Is the Longest US War Finally Ending?

Eighteen years into the longest US war in history, reports are slowly seeping out about a potential ceasefire in Afghanistan. While Taliban influence and control of territory continues to rise — currently somewhere between 50 and 70 percent of Afghanistan — talks in Qatar between US and Taliban representatives are reported to have made some progress.

Details remain uncertain, and all sides agree nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Taliban sources say that any deal must include the withdrawal of all foreign troops within 18 months. They say there has already been agreement on a prisoner exchange and release, an end to the US-imposed travel ban on some Taliban leaders, and an interim government to be created after a ceasefire. The Taliban agreed that Afghanistan will not be allowed to be used by al-Qaeda or ISIS (also known as Daesh) to attack the United States or its allies.

The US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, indicated that the agreement must call for an intra-Afghan dialogue between the Taliban and the US-backed Afghan government, and a comprehensive ceasefire. The Taliban, for their part, indicated acceptance of some kind of ceasefire within the deal but no specific timeline, and also said talks with the government in Kabul would come only after a truce takes effect. Little is known about what kind of power-sharing or governance between the Taliban and the current government is under discussion.

Another round of talks is scheduled in coming weeks, and nothing can be certain about whether any version of the current agreement will ultimately yield an end to the ongoing war that has devastated Afghans and Afghanistan for so long — and which itself followed an almost quarter-century of US-led regional and global conflict fought in Afghanistan from the late 1970s.

Certainly, Afghans desperately need the withdrawal of the thousands of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan, and a real ceasefire in the war between the Taliban and the US-backed government. Civilian casualties were higher last year than at any point since the UN began keeping records, and show no sign of slowing — and an unconscionable number are the result of US airstrikes. So, if this set of negotiations can lead to some version of an end to the war, of course, celebration is in order. And negotiating with the Taliban is necessary.

However, there are already indications that built-in limitations of the current process may undermine its chances for a comprehensive or permanent peace. It’s a problem that representatives of the Afghan government have not been at the table. They will soon have to be brought into the process itself, or at the very least, sign off on any interim agreement before anything can happen on the ground. It is problematic, though perhaps inevitable, that they will not be included in any initial talks. But it is particularly dangerous to see the complete exclusion of crucially influential sectors of Afghan people — farmers, tribal and religious leaders, local governments, and essentially, women.

There has been significant discussion in the mainstream media of the fears of Afghan women at the prospect of a US-Taliban agreement. The militant organization, which seized power in Kabul in 1996 after years of civil war against other warlord-led militias, is known for its imposition of harsh medieval laws, including punishments of amputation and death by stoning, its destruction of Afghanistan’s rich cultural heritage, and most of all, for its brutal treatment of women.

So, it is not surprising that many women, especially those in urban areas, fear the Taliban’s return to power. But three crucial factors are too often left out of that discussion. First, for large numbers of Afghan women, who live in rural areas and small towns rather in the major cities, there was little change in the level of repression they faced whether the Taliban was in power or not. Many of the Taliban practices are rooted in longstanding Afghan traditions, which didn’t change much when the US invasion overthrew the Taliban government and imposed its own US-oriented government in 2001. The second, and related, factor was the harsh reality that many of the warlords who lost to the Taliban in 1996 and then were returned to power in the guise of the new government following the US invasion of 2001, were little different from the Taliban in their views of women. One of those warlords, whom the CIA backed during its years of support for Islamic guerillas against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose forces were perhaps best known for the horrifying tactic of throwing acid in the face of Afghan girls who dared try to get an education. He served as prime minister of the US-backed government for a time, and remains an influential power broker in Kabul today. Third, and perhaps most importantly, while Afghan women in the cities have made some significant gains in political participation and education, the US war that some claimed was fought partly for women’s rights actually did little to improve the conditions of life for the vast majority. Just for example, after almost 18 years of US war and occupation, Afghanistan remains even worse than it was under Taliban control, when it was the fourth worst place in the world for a baby to survive to her first birthday: now it’s number one in infant mortality in the entire world.

