Letter from Kabul — From the February 2017 issue

The Patient War

What awaits Trump in Afghanistan

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Peace requires patience. It took Vietnam negotiators five years to sign a ceasefire agreement. Resolving the war between Iran and Iraq took eight. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which halted hostilities between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, was built on the failures of three attempts going back to 1973.

In Afghanistan, peace has long been elusive. After the American invasion in 2001 and the rapid collapse of the Taliban regime, international stakeholders met in Bonn, Germany, at the end of the year to choose a new leader for the country. Absent was anyone from the Taliban, who were “running around trying to avoid being killed by the Americans,” Barnett Rubin, who participated in the meeting on behalf of the United Nations, told me. The dignitaries settled on Hamid Karzai, a forty-four-year-old mujahed, as interim president.

Member of the High Peace Council Maulvi Qayamuddin Kashaf, then governor of Kabul province Haji Din Mohammed, and member of Parliament Ustad Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf (from left to right) listen to then president Hamid Karzai during a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on September 22, 2011 © Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

Member of the High Peace Council Maulvi Qayamuddin Kashaf, then governor of Kabul province Haji Din Mohammed, and member of Parliament Ustad Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf (from left to right) listen to then president Hamid Karzai during a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on September 22, 2011 © Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

The same day, Karzai went to meet senior Taliban officials in Shah Wali Kot, a town in southern Afghanistan. While he was on his way, a 2,000-pound bomb, guided by satellite from a U.S. B-52 flying north of Kandahar, missed its target, killing three Americans and five Afghan fighters, and wounding many more. When Karzai arrived in Shah Wali Kot, he recalled to me recently, he found a fifteen-man Taliban delegation waiting, with a letter surrendering power to him and “asking nothing in return.” I asked how he had felt. “It was an eventful day,” he said.

The letter was read aloud to the nation on the radio that night. Karzai never saw the document again, but its effects were immediate. In exchange for a public truce, he promised to grant the Taliban total amnesty.

As he was ironing out the details, however, Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. secretary of defense, declared that there would be no such agreement. Night raids began around that time, with U.S. Special Operations Forces going after Taliban officials, “harassing them, attacking their houses, stealing their motorbikes and cows, creating the impression that there was no room for them in the new order,” according to a report from the Open Society Foundations. For the Taliban, the lesson was clear: Karzai was unreliable, and America wished only to impose revenge on its vanquished enemy. Some continued to work on reconciliation, but many more opted to rebuild their movement into the formidable militant group we know.

When Barack Obama took office, in 2009, interest in peace talks was revived. The Taliban were consistent in their demands — they wanted to open an office, see imprisoned members released from Guantánamo Bay, and have their names removed from the U.N. sanctions list. Over years of faltering, informal conversations and trade-offs, many of their requests were eventually granted: a political office was permitted in Doha, Qatar; five Taliban prisoners were released; and fourteen of 137 names were crossed off the list, allowing those members to travel freely.

On June 18, 2013, six months into Obama’s second term, those watching the news in Kabul would have seen two major stories: in the morning, Karzai gave a speech marking the official security handover from NATO to the Afghan military; in the afternoon, the Taliban’s political office opened in a diplomatic enclave of Doha. The Taliban flag, inscribed with the shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith, flew high in a courtyard, as if designating the embassy of a sovereign state. Karzai had only reluctantly consented when American negotiators arranged for the office; now he was livid. Within a month, the place was shuttered, and the peace agenda stalled once again.

Karzai’s second term ended in September 2014. Ashraf Ghani, his successor, made clear in his inaugural address that reconciliation would be a renewed priority. “We are tired of war; our message is peace,” he declared, and went on, “For stability, security, and economic development, we will try to reach a regional cooperation pact with all our neighbors.” Two months later, he visited Pakistan to court military leadership at their base, in Rawalpindi, and decided to offer substantial concessions: cadets would fly there for training, weapons orders from India would be canceled. This was a cop to Pakistan’s pride; the only way to secure cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan, many observers believe, is by pandering to Pakistan’s insecurity over its conflict with India. Back home, however, many of Ghani’s countrymen were horrified. Karzai publicly called the arrangement an “atrocious betrayal.” He told me, “Pakistan was allowed to harbor the Taliban leadership and to train them and to equip them. They made serious mistakes that cost them so much and they cost us so much.”

Ghani pushed to get peace talks started before the Taliban began their spring offensive, but he didn’t make it in time. However receptive Mullah Mansour might have been to negotiations — he gave a nod to the Political Commission, the Taliban’s diplomatic wing, to continue their work — when he took over as leader, he needed first and foremost to consolidate his power. On August 7, 2015, a truck bomb went off in central Kabul, killing fifteen people and injuring hundreds. Within hours, a U.S. Special Forces base was attacked, and ten died. Three days after that, an assault on the Kabul airport killed five and wounded seventeen. In October, the northern city of Kunduz became the first provincial capital to fall to the Taliban since their regime had lost control of the country fourteen years earlier.

This past spring, the violence escalated. On the morning of April 19, a blast ripped through central Kabul. Taliban militants had driven a truck full of explosives into the headquarters of an elite security team. When I arrived a few hours later, the street, normally full of vendors selling cigarettes and biscuits, was deserted and littered with the detritus of the bombing: husks of cars, a sullied prayer rug. Where there once stood walls were sheets of metal contorted like Richard Serra sculptures. The thirty-eight arched windows of the Eid Gah Mosque, where Afghanistan declared its independence from Britain in 1919, were entirely shattered. Broken glass glinted in the sun. A NATO blimp hovered in the sky.

By afternoon, residents began to put the pieces of their lives back together. Stalls reappeared, selling the last strawberries of the season. Commuters were heading home, disks of still-warm bread under their arms. A man carrying a flower passed the bomb site without a glance. Livery cabs slowed to collect passengers.

The next day, the Ministry of Interior Affairs announced the toll: sixty-four killed, 347 injured. Later, more deaths were counted, bringing the official number up to sixty-eight. This was the deadliest attack to date since 2001, a statement from the Taliban to Afghans that their government could not protect them. The chief executive officer and foreign minister lost bodyguards in the bombing, and the vice president lost a nephew. Ghani gave a rare speech before a joint session of parliament, broadcast on television, in which he called elements of the Taliban “the enemy.” Soon after, the government hanged six Taliban militants — prisoners of war or political prisoners, depending on whom you asked. A Taliban official tried to persuade me that it was unlikely the men sentenced to death had any connection to his group, but said, “This execution blocked the way for peace.” When I visited Waheed Muzhda, a political analyst, to talk about the peace process, he shook his head. “After the last attack,” he said, “everything is finished.”

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lives in Kabul, Afghanistan. Her work on this article was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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