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  Opinion   Columnists  24 Oct 2020  Only Walter Mitty can dream Afghan troop withdrawal before US election

Only Walter Mitty can dream Afghan troop withdrawal before US election

The writer is a senior journalist and commentator based in New Delhi
Published : Oct 24, 2020, 11:54 am IST
Updated : Oct 24, 2020, 11:54 am IST

The US involvement in Afghanistan has been a great tragedy

US President Donald Trump
 US President Donald Trump

It always seemed an exaggeration that a dramatic announcement from Doha on the eve of the American elections on troop withdrawals would cause American voters to march to the polling booths doubly enthused to re-elect President Donald Trump. US chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad does not in the slightest resemble James Thurber’s notorious daydreamer Walter Mitty to push for unrealistic deadlines. He is an eager beaver, but not desperately unrealistic. 

When President Barack Obama had set firm deadlines for withdrawal, I made an extensive survey of the country for the Observer Research Foundation. I had concluded that the US is “not leaving Afghanistan today; it is not leaving it tomorrow”. A superpower enters a major theatre with one set of interests but, over a period of time, develops multiple compelling interests.  


Withdrawing empty-handed would be an admission of defeat. Since this is not on the cards, the only conclusion one can draw is that a plan for the future is not being disclosed for now.  

The US involvement in Afghanistan has been a great tragedy, but its frequent false starts in a rush to the exit door and announce withdrawal is material for a spoof by someone like Michael Moore. Take, for instance, the peace agreement the US signed with the Afghan Taliban on February 29 in Doha. So eager was US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad to flourish a peace agreement just when the election campaign in the US was picking up that he would have inserted into the agreement anything that the Taliban wished. Read the title headline of that agreement -- it is patently absurd: “Agreement for bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (which is not recognised by the United States as a state. and is known as the Taliban) and the United States of America.”


The fragility of the agreement is transparent in the pulls and counter pulls that had obviously gone into the headline. There is an unbridgeable distance on Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s role, for instance. The Taliban will not talk to Mr Ghani, whom they describe quite brazenly as a US “toady”.

Mr Ghani deludes himself if he imagines he is being “firm”. He is coming across to the world at large as a leader with a very thick skin. New Delhi wishes to keep up appearances. In the trapeze act, South Block does not wish to be seen loosening the clasp of Mr Ghani’s hand midair. The zero-sum game with Pakistan may operate as a factor but, in deference to realism, not a defining one. 


One of the advantages the US extracts from being a superpower is to keep making mistakes almost wilfully without any fear of being called to account. It is almost a forgotten story that in December 2001 that Nato, helped by Russia, Iran, India and the Northern Alliance based in the Panjsher Valley defeated Taliban and Al Qaeda. Panjsher was also the operational headquarters for Tajik hero Ahmad Shah Masoud. So strong was Masoud’s opposition to the Taliban and Al Qaeda that he travelled extensively to acquaint various international bodies of the danger that Al Qaeda and the Taliban posed to Afghanistan. His summer 2001 address to the European Parliament, months before 9/11, was historic by any yardstick. The complete silence on this Masoud speech is surprising. His forces had picked up chatter about a possible Al Qaeda action in the US mainland. He was speaking in Brussels. On September 9, precisely two days before September 11 (9/11), two Arabs disguised as journalists visited him in his hideout near the Tajik border for an interview. Their passports, it was revealed much later, had been forged in Brussels. These “journalists”, while saying goodbye to Masoud, detonated their vests. All three died instantly. Two days later, the Twin Towers came down in New York. Is there nothing here that deserves investigation?  


Maybe not before the November 3 US election, but is the curtain is about to be brought down on US involvement? Whether Mr Trump or Joe Biden wins, China, Russia, Iran are likely to remain America’s principal adversarial concerns. And Afghanistan is a supreme vantage point from where to needle them. 

A little over a year ago, just when US military involvement in Syria was winding down, one common chatter was about Jabhat al Nusra and its variants being flown to newer theatres of action. Russia’s deputy foreign minister Morgulov Igor Vladimirovich told a high-powered conference in New Delhi, with Zalmay Khalilzad in attendance, that militants were being flown from Syria to northern Afghanistan. “Only the Afghan government and the US controls the Afghan airspace.” The blame cannot be placed at any other door. Mr Khalilzad mounted a token protest, but nothing more. 


The following Friday, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was more specific: Daesh groups were being flown to Afghanistan. The distinguished chronicler of the West Asian scene, Robert Fisk of London’s Independent, made similar allegations. The allegation fitted neatly into the thesis that militants, trained to kill, cannot be sent to the slaughterhouse. They have to be deployed in other theatres where they are proximate to the Muslim population into which militancy has to be injected to stir up the Islamic cauldron — Xinjiang, the Caucasus and a handful of Sunni enclaves in Iran. Now comes the news that fighters from Idlib are being flown to Nagorno Karabakh.


Tags: taliban peace talks, afghanistan, donald trump