When Donald Trump revealed a secret plan for a “peace summit” with Afghan Taliban chiefs at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland earlier this month, the news caused a sensation. The idea that a group, officially designated as terrorists by the United States, was to be given the red-carpet treatment reserved for important allies shocked many in Washington.
In fact, Trump had – and with it, the entire, protracted US-Taliban withdrawal talks process. Trump claimed he changed his mind after a US soldier was killed in a Taliban suicide bombing. “Unfortunately, in order to build false leverage, they [the Taliban] admitted to... an attack in Kabul that killed one of our great, great soldiers and 11 other people,” he tweeted.
His explanation did not ring true. More than 2,300 Americans have lost their lives in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion. Another death, while regrettable, appeared an unconvincing reason for wrecking an agreement that had been months in the making. More likely, Trump got cold feet over what many analysts saw as a .
Whatever the true cause, the people of Afghanistan are paying a for the continuing failure, by all parties, to end hostilities. Tens of thousands of have died since 2001. Unbelievably, the death rate is rising. United Nations figures show more than 3,800 civilians, including 927 children, were killed last year, the highest annual toll on record. In the first half of 2019, 1,366 people died and 2,446 were injured.
UN statistics also indicate that more civilians were killed by US and Afghan forces in the first six months of 2019 than by insurgents. Last week brought more devastating slaughter; 30 farmers and labourers harvesting pine nuts outside a village in heavily contested eastern Nangarhar province died in what turned out to be a .
As an enterprising team of Reuters reporters has since established, the village elders, fearing exactly this sort of incident, had given to Nangarhar’s governor before harvesting began. They also obtained prior clearance from local Isis leaders. But still they were attacked. “Initial indications are members of Daesh [Isis] were among those targeted in the strike,” a US spokesman said, adding that an inquiry was under way into “collateral damage”.
Taliban fighters are every bit as capable of disastrous mistakes. At least 39 people, including hospital doctors, nurses and patients, were killed last week by a in Qalat, in Zabul province. The Taliban admitted responsibility, saying their intended target was a government intelligence office next door to the hospital.
Speaking at an election rally in Jalalabad on Friday, Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s president, promised to reduce civilian casualties. His pledge rings hollow, given that it has been made countless times before. Ghani hopes to be re-elected on Saturday but neither he nor any other Afghan politician has the power or authority to do what matters most: stop the war.
The Taliban are trying to disrupt the polls, making it impossible for people to vote. Isis and al-Qaida factions are ruthlessly carving out rival mini-fiefdoms. The Nato presence is much reduced. So that leaves the US. But Trump, for now at least, has washed his hands of it. Last week, the US cut , citing Kabul’s failure to tackle corruption. The move was seen as retribution for Ghani’s criticism of Trump’s talks debacle.
This petty action sends exactly the wrong signal. Afghanistan is teetering on the brink. The limited, hard-won gains of recent years could all be lost if democracy fails. By invading, occupying and seeking to control , the US made itself responsible for its future. It will have to leave one day. But at this time of acute crisis, America’s diplomats cannot just look away. They must finish the job that they began.