State Department official Alice Wells met with Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar, in mid-July to pave the way for one-on-one Washington-Taliban talks aimed at ending the 17-year-long Afghanistan war.
The administration of Donald Trump would like to wind down the war — which has been expensive for U.S. imperialism to the tune of some $45 billion a year — to achieve a measure of stability for U.S. capitalist interests in the region.
This is another move by the administration — like in Korea, the Middle East and with Moscow — to cut down tensions and conflict. To the extent that these moves succeed in doing so, they open political space, which is needed for workers to debate a road forward and find ways to act in their own interests.
Like it did toward North Korea, the White House started by tightening the screws on the Taliban. It stepped up U.S. drone and other attacks on Taliban bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan, assassinated its leaders and cut off $2 billion in U.S. military aid to Pakistan to get Islamabad to join in reining in the group. Its goal is to convince the Taliban leaders that it’s in their interest to sit down and negotiate.
In February the Taliban issued a “Letter to the American People,” reiterating its willingness for “talk and dialogue” with Washington.
A few months later the regime in Kabul and the Taliban agreed to a cease-fire June 15-17 for the Muslim Eid-al-Fitr holiday. Taliban combatants and government soldiers fraternized around the country then, including embracing each other and posing for selfies.
Despite their insistence that they would only talk with the U.S. government, calling the Afghan government a puppet of Washington, Taliban leaders had been in regular contact with Afghanistan’s head of intelligence and other government officials.
Barack Obama had campaigned for the presidency in 2008 arguing that Afghanistan was a “good” war, as opposed to the U.S. war in Iraq. Once in office he escalated troop levels to more than 100,000 by 2011, but was unable to defeat the Taliban. His administration switched gears, cutting troop levels to 8,400 by the end of his term.
In its first year in office the Trump administration authorized more troops and a new round of combat. Today there are some 15,000 U.S. troops fighting and “training” the Afghan army.
The Taliban have increased their control over some areas, but they have been unable to hold a single major town they’ve taken for long, before being dislodged by the Afghan army and U.S. forces.
In testimony before Congress in February 2017, Gen. John Nicholson, top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, called the situation “a stalemate.” Today Kabul — one of the most corrupt regimes in the world — controls about 229 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts and the Taliban 59. The two forces battle back and forth in the remaining 119.
The Taliban leadership is mostly Pashtun, an ethnic group that makes up about 42 percent of the country’s more than 30 million people. Few of its leaders come from the more than seven other ethnic groups there.
But even among Pashtun, the Taliban’s actions — including suicide bombings, strict enforcement of its austere view of Islamic law, destruction of schools in areas under its control and the assassination of opponents — are not popular.
Taliban halts ‘martyrdom attacks’
In a move to garner support, the Taliban recently announced it was halting “martyrdom attacks” in the cities to avoid killing so many civilians.
Taliban officials also now say they will agree to allow girls to go to school — a practice they have prevented in areas under their control — as long as they are kept segregated from the boys. And they say they would agree to allow women to work in all levels of government, except the Supreme Court and the presidency.
Many wealthy landlords who are in Kabul’s government enhanced their riches by seizing land from the peasants. The Taliban is demanding that special courts be established to review thousands of these cases to see that land taken illegally from small farmers is returned.
One key sticking point that is not mentioned in the bourgeois press is control of the opium trade. Both sides in the conflict benefit from the profits in the illegal drug trade, which has remained one of the few profitable arenas for Afghan farmers and has mushroomed ever since the U.S. intervention began in 2001.
The 17-year war has been costly for working people in Afghanistan, and for U.S. workers pressed into combat. More than 31,000 Afghan civilians; 30,000 Afghan soldiers and police; 42,000 Taliban combatants; 2,400 U.S. soldiers and 1,150 NATO troops; and more 4,000 other workers have been killed since Washington launched the war.
Workers and farmers in Afghanistan have faced almost 40 years of unending war. In 1979 Soviet forces invaded to back up a pro-Moscow regime and were met with a U.S.-backed and financed mujahedeen rebellion. Over nine years of combat, 1 million civilians, 90,000 native and foreign-born mujahedeen, 18,000 Afghan troops and 14,500 Soviet soldiers were killed. Out of this U.S.-backed rebellion, al-Qaeda was born.
When the Soviets left in defeat, civil war opened between Afghan government forces and the Taliban, a war the Taliban won in 1996. Their brutal regime invited al-Qaeda to center operations and training there. After its terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, the U.S. invaded.
Any agreement that ends the war would be welcomed by working people in Afghanistan, in the U.S. and around the world.