US handover of Afghanistan to Taliban: Placing new puzzle on region’s table – III
by Ramtanu Maitra on 27 Jan 2022 1 Comment

Handing over power to the Taliban


It could also be argued that Washington’s decision to hand over power to the Taliban in 2021 had a lot to do with its desire to halt the deterioration in its relations with Islamabad. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to incorporate Pakistan into China’s march to Iran and Arabia to establish a strong economic and security base in a region overflowing with oil and gas, the energy sources China’s industry heavily depends on, is worrisome for the United States because it would allow China to rise and rise. While Pakistan does not have the fuel, it has a shoreline on the Arabian Sea through which much of the Middle Eastern oil and gas traverses eastward to China and the rest of Asia. During his April 2015 visit to Islamabad, President Xi and then-Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif unveiled the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the Belt and Road Initiative’s (BRI) flagship project and its most ambitious undertaking in any single country. 


Since then, the project has ballooned to $62 billion in pledges. China’s main interest in handing out this bonanza to Pakistan centers on its strategic objective of converting the derelict Pakistani port of Gwadar, located on the Arabian Sea at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, into a modern port. The project encompasses building a supporting infrastructure and establishing a free trade zone next to the port. In the long run, some analysts claim, China would convert Gwadar into a naval base. Washington watched from afar as its major non-NATO ally was turning into an active pawn in assisting China’s plan to wrest global dominance from the United States. In essence, Pakistan was playing the role of a mid-wife in helping to deliver Arabia, where once the United States was the sole purveyor, to China.


At the same time, the United States knows that the Pakistan military’s ambition to control Kabul has remained unflagging all these years. This is one area where China can offer nothing to Pakistan; its key lies with the United States. In fact, one could even suggest that the United States has used Afghanistan as bait to keep Pakistan as its ally after taking control of Kabul in 2001. Throughout its two-decades of stay in Afghanistan, the US military’s constant refrain was that stability in Afghanistan could not be established because powerful factions of the Taliban were sheltered and controlled by Pakistan.  It was well established that the Taliban has a Quetta Shura, or high council (controlled by the Kandahari Pashtun Taliban), and a Miramshah Shura (owned by the Haqqani faction) within Pakistan, but the most important was the Rawalpindi Shura - a reference to the headquarters of ISI, which is the real power behind the Islamist Sunni Taliban.


The Haqqani faction, a part of the Taliban in power today and the group that was involved in myriad deadly attacks against the government in Kabul set up by the United States, had all along been working hand-in-glove with Pakistan’s military intelligence. That has been repeatedly stated in almost every report issued by the Pentagon over the years in explaining why the US military has failed to establish a peaceful environment in Afghanistan. Since the day President George W. Bush allowed thousands of Taliban fighters to be rescued by Pakistan, the US was aware that Pakistan would provide all sorts of physical help to get the Taliban reinstated in Kabul. Washington also knew that the Taliban would come to power if, and when, the US decided to quit Afghanistan.


The United States signaled its intent to hand over power to the Taliban during negotiations in Doha when the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad “caved in” to Taliban demands to exclude the Afghan government from negotiations. The bilateral US-Taliban deal was signed in February 2020 in Doha, a Trump-era agreement that Biden inherited. As analyst Kate Clark described it: “To get that deal, Khalilzad prised only vague promises from the Taleban - on their dealings with al-Qaeda and other international jihadist groups, to begin talking to the government - and just one strong commitment, that they would not attack the US and ‘its allies’. In return, the US conceded a swift timetable for the virtually unconditional withdrawal of international troops, that the Afghan government would release 5,000 Taleban prisoners, and that it would cease attacks on the Taleban. The US also agreed to work for United Nations sanctions to be lifted.” (The Taleban’s rise to power: As the US prepared for peace, the Taleban prepared for war: Kate Clark: Afghanistan Analysts Network:   21 Aug 2021)


The February 2020 deal, the “Joint Declaration between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan,” bound the US and the Taliban not to attack each other while international troops withdrew. However, there was no such cease-fire. In fact, in the first six months of 2020 alone, Taliban caused 43 per cent of all civilian casualties, a greater proportion than in 2019 and more in terms of absolute numbers.  In other words, as Kate Clark pointed out: “The Doha agreement was a withdrawal deal dressed up as a peace agreement.”


Another indication that handing over power to the Pakistan-protected Taliban was not a last-minute decision by Washington can be found in a conversation between then-Vice President Joe Biden and then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the latter’s Arg Palace in 2008, two months after the 2008 US presidential elections. The Atlantic monthly reported the discussion was tense because Karzai urged Washington to help root out Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan, implying that more pressure had to be exerted on the Pakistani leaders.


Biden let Karzai know how Barack Obama’s incoming administration saw its priorities, and a stunned Karzai was reduced to silence, The Atlantic noted. “‘Mr. President,’ Biden said, ‘Pakistan is fifty times more important than Afghanistan for the United States.’” (The Devastating Paradox of Pakistan: Mark Mazzetti: The Atlantic: March 2018) The irony, however, is that VP Biden, now President Biden, was talking to an individual who was linked to both Pakistan and the Taliban. 


