‘Forever debate’ on ‘forever war’ | By M Ziauddin


‘Forever debate’ on ‘forever war’

ON the face of it, America wants to get rid of its ‘forever war’ in Afghanistan at the earliest.

But this desire of the US seems to have got stuckup in what appears to be a ‘forever debate’ on when and how to accomplish the desire.

This debate has been going on since around 2009 when President Obama came on the scene with the declared intention of bringing to an end the global war on terror launched by his predecessor George W. Bush following 9/11 Twin-Tower terror strikes in 2001.

In fact, President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize within nine months of his presidency just for promising to end the global war on terror and close down the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

But as Obama’s vice president, Biden was a first-hand witness to the frustration the President felt.

Obama is said to have really wanted to end the forever wars but sometimes events got in the way of that.

Obama, it is said, wanted to get out of Iraq completely, but [the civil war] in Syria complicated that. Then along came the Islamic State in about 2014.

Obama’s successor President Trump had almost accomplished the miracle by entering into a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban under what was called the Doha deal pledging to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021 in return for Taliban cutting off their links with al-Qaida and bringing to an end their war against the Afghan government of President Ghani. President Trump lost elections before the troop withdrawal date.

And his successor, President Joe Biden, though he did not repudiate the May 1, 2021 withdrawal date, but expressed his intention to review the peace deal.

And that is where the ‘forever war’ is stuck up now as President Biden and his top political appointees are debating the issue with the career military and intelligence officials who are wary of withdrawing prematurely.

The big question is said to be whether al Qaeda and its offshoots, which justified the “war on terror” in the first place, still pose a strategic threat to the United States.

A premature declaration of success, some argue, and a too-rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan would leave Biden vulnerable to the same criticism that former U.S.

President Barack Obama endured when he pulled out of Iraq in 2011, only to find he was opening the door to the rise of the Islamic State.

And in a significant shift, Biden’s administration is now suggesting that Afghan president Ashraf Ghani share power with the resurgent Taliban in a “new, inclusive” government.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said recently in a letter to Ghani that the United States was considering a full withdrawal of forces by May 1 if he didn’t comply.

The United States shared with Afghan officials, Taliban leaders and others a draft peace plan calling for replacing the Ghani government with a power-sharing interim administration pending elections under a new constitution.

The US proposal is intended, it is said, to jump-start stalled talks in Doha between the Taliban and a team that includes Afghan officials on a political settlement to decades of conflict.

Blinken wrote in the letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that the United States would ask Turkey to host “a senior-level meeting of both sides in coming weeks to finalize a peace agreement.

According to the letter published by TOLO news, Blinken said the US is pursuing high-level diplomatic efforts “to move matters more fundamentally and quickly toward a settlement and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire” and that the US military was considering exiting Afghanistan by May 1.

In the event of a US military withdrawal, Blinken said he was concerned “the security situation will worsen and that the Taliban could make rapid territorial gains,” adding he hoped Ghani would “understand the urgency of my tone”.

The letter also said the US would ask the United Nations to convene a meeting of foreign ministers and envoys from Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India and the US “to discuss a unified approach to supporting peace in Afghanistan” and would request that Turkey host a senior-level meeting of “both sides in the coming weeks to finalise a peace agreement”.

In order to “prevent a spring offensive by the Taliban”, the letter also proposed a 90-day reduction of violence.

Meanwhile, US drone strikes appear to be at their lowest levels since the war on terror began, a trend that started in the last year of the Trump administration.

Since Biden took office, there have been no declared, or locally claimed, drone strikes other than three disputed attacks in Somalia.

Obama, in his last year in office, launched about 13,000 airstrikes. That fell to about 1,100 last year—and has kept falling.

Independent observers say the threat from terrorism hasn’t ended, but al Qaeda itself has “splintered and metastasized, and other terrorist organizations may not pose a threat to the US any longer”.

Therefore, the Biden administration has been advised to treat al Qaeda like other countries do—as a criminal issue best dealt with through cops and courts.

What, however, is still missing from the public picture is an understanding of what a possible U.S.

containment policy of terror groups like al Qaeda, ISIS, and al-Shabab might look like in a post-drone strike world.

President Ghani the other day met US special envoy Khalilzad in Kabul to discuss how to revive the stalled peace negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban representatives currently being held in Qatar.

And in a bid to push the peace talks forward, Ghani said his government was ready to discuss holding fresh elections, insisting that any new government should emerge through a democratic process.

Violence and targeted killings are said to have surged since the Afghan government began US-backed negotiations with the Taliban last September, but the talks have largely stalled.

President Biden wants to leave the ‘forever war’ at the earliest because he wants now to focus on Europe and the Indo-Pacific. He is said also to be focused on a bigger threat.

The president has directed the FBI to go after homegrown, right-wing threats of the kind that stormed the Capitol on 06 Jan.

For two decades after 9/11, the FBI’s resources have been largely committed to taking down Al-Qaeda and other Islamist terrorists while the homegrown threat has festered.

Russia also is said to be planning to hold a conference on Afghanistan in Moscow later this month, the TASS news agency said, but the U.S. State Department did not confirm American attendance.

TASS said the Russian Foreign Ministry planned to hold the conference on Afghanistan on March 18, but gave no further details.
— The writer is veteran journalist and a former editor based in Islamabad.