November 30, 2023 | Rome, Italy

A bridge too far?

By |2021-01-24T13:25:51+01:00January 21st, 2021|Asia Unlimited|
Taliban fighters. In Afghanistan: fighting that goes on and on, with no end in sight.

he Afghanistan peace process, which, less than a year ago, began with so much fanfare, has apparently devolved into a case of senior American officials compelled to plead with their adversaries.

According to press reports, outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, who still has three years left in his term. both traveled recently to Qatar for high-level meetings with Taliban representatives. And both apparently pressed for a reduction in violence and a political settlement to the ongoing conflict. Meanwhile, the Taliban and its allies continue their assault on peace and security, notably focusing their hostility on the Afghan government.

Pompeo and Milley’s objectives were noble enough. Violence does need to abate in Afghanistan. And the final outcome must be a negotiated political settlement that recognizes the rights and the security priorities of the Afghan people. But one is left to wonder if this peace process was knee-capped before it even began.

On Dec. 24, 1999, an Indian Airlines flight en route from Kathmandu to New Delhi was hijacked by terrorists later discovered to be affiliated with Pakistan. The plane was diverted from its original destination and forced to land in Amritsar in northern India after being denied clearance to land in Pakistan. With the passengers on the plane now hostages, the terrorists demanded immediate refueling, and fearing the plane could be immobilized by Indian forces, ordered immediate take-off again.

You cannot put a price on the lives of hostages. But in this instance, the price was steep.

The terrorists then hopscotched around the region, stabbing and killing hostages as they desired, landing in Lahore and Dubai before finally reaching Kandahar, Afghanistan, on the evening of December 25. While their flight ended there, the crisis would drag on for six more agonizing days as negotiations with the hijackers were hampered by flawed strategy, incompetence, and bad faith on the part of the Taliban (who were then in power in Afghanistan).

Finally, on Dee. 31, 1999 the Indian government agreed to release three prisoners in exchange for the lives of the remaining passengers, bringing the crisis to an end. The government flew the three prisoners to Kandahar, at which point the Taliban promptly drove them across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, to the terrorist hotbed of Quetta, and released them.

These three prisoners would go on to particularly bloody terrorist careers. One would found the Pakistani terrorist organization Jaish-e-Muhammed in 2000 and be implicated in the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament, the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and the 2019 attack in Pulwama. Another would go on to become an actively trained Islamic militant in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir for many years. And the third allegedly played a significant role in planning the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. and in the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002. You cannot put a price on the lives of hostages. But in this instance, the price was steep.

In October 2001, as the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was collapsing, the United States captured Abdul Qayyum Zakir, a commander notorious for his brutality and merciless executions. Zakir was held in the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay for several years but never formally charged with a crime, similar to so many prisoners there.

In 2007, Zakir claimed to have been reformed, telling a military tribunal that he only wanted to “go home and join my family and work my land…” Under pressure to reduce the number of prisoners in Guantanamo, the Bush administration transferred him to Afghan custody. A year later, despite stark warnings that he would return to the Taliban and his terrorist activities, he was released.

Zakir quickly rejoined the Taliban, rising through the ranks and directing military operations in his native Helmand province. Taliban chief Muhammed Omar appointed Zakir as senior military commander. In this role, Zakir is believed to have been directly responsible for countless attacks on U.S. forces and on Afghan civilians. It is believed he personally stymied direct talks with the Afghan government for years. Eventually, Omar appointed him as the Taliban deputy, a position he allegedly lost in a 2014 internal leadership dispute. You cannot put a price on emptying a military prison. But in this instance, the price was steep.

On June 30, 2009, Bowe Bergdahl, a then-private first class in the U.S. army, based in the Paktika province, allegedly left his observation post and walked off his base, into the mountains of southeastern Afghanistan. Within hours, he was captured by the Taliban, who promptly took him prisoner.

Over the next five years, the Taliban and an associated terrorist network called the Haqqani group would intermittently use Bergdahl for propaganda and bargaining purposes. Bergdahl would also later tell military officials that he had been tortured, beaten, and held in a cage during his time in captivity.

Worried that Bergdahl’s condition was deteriorating, after years of resisting, the United States finally engaged with his captors. The U.S. agreed, despite the objections of the Defense Department and intelligence community, to release five high-ranking Taliban members who were being held in Guantanamo Bay. On May 31, 2014, Bergdahl was released and recovered by the U.S. military. He would eventually plead guilty to desertion and misbehavior and was dishonorably discharged from the military in 2017.

The five detainees released by the United States would become known as the “Taliban Five”, remaining deeply committed to the calling of destroying American interests inside and outside Afghanistan. Although still under a travel ban in Qatar, imposed as a condition of their release, the five are considered high risks to the United States and its interests. Many believe that if the travel ban is lifted, several would immediately return to Afghanistan to re-join the insurgency.

To make matters worse, and in a twist of insulting irony, in 2018, the Taliban Five officially joined the group’s political office in Qatar, meaning they played a primary role in peace negotiations with the United States in 2019-2020 and continue to exert significant influence on negotiations with the government of Afghanistan. You cannot put a price on the head of a U.S. soldier. But in this instance, the price was steep.

On Feb. 29, 2020, after years of negotiations, the United States struck a peace deal with the Taliban. Announced with great optimism in Doha, the deal promised to finally achieve the peaceful political settlement that had eluded everyone for so long.

Bergdahl later told military officials that he had been tortured, beaten, and held in a cage.

The Taliban agreed to begin negotiations with the Afghan government and, in return, the United States agreed to a phased withdrawal of troops, contingent on ground conditions.

As part of the deal, the United States committed the Afghan government to releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners as a precondition to talks even beginning. The vast majority of these detainees were political prisoners or low-level foot soldiers that posed little risk to the Afghan state. But the list also included scores of senior-level hardened terrorists that the United States and the Afghan government, working together, had painstakingly collected over the several years.

Naturally, the Afghan government resisted, missing deadline after deadline for releasing the prisoners. Meanwhile, the Taliban refused to begin negotiations until they were released. The government started with a few thousand at first and then up to 4,600, but remained firm on not releasing the most hardened terrorists. Under pressure from the United States, eventually the Afghan government gave in and all the prisoners were released.

The country saw an almost immediate spike in violence. With U.S. troops nearly gone, this violence has inflicted untold carnage on Afghan civilians causing deaths and injuries too numerous to count. By September, only one month after the release of the final 400 Taliban prisoners, the violence had reached near-record levels. By November, violent attacks had surged by 50%, eventually reaching over 70% of Afghanistan’s provinces.

Into this morass went Pompeo and Milley, imploring the Taliban to behave less violently. But that’s the interesting about terrorists. Once you release them, they tend to return to terrorizing.

You cannot put a price on the hope of achieving everlasting peace. But in this instance, the price was steep. Perhaps the price too steep this time? That remains to be seen.


About the Author:

Anish Goel, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at New America, a foreign policy think tank in Washington, D.C, and previously served in the White House as senior director for South Asia. He is currently an employee of the U.S. Department of Defense. The views expressed in his "Asia Unlimited" column, which appears occasionally, are strictly personal and in no way necessarily reflect those of his employer.