Taliban fighters waved Kalashnikov rifles and brandished their clenched fists after the September 11, 2001 attacks, defying US warnings that if they did not deliver Osama bin Laden, their country would be reduced to ashes.
The bravado ended as soon as the American bombs began to fall. Within weeks, many Taliban had fled the Afghan capital, terrified by the faint hum of approaching B-52 fighters. The Taliban quickly became an exhausted force whose members fled through the arid mountainous landscape of Afghanistan. As one of the journalists who covered them at the start of the war, I witnessed the Taliban’s uncertainty and loss of control.
It was in the last days of November 2001 that the Taliban leaders began to seek a rapprochement with Hamid Karzai, who will soon become the interim Afghan president. They wanted to make a deal.
“The Taliban have been completely defeated. He only asked for an amnesty, ”recalls Barnett Rubin, who was then working with the United Nations political team in Afghanistan.
Messengers came and went between Karzai and the headquarters of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar in Kandahar. Karzai called for a Taliban surrender that would prevent militants from playing an important role in the country’s future.
But Washington, convinced that the Taliban would be eliminated forever, was not inclined to make a deal.
“We are not negotiating surrenders,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said at a press conference at the time, adding that the Americans had no interest in letting Omar live the rest of his life in peace anywhere in Afghanistan. The United States wanted to see him captured or killed.
Almost 20 years later, the United States did negotiate an agreement to end the war in Afghanistan, but when it did, the balance of power was already totally different – and it favored the Taliban.
For diplomats who have spent years trying to bolster the US and NATO mission in Afghanistan, the deal former President Donald Trump struck with the Taliban in February 2020 to pull US troops out of the country. country – a deal that President Joe Biden made shortly after entering office this year he decided to honor – that sounded like betrayal.
Now, with the Taliban returning to power, some of these diplomats are thinking back to an opportunity the United States missed so many years ago to call for a Taliban surrender that could have ended the country’s longest war. country in its infancy, or in the past. dramatically shortened it, saving many lives.
For some veterans of the US engagement in Afghanistan, it’s hard to imagine that negotiations with the Taliban in 2001, if they had taken place, could have been worse than what the US ultimately got.
“One mistake we made was to reject the Taliban’s attempt to negotiate,” commented Carter Malkasian, former senior adviser to General Joseph Dunford, who led the Joint Chiefs of Staff during parts of the Obama administrations and Trump, referring to the United States. decision not to discuss the possibility of a Taliban surrender almost 20 years ago.
“In 2001, we were completely confident. We thought the Taliban was gone and would not come back, ”he explained. “Besides, we wanted revenge. Because of this, we make a lot of mistakes that we shouldn’t have made.
A little over a year later, the United States would approach its invasion of Iraq with the same air of confidence and reluctance to negotiate, unleashing a new war that would extend far beyond its expectations.
When the Trump administration reached a deal with the Taliban, the United States was already war-weary and had little influence to wield as it had announced its intention to leave Afghanistan. Nearly 2,500 Americans have died in action on Afghan soil, in addition to nearly 1,000 soldiers from allies such as the United Kingdom and Canada.
The Afghan victims have been much more numerous: at least 240,000 Afghans have died, according to the Watson Institute at Brown University, many of them civilians. By some estimates, US taxpayers spent nearly $ 2 trillion on this effort, with little guarantee of lasting results to show in return.
The Taliban, on the other hand, came to the negotiations from a much stronger position than before. His refuge in Pakistan, where the Taliban fled in 2001, had become his supply line. And even at the height of the US troop presence, the insurgents managed to maintain a growing influx of recruits from Afghanistan and Pakistan, fueled in part by growing profits from the opium trade.
The Taliban took control of much of Afghanistan, first occupying rural areas, then making forays into towns, sometimes taking control of the streets for a few days, then retreating only to disappear again in the countryside. The deaths of members of the Afghan security forces have increased, sometimes reaching hundreds in a week.
“When I heard that the United States would meet the Taliban in Doha without the presence of the Afghan government, I said, ‘This is not a peace negotiation. These are talks to negotiate a surrender, ”said Ryan Crocker, former US ambassador to Afghanistan.
“So now the negotiations were about our withdrawal without the Taliban shooting at us,” Crocker added. “And we don’t get anything in return.”
The deal struck by the Trump administration did not enshrine women’s rights or guarantee the preservation of any of the advances that the United States has spent so many years and so many lives trying to achieve. It also didn’t stop the Taliban from launching a full-scale military assault to take over the country.
It wasn’t even a peace deal. Instead, he snatched a rather vague promise from the Taliban to prevent future attacks on the United States and its allies. And even the language in which it was written has been contested: in the agreement, the Taliban refused to accept the word “terrorist” to characterize al-Qaeda.
Now the Taliban are in control of Afghanistan again. Its members are driving out Afghans who have worked with or fought alongside the United States. They are cracking down on protests with violence and, while promising to allow women to participate in society, they are once again beginning to limit the role of women outside the home in some parts of the country.
In short, much of what the United States has sought to achieve is already in danger of being phased out.
Some former diplomats also point out that the war brought tremendous improvements, yes. US Special Forces used Afghanistan as a starting point to attack Bin Laden, resulting in his death in Pakistan in 2011. Among the civilian population, the US-led effort has educated millions of Afghan boys and, above all, many girls. Afghans got cell phones and embraced social media so that many could see and communicate with the rest of the world.
From a national security standpoint, however, since Bin Laden’s death, the strategic reason for the United States to stay in the country has dramatically diminished – a rare political issue on which former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump stand. are agreed.
There is no doubt that there were other obstacles to possible peace talks 20 years ago. At the time, the Pentagon spent days smoldering after the 9/11 terrorists threw their plane into the west side of the building, and the World Trade Center was reduced to rubble, a huge pile of metal and concrete. twisted. The sense of pain, humiliation and national anger was palpable, prompting a deep desire for revenge that perhaps also led many U.S. leaders to turn a blind eye to the long history of invasions and failed occupations of the United States. ‘Afghanistan.
Just over two weeks after Rumsfeld torpedoed Karzai’s efforts to secure a negotiated end to the fighting, a conference opened in Bonn, Germany, to plan a successor government in Afghanistan, without the Taliban.
This process further solidified the Taliban’s position as a foreigner, virtually ensuring that any effort to reach an agreement with them was rejected. Many of those invited to the conference were Afghan expatriates or representatives of military leaders whose abuses against civilians in the 1990s led to the takeover of the country by the Taliban.
“There was no discussion at the time about the possibility of including the Taliban,” said James Dobbins, one of the US diplomats present at the meeting.
“Frankly, if the Taliban had been invited, no one else would have been present,” he said, adding that in hindsight, “we should have included the Taliban in the calculation.”
At the time, he said, “I rejected the idea that the Taliban would ever become a factor in post-war Afghanistan. “I thought the group was so defeated, so sidelined, that they would never come back to the surface. “
Looking back today, Dobbins commented, “I should have known. But what we didn’t understand, what we didn’t understand for five years, was that Pakistan had left the Taliban government, but it had not left the Taliban. It was a critical distinction. Thus, the Taliban were able to recruit recruits again, they were able to retrain and they were able to re-project themselves in Afghanistan. It was a huge missed opportunity. “