US-Taliban peace deal — tasting sour to bitter

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Sardar Tee Shahid

WHERE one reaches merely running in a circle? Nowhere! For two decades, the US and
NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have been in a circle — in Global War on Terror (GWoT), now reaching at starting point. Time, sacrifices, resources; nothing could garland them with any substantial good. Despondently, chaos that suffocated the world, region, and the US is enormous. What did US envision Afghan-war in its national security strategy? And, where it stands? Stranded? Yes. Like Alice in Wonderland or Frozen. Past of GWoT is gloomy. But a twinkle of light, in a little star may illuminate US, Afghanistan and world. It is US-Taliban peace deal, if lives.

A horrendous terrorist attack on US soil of 09 September 2001, (9/11) claiming 3000 human lives, changed international landscape, resurrected realist military-centric and survival-obsessed approach. It recoloured perspectives of national security, every aspect of human world — political, economic, social, technological, religious, and so on. US believed reason of all of it is in Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda and Taliban.

07 October 2001: US-led military bravado invaded Afghanistan to target Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and Taliban to uproot terrorists. But Afghanistan is harsh and resilient for invaders. History testifies it. It treated US with same wrath. Lapse of 19 years of taxing and tiring war! Then comes 29 February 2020, the US and Taliban struck a peace deal in Qatar in March 2020. In-between, it is running in a circle. Zero is gain from the most expensive and the longest US war. Losses? Too much!! Around 2,300 troops perished, around 20,660 injured and $790 billion of US taxpayers fumed as war costs and $45 billion for nation-building in Afghanistan. And time? Around 20 years, cost of which is unimaginable, paid by the world too “Wars no matter who fights, and for how long, are decided on table”. The GWoT endorsed it. US-Taliban tabled a peace deal. What if it would have been negotiated where it started — in 2001? Why so much suffering! What this deal brings to US vis-à-vis what it should bring from the lens of US National Security Strategy (NSS-2017).

A small intro of NSS-17 would be apt. The NSS, like its predecessors, puts US first, retains primacy of its interests in the geopolitical and security environment. It endeavoured to bridge means to ends; carving path to reassert US, using its all muscles. This Doctrine has been truly Trumpian — isolationist. It defined ‘cooperation’ as sharing of responsibilities and burdens, both. So, Europeans were asked for burdens of security in NATO. Promising security and prosperity, NSS spelled three goals. First goalpost was Self-protection to protect America, Americans and Americanism; promote prosperity; and preserve peace through power, military action. Self-abnegation intended to advance American influence; and strengthen its sovereignty preserving its history, futuristic optimism, and American model as the global leader. Lastly, Self-extension aimed to (re)design ‘Balance of Power’ to tilt it towards US interests.

Europe, Middle East, South and Central Asia, Western hemisphere and Africa — whole world interested NSS. China was interpreted as a strategic rival, propelling cold war dynamics. A non-NATO frontline ally in Afghan War against the Soviets, and GWoT — Pakistan – still appeared a destabilizing agent– the mantra of ‘do more’. Flashing of India and Pakistan conflict remained a key concern; being two nuclear rivals. Africa attracted as a continent of promise and enduring challenges whereas prosperity and stability in Europe and Western hemisphere formed core US interests.

Almost a year after NSS, 18-months negotiations led US to embrace Taliban on 29 February 2020, in Qatar. The deal premised on understanding that US would drawdown its military in Afghanistan whereas Taliban would prevent using Afghan soil for terrorism. The deal had four thrust areas: ceasefire; withdrawal of the US and ISAF; intra-Afghan agreements for peace; and, mutual assurances of continued fight against terrorism. Amusing to read it and optimistic it sounds. On-and-off-camera talks and proactive role of Pakistan brought sustenance to the deal as a stable, secure and prosperous Afghanistan interests the world, US and Pakistan alike.

Pitching the deal against lens of its NSS, US is well short of finishing line. Preservation of peace through strength could not be realised. Protection Americanism seems in air. Yes, tilting Balance of Power in favour of US can be credited to US, but not due to GWoT, but via other tools of power — hard, soft and smart. American influence could not be asserted or extended, rather it faced sullying shrink. Thus, the peace deal jeopardized the contents and aspirations of the US National Security Strategy of 2017. Times ahead challenge Joe Biden.
The deal, an encouraging development for peace in Afghanistan, regional stability, respite for US and ISAF, gives a déjà vu of US war in Vietnam which struck similar less-honourable exits of US. However, it’s applauding that US didn’t thoughtlessly acted maverick to remain stuck in GWoT, for no good down the road. The deal, a first step towards peace, has to be founded on intra-Afghans adjustments given the ethnic, tribal and local dynamics. US pronouncement to review the deal adds bitterness to already sour tastes. Taliban, Afghanistan and Pakistan have called Biden to transpire penned words to practical acts. As it takes two to fall in love, both US and Taliban are to fairly and squarely comply with the agreement. One pushing the other would add to bitterness.

Joe Biden is ushering the world to a reformed Bidenian US view of the world; his NSS-2021 shall declare how it wishes to play the game — aligned or misaligned to his speeches – when it comes to hardcore business. Biden may review the deal but Afghan nation, addicted and immune to sounds and smells of gunshots, deserves peace and prosperity. Running in circle is futile. Biden ought to make a tangent off circle and follow twinkles of little star, the US-Taliban deal, to brighten world and Afghanistan with peace.
—The writer, an international affairs analyst, regularly writes on national security, foreign policy, international diplomacy and maritime affairs.