No Peace in Afghanistan
October 7th, 2001 marked the inception of the US invasion of Afghanistan. Hazy images of thundering chinooks, sporadic gunfire, and distant airstrikes flooded the worlds media as coalition forces hunted Osama bin Laden, encountering fierce resistance from Al-Qaeda’s Taliban alliance.
Now, following 19 years of conflict, and tens of thousands of lives lost, the war in Afghanistan is supposedly reaching an end. On February 29th, 2020, Washington signed a conditional “peace agreement” with the Taliban, effectively concluding the US campaign in the region. Despite this development, Afghanistan is no nearer to reaching peace and stability any time soon. The so-called “peace agreement” declares the US will withdraw its remaining 12,000 troops if the Taliban agree to counteract Islamist groups using Afghanistan as a launchpad to conduct attacks further afield, this includes severing its ties with Al-Qaeda specifically.
I use “peace” loosely here as the above negotiations have largely resulted in a mere withdrawal agreement. Despite injudicious attempts from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad to dress this deal as a peaceful one, the Taliban have yet to denounce Al-Qaeda publicly and cease their war mongering. In fact, there is reason to believe the Taliban-al Qaeda relationship is stronger than ever. On May 19th, 2020, the Lead Inspector General for Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (the continuation of the US war on terror in Afghanistan) stated Taliban commanders are “reluctant to publicly break with Al-Qaeda”. Such is the case that according to the FBI, Sirajuddin Haqqani, deputy emir of the Taliban’s Islamic emirate, and leader of its elite guerrilla unit – the ‘Haqqani network’ – still “maintains close ties to Al-Qaeda”. Similarly, the Taliban’s “Emir of the Faithful”, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, has yet to publicly denounce his Al-Qaeda alliance.
This is disturbing news. A UN monitoring team estimated there are still at least several hundred Al-Qaeda members imbedded within the Taliban network to this day. Meanwhile, surrounding Al-Qaeda affiliated groups, including the Turkistan Islamic Party, still fight for the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan, with little to no sign of any objection from the latter’s leadership. In fact, an analysis of an Al-Qaeda statement by FDD’s Long War Journal underlines Al-Qaeda’s praise for the US-Taliban accords, labelling it a “great victory” while encouraging would-be fighters to “join the training camps under the leadership of the Islamic Emirate”.
In light of negotiations, it is Washington’s imprudent belief that this agreement will reduce violence in the region and kindle reconciliation between the Taliban and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s administration. However, this is not the case. Almost immediately after signing the agreement with the US, the Taliban rapidly escalated attacks against the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces, declaring they were “not off limits”. Discouragingly, the UN claims the Taliban is still the chief driver of conflict in Afghanistan, following a “disturbing increase in violence” succeeding the agreement. Indeed, very recently, the Taliban launched a number of ferocious suicide attacks. On 14th May, 5 civilians were killed and 20 injured as a Taliban militant detonated his explosive vest outside the Defence Ministry headquarters in Gardez City.
Dishearteningly still, there is but a faint chance of any cooperation between the Afghan government and Taliban leadership in the near future. Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada continues to call for the establishment of an “Islamic government” dictated by strict interpretations of sharia law. On May 20th, on the Taliban’s official website, ‘Voice of Jihad’, Akhundzada stressed “The objectives of our Jihad are to gain the pleasure of Allah, freedom of our country and to establish an Islamic system”. To this end, the Taliban explicitly outline their unwillingness to cooperate with Ghani, labelling his administration a puppet carrying out Washington’s bidding. Taliban commander, Mawlavi Mansoor states "We have our own system of government functioning, we have governors, district governors, judges and all others. There is no need to form a new government.". Evidently, for the Taliban, there is only one system of governance that is acceptable, their own. Cooperation is out of the question, and fascistic interpretations of Islamic doctrine are desirable.
Afghanistan is the US’ longest war to date. In the end, it appears Washington is withdrawing from this conflict in the same way it did from Vietnam, walking away with little to show for its efforts. Much of the infrastructure that allowed Al-Qaeda to manifest is still present under the protection of the Taliban. The Taliban themselves have labelled the withdrawal agreement the “end of occupation”; a triumph in their eyes.
From the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, the Taliban surge in the 1990s, to the US invasion in 2001, Afghanistan has suffered war for generations. While the US begins to retract its forces, it appears peace in Afghanistan is still a distant hope. Al-Qaeda is still present, and the Taliban hold an ever firmer grip on the region. In the dignified words of one Afghan proverb, “even on a mountain, there is still a road”. In a country enmeshed in war and tragedy, surrounded by a group which wishes nothing but to dominate its populace, let us hope Afghanistan’s road to peace becomes clear.
By Daniel Mountain