Hamid Karzai, who is from Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, had off and on contact with the Taliban leaders in the 1990s in Quetta, Pakistan, where he fled to during the civil war in Afghanistan. Sarah Chayes, in her 2014 Los Angeles Times article, pointed out that “according to several witnesses, Karzai began holding meetings with many of the proto-Taliban leaders, organizing them into a force that could gain control of Kandahar, and eventually the rest of the country.”


Much later, in 2013, when he was still the president of Afghanistan, Karzai, in an interview with Al Jazeera denied he had failed to rein in the Taliban and to restore security across the country. “We never planned to eliminate the Taliban. Not me, not the Afghan people, not the Afghan government,” he said in the interview conducted in the Qatari capital, Doha, where an office to co-ordinate talks with the Taliban had been set up. “I’m still calling them brothers. I’m still trying to have them be part of the country again and participate in the Afghan life, as we all do, the Afghans,” Karzai added. (Karzai says history to judge his record: Al Jazeera: April 3, 2013). Indeed, it was no surprise to see Karzai in Doha in late-August, holding talks with the then-acting Taliban governor of Kabul, Abdul Rahman Mansour.


Karzai is also a friend of Pakistan, given his fluency in the Urdu language and the fact that he lived there for many years. After he took over the reins of Afghanistan’s administration following the 2002 Bonn agreement, Karzai has advocated the need to maintain strong relations with Pakistan. He stressed that his country could not last long if it becomes Pakistan’s enemy. “We are like conjoined twins, and like such twins sometimes we cannot stop kicking each other,” Karzai told noted journalist-author Ahmed Rashid. (Islamabad’s lingering support for Islamic extremists threatens Pakistan-Afghanistan ties: Ahmed Rashid: refworld: UNHCR: July 23, 2003)


Karzai’s friend and partner in helping the United States to hand over power to the Taliban was the former US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, who carried out extensive negotiations with the Afghan Taliban, sans Afghan government representatives, in Doha and presided over the handover. Khalilzad, who had been dealing with the Taliban for decades, has since resigned. During the mid-1990s, while at the for-profit firm Cambridge Energy Research Associates, Khalilzad conducted risk analyses for Unocal Corp., a US oil company that hoped to construct gas and oil pipelines across Afghanistan. At the time, Unocal held signed business agreements with the Taliban, though they were not recognized by the Clinton administration.


In December 1997, Unocal brought top Taliban leaders to the United States to view its operations in Houston. Khalilzad joined Unocal officials at a reception for the visiting Taliban delegation. Though at the time Taliban was a banned outfit in the United States, Khalilzad was spotted “chatting pleasantly” with “leaders of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime about their shared enthusiasm for a proposed multibillion-dollar pipeline deal,” according to a story in The Washington Post a few months after 9/11.


Negotiations over the pipeline collapsed in 1998, when al-Qaeda bombed two US embassies in Africa. Also of interest is that at least two groups of Unocal officials who visited Afghanistan in 1997 and 1998, headed by a Unocal vice president, Chris Taggart, mentioned Khodainoor Mandar Khail, who had met them as president of the Afghan National Oil Co. Mandar Khail said he accompanied both Unocal delegations to the southern city of Kandahar. Karzai’s interim government allowed Mandar Khail to keep his job.


Zalmay Khalilzad is an old Afghan hand in Washington, D.C. During the Reagan administration, he was a State Department adviser on the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. In the early 1990s, he was assistant deputy undersecretary of defense. In 2002, after Karzai was made chairman of the Afghan Interim Government, Khalilzad was sent to Kabul as the special envoy to Afghanistan. In 2018, he was named President Trump’s special envoy to Afghanistan. His principal task was to negotiate with the Taliban to bring an end to the Taliban-initiated violence in the country.


Khalilzad is also a neo-con, and like most American neo-cons he considers Russia the principal threat to the United States. He worked with the late National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who, under President Jimmy Carter, took a leading role in Operation Cyclone, the secret CIA program that financed the Afghan Mujahideen with cash, weapons, training, and jihadist schoolbooks to fight the Russians. Brzezinski’s aim, as he stated, was to give the Soviets their own Vietnam quagmire. Back then, his message to the Mujahideen fighters that would become al-Qaeda and the Taliban was: “Your cause is right, and God is on your side.”


Called “Bush’s favorite Afghan” in the media, Khalilzad has enemies within the United States. In 2014, Austria’s Profil magazine reported that Zalmay Khalilzad was accused of transferring $1.4 million (£0.9 million) to his wife’s account. Profil said the money was linked to activities involving companies in Iraq and the United Arab Emirates. It was pointed out that Khalilzad was the US ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan between 2003 and 2007. 


Following Khalilzad’s resignation as the Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation in October 2021, Bill Roggio of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies said, and the Politico news website reported: “It is about time he stopped stealing money from the US government. He shoulders a large amount of the blame for shilling for the Taliban.” Of note is that one of the Taliban negotiators, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was in a Pakistani prison and was released at Khalilzad’s request so that Mullah Baradar could become a lead-Taliban negotiator at Doha.


(To be concluded…) 

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