‘We have sided with the Taliban against the Afghan government’. That was how H.R McMaster, a retired three star general and former United States National Security Advisor described recent developments in the war in Afghanistan during his address to the Union on Monday.
McMaster, who is a highly respected veteran of the Gulf and Iraq Wars, and a former deputy to the commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF), left his post as National Security Advisor in April 2018 over fundamental policy disagreements with the President. On Monday, he addressed the situation in Afghanistan in the wake of an unprecedented peace agreement signed between the US and the Taliban in February of this year, which has been followed by ongoing power-sharing negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government.
‘We have put the Afghan government in an impossible situation’. ‘It’s disastrous’. Far from praising the peace progress, it was clear McMaster views the current US approach as an admission of defeat, not to mention a betrayal of the Afghan people.
And on examining February’s agreement, it is easy to see why. Under the conditions of the deal, the US has agreed to withdraw all military forces from Afghanistan, potentially within the next year, and has agreed to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners. This is supposedly conditional on the Taliban cutting any remaining ties to groups like Al Qaeda. But McMaster argued that this approach represents the epitome of ‘strategic narcissism’.
In his view the Taliban and even more extreme terrorist networks remain closely linked: ‘We have failed to realise that there is no bold line between the Taliban and other Islamist groups, they are intertwined’. This view was corroborated earlier in October by Edmund Fitton-Brown, a senior United Nations official, who told the BBC that Al Qaeda are still ‘heavily embedded’ in the Taliban.
Furthermore, February’s agreement hammers home the US’s wish that the Taliban shall not ‘use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies’, but contains no assurances that the Taliban will halt their program of attacks on Afghan security forces and civilians. To McMaster, asking an Afghan government which was elected in the country’s first democratic transfer of power in 2014 to sit at the negotiating table with brutal terrorists who have refused to renounce the most sickening aspects of their ideology was a deeply unjust decision by the US; and is indicative of the current US policy priorities: to get out of the war at all costs.
After all, there is nothing to suggest that the Taliban are any less inclined to impose their own warped perversion of Islam on the people of Afghanistan, a point that McMaster made: ‘What does power-sharing with the Taliban look like? Executions only on Saturdays?’
Of course, McMaster is a military man, used to winning. It is hardly surprising that if he had his way, he would continue to pursue the Taliban. But it is hard to not to sympathise with his attitude, and to feel slightly sick when reading the closing declaration of the February agreement: ‘The United States and the (…) Taliban seek positive relations with each other’. This is a group whose leaders fervently believe, among other things, that women do not deserve an education.
The Taliban themselves have made no secret of the fact that they believe the February agreement represents victory over the world’s most powerful country. The day before the signing of the peace deal in Doha, the Taliban’s multimedia chief declared the imminent ‘defeat of the arrogance of the White House in the face of the white turban’.
Now, the crucial question is whether the Afghan government will be able to hold the line against the terrorist threat without the help of the US-led coalition. The odds do not look good. Recent months have seen a surge in Taliban activity. The government’s security forces take casualties every day. Since 2015, more than 28,000 Afghan service personnel have been killed. Morale among the remaining coalition forces in the country is low. The Afghan government remains embryonic, and wracked with corruption.
In fact, the Taliban are now believed to be at their greatest military strength since the start of the US invasion in 2001. In a recent BBC interview with Lyse Doucet, General Miller, the most senior US soldier in Afghanistan, admitted that the ‘the violence is too high’. But when asked if the Afghan security forces were ready to face the Taliban alone, said merely: ‘They have to be ready. So it’s not a question of are they ready? They have to be ready’. The terrible truth, leaking out of the Trump administration’s PR machine, is that they are not.
‘I’m very pessimistic’ was how McMaster summed up his feelings on the situation. ‘The question is how disastrous will it get before we are forced to do something about it’. The situation is so dire, and the Afghan government so fragile, that he concluded by saying that ‘I believe we will ultimately be forced to re-engage’.
And so the scale of this modern Afghan tragedy becomes clear. It seems that the efforts of coalition forces over 20 years of brutal war have achieved very little, and that the country will eventually succumb once again to Taliban control. If McMaster is right, then the question has to be asked, to what end have the lives of tens of thousands of Afghans, and over 3,500 coalition forces, including 456 British servicemen, been sacrificed?
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