Just what the Taliban is prepared to compromise on in their treatment of women — and whether the US-backed government in Kabul will even press them to do so given its own ambivalence on the issue — remains unclear.

There are other significant challenges as well — notably the absence of any of the regional powers that continue to play such a crucial role in the Afghanistan conflict. Pakistan has long been the regional sponsor of the Taliban, providing arms, intelligence and a vital safe haven for their militants, and will have to be part of any lasting agreement. India remains a key backer of the Afghan government, dating back to New Delhi’s support for the coalition of warlords known as the Northern Alliance during the civil war of the 1990s, and the tensions between the nuclear-armed regional powers mean that India and Pakistan must both be at the table. Like the US, China, Saudi Arabia, Russia and others have claimed military, economic and other interests in Afghanistan — from pipeline routes to gem-mining and beyond. That means that any of these countries, if ignored, could threaten a future peace.

So far, we’ve seen no indication that the negotiations include any mention of US reparations or compensation for Afghanistan’s devastation as a result of Washington’s wars. How will the reconstruction of the war-wracked country even begin?

Then there’s one of the biggest questions of all — the US negotiator himself, Trump’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation. Khalilzad, an Afghan-American diplomat fluent in most of the country’s local languages, has a long history of involvement and business with the Taliban — as well as with oil, both Bush administrations, Washington’s neocons and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

During the terrible civil war that both paralleled and followed the US-backed anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, Khalilzad emerged as a supporter of the Taliban against the other mujahideen guerrilla organizations. At the time, he worked for Unocal Oil doing risk assessments for a planned natural gas project in Afghanistan. Shortly after the Taliban won the civil war and took power in Kabul, Khalilzad brought a Taliban delegation to Houston to talk deals with Unocal. As the Washington Post later described the 1997 meeting, “at a luxury Houston hotel, oil company adviser Zalmay Khalilzad was chatting pleasantly over dinner with leaders of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime about their shared enthusiasm for a proposed multibillion-dollar pipeline deal.”

The new Taliban government in Kabul had no diplomatic relations with Washington at that time, but that didn’t seem to be a problem. While their abuses were already widely known, neither Khalilzad, nor any other Unocal officials, nor anyone else in Washington chatting pleasantly with the Taliban seemed to have had any problem negotiating lucrative deals with the men responsible for the harsh punishments and isolation of women.

As the World Press Review noted in 2002 as the latest US war in Afghanistan was just beginning, “comparisons between this war and the [1991] Gulf War are tempting: The Bush family is steeped in oil, as are U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and a host of other notables from the Bush administration. The United States was slow to condemn the Taliban in the mid-1990s because the Taliban seemed to favor U.S. oil company Unocal to build two pipelines across Afghanistan.”

Zalmay Khalilzad was more than “slow to condemn the Taliban.” On October 7, 1996, just as the Taliban was claiming victory in Afghanistan’s civil war (and five years to the day before Khalilzad’s soon-to-be boss sent the US military to invade Afghanistan and overthrow the Taliban government there), he urged Washington to re-engage with his former pipeline dealer counterparts.

Don’t worry, Trump’s current Afghanistan envoy said, “the Taliban does not practice the anti-US style of fundamentalism practiced by Iran — it is closer to the Saudi model…. [We] should, in turn, be willing to offer recognition and humanitarian assistance and to promote international economic reconstruction. We should use as a positive incentive the benefits that will accrue to Afghanistan from the construction of oil and gas pipelines across its territory. These projects will only go forward if Afghanistan has a single authoritative government.”

What are the chances for these negotiations to reach a lasting, comprehensive peace with even a modicum of justice in Afghanistan? Hard to say — but Trump’s continued reliance on the Bush family’s favorite oil dealmaker, with his longstanding commitment to a “single authoritative government” in Afghanistan, doesn’t bode well.