WEB DESK: Given growing war-weariness among his people over the Afghan war there was nothing wrong with President Obama’s decision to bring home all American soldiers before he leaves the White House.
And, he did bring home the bulk of his forces by the promised deadline of December 2015, leaving behind only token presence of 9,800 soldiers which too were to return by the end of 2016. But as troops drawdown progressed the security situation in Afghanistan, as apprehended by the US commanders on the ground, started deteriorating.
On their own, the Afghan security forces were finding themselves increasingly unequal to the insurgents’ challenge. The war that had receded to rural areas during the presence of US-led coalition forces was returning to the cities, particularly the Afghan capital city of Kabul. That was a disturbing scenario for the United States given the heavy price in terms of men and material it had incurred to secure peace in Afghanistan. President Obama’s perception is that in the key areas of the country the security situation remains fragile, and “in some areas there is risk of deterioration”.
Washington was therefore duly worried, but remained indecisive until the provincial capital Kunduz fell to the Taliban. The city could not be defended by the Afghan forces. So with the myth shattered that Washington left security of Afghanistan in safe hands, President Obama has decided not only to slowdown the planned withdrawal of non-combat force by next year, but also to maintain 5,500 troops in its bases at Bagram (Kabul), Jalalabad and Kandahar for an indefinite period.
“While America’s combat mission may be over, our commitment to Afghanistan and its people endures,” he said, justifying his reversal on his earlier year-end complete withdrawal promise. He will also seek co-operation of coalition partners in the Afghan war – with boots on ground in the shape of Nato’s Resolute Force they were anxiously waiting this reversal – and the region, which includes Pakistan from where the “pressure has resulted in more al Qaeda coming into Afghanistan”.
To the people of America, whom he had committed to bringing their boys and girls back home by the year’s end, his explanation was: “As Commander-in-Chief I will not allow Afghanistan to be used as safe haven for terrorists to strike our nation again.”
Quite predictably, if he has raised the ante of war against the Afghan Taliban he has also held out to them the olive branch. His move to suspend withdrawal and maintain military presence in Afghanistan can be interpreted as adding weight to the Afghan government at the negotiating table for peace talks. He is profoundly conscious of the fact that ‘key to peace in Afghanistan remains a negotiated truce between the Afghan government and Taliban’.
Is it then an admission of missing the bus – possibly under the influence of wrong advice or due to his administration’s unfortunate oversight – when some quarters opposed to peace in Afghanistan succeeded in derailing the scheduled second round of Afghan reconciliation talks at Murree. But opportunity for revival of peace talks has come again: within hours of President Obama’s statement the Afghan Taliban have voiced their willingness to resume the Murree dialogue.
They are ready to initiate meaningful negotiations with “all sides concerned”. Of course, their acceptance is conditional to their stated position on the withdrawal of foreign troops and establishment of Islamic government in Kabul. But that was there also when the first round was held. The United States and other foreign troops will completely withdraw when there is “a lasting political settlement with the Afghan government,” says the US President.
The fact is that the conditions the Taliban have put forward are the subject matter of negotiations, and not a prerequisite for initiation of negotiations. Pakistan hosted the first round and remains ready for another “if the Afghan government wants that”. It looks quite likely that Kabul may convey its consent through the US government when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif meets President Obama next week in Washington.
The move for resumption of peace talks is expected to gain momentum all the more for the ground reality that all concerned parties – Afghan government, Afghan Taliban, US-led Nato coalition and regional powers – have come to share the common concern over the emergence of Islamic State in Afghanistan, which President Obama also hinted at in his speech