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Western intervention in Afghanistan just keeps failing

Weigand Florian Kommentarbild App
Florian Weigand
January 28, 2019

Holding peace talks with the Taliban is scandalous — and yet the group appears set to govern in a power-sharing deal as Afghanistan prepares for a leadership void. The future looks grim, DW's Florian Weigand writes.

A placard for the Taliban at Afghan peace talks in Moscow, 2018
Image: picture-alliance/Sputnik/V. Astapkovich

The war in Afghanistan has been raging for 17 years — almost three times the duration of World War II. Now, after many long years of suffering and civilians in constant mortal danger, peace is finally in sight. Though he NATO-led intervention had fueled Western hopes of a better future for the country, what any peace deal would look like remains uncertain — and the situation looks grim. 

The Taliban have not been defeated; on the contrary, they will be part of a political power-sharing deal, with the blessing of the United States. This means that, after decades of fighting, they have emerged stronger than they were during the late 1990s, when they ruled Kabul but were ostracized on the international stage. That these radicals, who are responsible for endless terror attacks, will now gain a pivotal position in Afghan politics thanks to the US is scandalous. Once again, US President Donald Trump and his aides have broken a foreign policy taboo.

Read more: US, Taliban report 'progress' on Afghan peace talks

But what is the alternative? The Taliban are present in half of the country. The possibility of the Taliban's storming Kabul or another major city is no longer unrealistic, and would bring with it the foreseeable situation of exacting bloody revenge on anyone who supports the government or works for nongovernmental organizations and liberal media outlets. Peace talks are no guarantee against such a horror scenario, but at least they offer some chance of avoiding it.

An interim political solution and ceasefire would buy time to hold further talks to salvage at least some parts of the constitution; this is why the United States is encouraging the government to engage with the Taliban. Indeed, the US's efforts have apparently proved successful as the Afghan leadership has now invited the Taliban for direct talks.

The Taliban, however, insist that they only want to negotiate with the US. And as time passes, they grow ever more powerful as the West has indicated it is unable and unwilling to maintain its military presence to protect the Afghan government. The gradual withdrawal became clear when NATO's International Security Assistance Force mission was superseded in 2015 by NATO's Resolute Support Mission, which focused on training, advising and assisting Afghan security forces. Yet these forces remain undertrained, ill-equipped, unmotivated and left to their own devices. If the US withdraws, Europe will follow suit. Indeed, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen recently made clear that no German troops would remain in the country. 

Read more: Germany worried at possible US withdrawal from Afghanistan

Development aid — for the Taliban?

Which leaves the question of development aid. Since 2002, the US has pumped over $1 trillion (€874.5 billion) into Afghanistan in aid. Germany is the No. 3 donor, but will the money keep flowing once the Taliban are in charge? Will it go toward helping Afghanistan improve its infrastructure and educational and vocational training system, to name the most pressing issues? The flow of development aid will depend on whether or to what extent the current societal order remains in place, whether there are elections and whether girls will be still be allowed to attend school.

Read more: Can Afghanistan have peace without recognizing women's human rights?

DW's Florian Weigand
DW's Florian WeigandImage: DW/P. Böll

It is unthinkable that Germany would accept a scenario in which the Taliban ignore fundamental principles of equality and the rule of law, which play a prominent role in planning and implementing development aid projects. Besides, the public would find it hard to stomach providing developmental aid to the Taliban. And this could have dangerous political consequences, too. Germany's far-right populist Alternative for Germany could capitalize on this ahead of the state elections in Thuringia, Brandenburg and Saxony in autumn, claiming that taxpayers' money is being used to support radical Islamists.

Much has been written about the fact that we should finally admit that the intervention in Afghanistan has failed and that all that matters now is peace — with or without the Taliban. That may be true. But it sends a signal to groups across the world that waging jihad pays off eventually, and can even lead to recognition by the international community. The case of Afghanistan could set a dangerous precedent and strengthen Islamists elsewhere.

Schools for Afghanistan