Trump’s Attempt to Make Frenemies of the Taliban – A failed, convenient peace plan

  • + The Coronavirus has sent US markets into freefall 
  • + Sharing the news cycle was Trump’s peace plan with the Taliban 
  • + Was this really an effort to end the war or a convenient smoke screen?
Trump giving a speech attempting to make frenemies of the Taliban

COVID-19 + Declining Economy + Re-Election Cycle = Taliban Peace Plans?

Dominating the news cycle at this point in time remains the almighty, all-conquering Coronavirus. Beyond its direct impact as an actual virus on individuals’ health around the world, COVID-19 has had a profound impact on a range of global stakeholders, not least Donald Trump. 

As such, the US economy, whose strong performance in recent times has made up the backbone of Trump’s re-election campaign rhetoric, has been sent into disarray. Essentially, when you have compromised global supply chains, big multinationals unable to implement significant international projects and a general level of global uncertainty as to when this saga will end, you have yourself a recipe for economic disaster. So naturally, as a means of combating the situation, Trump went about implementing a peace plan with the Taliban.

Background of the US-Afghanistan Conflict

Almost unfathomably, the US military has now maintained a presence in Afghanistan for nearly two entire decades, after George W. Bush Jr ordered the invasion of the country as a counteractive measure to 9/11. What was initially planned as an all-out ‘war on terror,’ looking to eradicate the likes of Al Qaeda and the Taliban subsequently turned into the USA’s longest-running conflict in its history. From what started as a ground force of 1,000 US soldiers in 2001 increased to upward of 50,000 by the end of the Bush tenure in 2008, before the Obama administration went a step further by taking that total to the approximate 100,000 mark around 2010.

The trouble was, such commitment of soldiers, and the investment worth trillions of dollars therein, was largely futile; lacking in direction, specific military objectives and an obvious end-point. Thousands of US soldiers essentially became Afghani policemen, venturing out into the surroundings and seeing what they could find. These activities ultimately led to the death of nearly 2,500 American troops, over the course of the near two-decade period.

Several years and poor return on investment figures later, the US began to realise that this was a somewhat pointless exercise that only seemed to bring about unnecessary violence, loss of life and tension, thereby leading to the withdrawal of troops throughout the decade, before eventually seeing the number fall to just 8,400 troops by 2017.

So, What’s the Deal?

In turn, Donald Trump, of whom we know maintains a steadfast anti-war approach to foreign policy, has gone about the overseeing of a full withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan; something Obama was never able to do. Importantly, this notion was one of his key promises to voters during his successful 2016 campaign, in which he asserted that he would bring US troops home from the Middle-East. To this end, the roadmap of the 2020 Taliban peace plan, which was signed in Doha on February 29th, is based around four crucial pillars:

Coupled with this deal was a joint statement, which was delivered by both the US and the Afghan government, which committed to the full withdrawal from Afghanistan with the following 14 months. The statement read:

“The United States will reduce the number of US military forces in Afghanistan to 8,600 and implement other commitments in the US-Taliban agreement within 135 days of the announcement of this joint declaration and the US-Taliban agreement.”

Structural Issues with a Side of Election Dispute

At least theoretically, the USA is looking toward a cooperative outcome, in which both sides go about enacting an array of adjustments, guarantees and compromises, especially between the Taliban and the national Afghani government. Troublingly, however, such a lasting outcome still appears to be strikingly unlikely to occur, on the premise that several Taliban officials still fail to recognise the legitimacy of the Afghan government in the first place.

In essence, the question comes down to just how much have the Taliban changed, or if not changed, willing to change. With this in mind, as reported by Mike Pompeo in Doha post the signing of the agreement, the Taliban cited their recognition that military victory against US-led forces would be impossible, which as a result, led them to pursue this peace agreement. 

Of course, the paradox of choice now lends itself to Afghanistan choosing to either continue fighting an impossible war or recognising a previously non-recognised ideological enemy. Ironically, however, the name and makeup of this ideological enemy is also somewhat blurry at this point in time, with both incumbent Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, and contender Abdullah Abdullah, claiming victory in the recent local elections in September 2019; with the outcome still being somewhat sorted out.

Long-Term Prospects

Overall, the timing of this agreement was just a little perplexing. On the one hand, such peace talks have been going on for some time under Trump’s administration, but on the other, to hold this supposedly monumental signing in the midst of one of recent history’s most threatening outbreaks, seems somewhat out of place.

Undoubtedly, there is a need to end the “decades of hostility and mistrust”, as recounted by Pompeo in Doha, but equally, it remains unclear as to how the plan was looking to generate a sustainable outcome under current conditions. This all said and done, the plan crumbled within a week, after an all too brief ceasefire was broken, thereby leading US forces to resume its conflict with the Taliban just a handful of days post the announcement.

With the Taliban still opposed to working with the Afghani government, and the Afghani government still unbeknownst to who is in charge, is it possible that this whole “agreement” was a mere smokescreen for Trump? A mechanism to shield his re-election campaign from the backlash that could eventuate over a plummeting US economy and healthcare system, a la coronavirus?

After all, the intended 14-month deadline for the US’ withdrawal would take us beyond the next election cycle. At least to Trump, this would mean reaping the benefits and praise associated with such a landmark plan in the short-term, whilst simultaneously recognising that in the event of the plan failing down the line, it being beyond the memory of the average voter. In other words, if the plan were to fall through, no one would remember.

To this writer, it certainly seems to come across this way. A short-term, convenient Trump-tactic to stem the COVID-based bleeding, which all but fell flat without ever really catching a fraction of the intended attention. If nothing else, this whole scenario is true to Trump’s character, such that he will always look to disassociate himself from challenges and blame.

Daniel Bloch

R&A Alumno