Never-ending wars

Abdel-Moneim Said, Wednesday 18 Sep 2019

The recent debacle around the invitation of the Taliban to Camp David highlights a tension in Trump’s outlook towards international security, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

It was more like a frustrated shout when Liz Cheney, former Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter who had served as a regional diplomacy officer in the State Department, remarked that she couldn’t imagine the Taliban at Camp David. That was “where America’s leaders met to plan our response after Al-Qaeda, supported by the Taliban, killed 3,000 Americans on 9/11. No member of the Taliban should set foot there.” The very thought of this must have seemed to her like inviting a killer to the funeral of his victim, especially since the 18th anniversary of that day was only a few days away when she wrote that tweet. Yet the unthinkable almost happened. Trump had invited Taliban representatives to Camp David to conclude a peace agreement so that the US could finally withdraw from Afghanistan. His choice of venue was intentional, of course. That was where president Jimmy Carter sponsored one of the most famous and most delicate peace talks in history. It took place between Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and culminated in the framework agreement that laid the basis for the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, which became the star in Carter’s career and earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. Such thoughts probably ran through the mind of the current US president when he planned a Camp David gathering between Afghan leaders. He would go down in history as a peacemaker in Afghanistan, and make true on a campaign promise to bring US troops home after the end of the longest war in US history. 

But the war in Afghanistan still drags on. Or, at least, the Taliban want to see a peace process in progress while continuing to make war. This was demonstrated dramatically. While their leaders were on their way to Washington, they staged a suicide car bombing in Kabul, killing at least 10, including Sergeant Elis Angel Barreto Ortiz who became the 16th US service member to be killed in Afghanistan this year. The many Afghan civilian casualties claimed in the attack were added to the hundreds of other civilians reaped by the Taliban without blinking an eye. Most likely, the terrorist organisation’s purpose behind the attack at this time was to pressure Trump and his negotiators into withdrawing its support from the legitimate Afghan government, and/or removing Washington as a negotiating party. The US president was not about to accept such a proposition and announced that the “talks are dead”. This was not the first time Trump found himself unable to bring a halt to US involvement in a war. Last year he declared a US troop withdrawal from Syria only to find it impossible. US troops remain in Iraq and Syria while various negotiating processes continue with occasional interruptions.

Today’s wars are not the sort that end easily. The bombing of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York ushered in a new type of war waged not by states but by transnational terrorist organisations whose fanaticism and hatred fuel their persistence. In this new type of warfare, military force is used to the extent that it generates fear and terror, and accomplishes political ends at minimum cost. From a purely military standpoint, in this age in which wars between nations have nearly come to an end, the quantitative and qualitative costs of the war against terrorism are less than the human costs in traffic accidents or from fatalities from illnesses related to obesity. Even so, Trump wanted to demonstrate his ability to withdraw US forces from abroad. He tried in Syria and once again in Afghanistan. On both occasions he failed because of opposition at home (from the Pentagon and intelligence agencies) and because of developments on the ground in the countries in question. 

As chuffed as they are by the legitimacy they gained by engaging in talks with the US, as well as with China and Russia, the Taliban remains a terrorist organisation that is incapable of assuming the responsibilities of government, with all its complexities and subtleties. Although the substance of the talks, which for the most part have taken place in Doha, remains undisclosed, the little information that has been leaked concerns the withdrawal of 5,000 of the 14,000 US troops in Afghanistan immediately and the remainder over phases. In return, the US wants the Taliban to stop hosting terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda but, apparently, all that it has been able to obtain so far is a Taliban pledge to prevent these organisations from attacking US forces in Afghanistan. If so, it is little more than a temporary ceasefire. Moreover, the very organisation that is required to rein in the terrorist organisations is probably itself at the mercy of those very organisations. The US was at this point 18 years ago when Washington told the Taliban to either hand over Al-Qaeda leaders or risk war. The Taliban could only evade the demand and the US launched its invasion. Nearly two decades later, Afghanistan is pretty much the same as it was then, with the Taliban occupying half the country and with Al-Qaeda by its side and in a state of war against the Islamic State group in Afghanistan and a number of other terrorist organisations around the world. 

Trump inadvertently put his finger on the key to this new situation in international relations when he asked: “How many more decades are they willing to fight?” The question is one that can be put to a government because, as a human stem for organising the activities of a human population, it seeks, firstly, to safeguard the well-being of the population and, secondly, if forced into war it feels the loss of every one of its citizens killed, and it feels sorrow for the destruction of its cities. In peace and at war, it seeks to establish just relations with other states on foundations governed by balances of power or by established international rules and conventions. But such factors do not apply to the Taliban and other terrorist organisations. They are neither states nor governments. They are not even national liberation movements that might be prepared for sacrifice but that ultimately seek the preservation of their countries and their peoples. These terrorist organisations imagine themselves on some divine “mission”. To them, negotiations are merely an occasion to catch their breath. Or better yet, they are a sign of the weakness of the other side (the US in this case), which is something to exploit to the fullest in order to seize control over the whole of Afghanistan, without the legitimate government, without the greater part of US troops and without any of the progress achieved by the government and the people. 

Trump’s question is misplaced. Perhaps that very question is what led to the resignation of his national security adviser, John Bolton, who found himself no longer able to fathom the behaviour of a US president who, on the one hand, is prepared to threaten the enemy and vow its extermination from the face of the earth and, on the other, who wants to withdraw US forces at the first opportunity.


The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 19 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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