of their moderation,” laughs the thickly mustachioed event hall owner, who asked not to be named. Around him, workers cleaned up broken glass and stacked metal bars outside the wrecked low-slung halls, which were full of dining tables and chairs draped with festive white and red cloth for wedding celebrations, all covered with detritus from the blast.

The suspension of the talks has left Afghanistan at a perilous crossroads, with the current high level of violence creating its own self-fulfilling dynamic, and no consensus path forward that addresses both American and Afghan interests. Where there is consensus, among Afghans, is in a loss of patience with the practice of talking while shooting.

“The first law of peace is a cease-fire,” says the hall owner, echoing Afghan government officials who were not an official party to the U.S.-Taliban talks, and welcomed their demise.

“If they want peace, first all sides should stop the conflict,” the event hall owner says. The Taliban “are not strong people. If one wants to show power, they should not target civilians.”

Afghans have been torn between their desire for peace and their fear that the secretive U.S.-led negotiations appeared to prioritize a speedy American withdrawal (in exchange for Taliban promises not to let Afghan soil be used for attacking the U.S.) over any Taliban commitment to either a full cease-fire or intra-Afghan peace.

Missed opportunity?

Mr. Trump called off the talks last weekend, saying the death of the American showed the Taliban had sought to “build false leverage” through violence.

If the Taliban could not agree to a cease-fire during peace talks, Mr. Trump tweeted, “they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway.”

He also said that he had planned to bring Taliban leaders and President Ashraf Ghani to finalize the deal at the presidential retreat at Camp David – the same place where, 18 years ago this week, American leaders made plans to topple the Taliban and Al Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks.

Mr. Trump instead declared the Afghan talks “dead” on Monday. And in a 9/11 memorial speech on Tuesday, he said that in the previous four days, “we have hit our enemy harder than they have ever been hit before.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking Sunday, said more than 1,000 Taliban had been killed in the previous 10 days.

The collapse of the deal means that Mr. Ghani may be able to take charge of a new peace effort, if he wins a second term in presidential elections due on Sept. 28 – a vote the Taliban have vowed to disrupt.

But the Taliban have so far refused direct talks with the Afghan government, dismissing it as a U.S. puppet. And the palace, despite taking a triumphant public tone after the U.S.-Taliban talks collapsed, has dragged its feet on engaging with the peace process and so far has failed to present a better alternative to a war that in 2018 saw a record 3,800 civilians killed, according to the United Nations. 

“That might have been the best deal they [the Americans] could have gotten,” says a Western official in Kabul who asked not to be named. “The talks had gone on for a very long time, and if the Taliban had been willing to give more, then they would have given it, but they did not.”

Best of a bad situation

The Taliban are not bound by Mr. Trump’s election timeline, nor the Afghan one, and are sounding relatively upbeat, says the official. The Taliban today control or have influence in roughly half the country, though it is not clear if Taliban negotiators can impose a peace deal on all their forces.

The U.S.-Taliban deal reportedly included a reduction of violence – though not a full cease-fire – in the two heavily populated provinces of Kabul and Parwan. U.S. forces were to make an initial withdrawal of 5,400 troops within 135 days, as the first stage of a full pullout within 1 1/2 years.

“If the capital could have gained some respite from the violence while the Americans withdrew, that could have been massive,” says Graeme Smith, an Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group.

“In return for that, you would expect to see, for example, no more 2,000-pound bombs dropping on villages in Taliban areas,” he says. There would almost certainly have had to be negotiated terms for Afghan forces, too, because “now they have helicopters, they go on night raids, they drop bombs – and those are technically Afghan assets, paid for by the U.S.”

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. negotiator, “made the best out of a bad situation,” says Mr. Smith. “It’s like dumpster diving for groceries and trying to cook a feast. You end up with what is in the dumpster.”

A Taliban statement after Mr. Trump halted the talks was measured, but said the U.S. military would remain a target.

“They know that the Afghan government needs to make peace, because these explosions just ... drive the point home,” says the Western official in Kabul.

“So the Taliban are actually not doing too badly at this point in time, despite the fact they are taking such a beating with airstrikes,” says the official. “Now how much longer they can keep that up is a different question.”

Message to the Taliban

For critics of the U.S.-Taliban talks, their collapse was a necessary corrective for a process that had given the insurgents both a sense of victory and a global platform.

“Americans were pursuing the talks, and they have emboldened the Taliban and given them ... courage, to put them in a win-win situation,” says Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan member of parliament. She has been one of the few women to meet the Taliban negotiators, twice this year in Moscow and once in Doha, Qatar.

“They thought that if the process succeeds, they will win, they will be part of the government. If it does not succeed, the Americans will withdraw anyway, so they will win militarily,” says Ms. Koofi.

Mr. Trump’s shutdown of the talks “was something that was needed, so the Taliban would know that everything will not be finalized the way they want,” says Ms. Koofi.

What she learned from her exchanges with Taliban chiefs is that those Taliban on the peace circuit, who talk of their own social evolution, including respecting women’s rights and education for girls, may not speak for all the insurgency.

When Ms. Koofi and other activists in July showed Taliban leaders current photographs of children and civilians killed in their attacks in Ghazni province, and called for a cease-fire, the Taliban asked why they didn’t also show pictures of civilians killed in government strikes that day in Taliban-controlled Wardak.

“I want to see a way out that will result in a dignified peace, not just a peace that shares power with the Taliban, but the Taliban should also respect and accept the diversity of Afghanistan,” says Ms. Koofi.

“First they have to respect a cease-fire – they have to stop killing people,” she says. “Second, the peace negotiation team should be inclusive enough, representative enough, that it will tell the Taliban – and this is exactly what I want to tell them with my participation – that Afghanistan today is represented by me, not anymore by you.”

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