Varija Maini Writes :
“God is great” was cheered right after the signing of the deal between the Taliban and the United States[ii]. This signed on 29th Feb 2020 and was to herald a new era for Afghanistan—if it proceeded smoothly—and would end the 18 year-long war. For the Taliban, getting the US to agree to withdraw from Afghanistan, is akin to Afghans getting unfettered sovereignty from Britain in 1919 and the US-backed mujahedeen or “holy fighters” pushing out Soviet troops in the 1980s[iii]. “Even if we do not say in so many words that the US has been defeated in Afghanistan, it is an open secret now, that they are,” said a member of the Taliban’s Haqqani network[iv]. The inception of this gruelling period were the 9/11 attacks, which led the then US president George W Bush to invade Afghanistan with the sole aim to eliminate the terror group, Al- Qaida.
The US was quickly able to topple the Taliban rule, which had prevailed since 1996. Over the years the US increased its boots on ground manifold, ultimately, having a total of 100,000 US troops by 2010, under President Obama’s Government. In 2011, the initial decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan was taken by President Obama and after three years only 34,000 soldiers remained deployed in the country. There was further downsizing of the troops over the years. In Donald Trump’s presidency, after initial downsizing, 3,000 additional troops were sent in due to increase in the attacks by a resurgent Taliban. At present approximately 12,000 US troops remain in Afghanistan.
The peace agreement was reached after an 18 months long on-and-off negotiations that began in late 2018 and finally terminated in end Feb 2020. There are several reasons for the delay of this agreement. One of the main reasons for this was the abrupt break-off of the peace talks proposed by Trump and the cancelling of the secret meeting with the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Taliban, at Camp David, after a US soldier was brutally killed by the Taliban on 07 Sep 2019[v]. Consequent to the suspension of the talks, which otherwise may have led to a fruitful agreement, the Taliban intensified their attacks—with 2019 being one of the bloodiest since the invasion of the US in 2001. Within months the talks resumed in December 2019, as Trump’s main aim is to end the United States’ involvement in the war before the presidential elections in Nov 2020.
The peace agreement signed has four main points[vi]:
Prevent the use of the soil of Afghanistan by any group or individual against the security of the United States and its allies.
A timeline for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan.
Complete withdrawal of foreign forces.
A permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.
An exchange of 5000 Taliban and 1000 government prisoners was to take place prior to the commencement of the intra-Afghan talks. The United States agreed to withdraw all its forces from Afghanistan in a period of 14 months, although a complete pull out was to depend on the Taliban meeting its commitments made in the agreement, including cutting any ties with other terrorist groups. The withdrawal would also be affected by the pressure of US domestic politics, which is inevitable in an election year. It is here that the pulls and pushes of the Realist and Liberal lobbies in the USA as well as Western Europe will affect events. Traditionally the Republicans have been Realist and the Democrats Liberal.
Realism is a dominant theory of international relations especially in the 21st Century. This theory primarily focuses on the state’s security and power. Besides this, states are considered solely the unitary rational actors, where their survival and interests are the cornerstone of interstate relation. On the other hand, Liberalism was a dominant theory in international relations in the inter World War I and II years. Thereafter it came to fore during the latter part of the Vietnam war era and then saw a decline. Liberalism emphasises peaceful interstate relations, where the preference of states goes beyond politics, towards economic and social interaction, to achieve a harmonious environment and reducing conflicts. Basically, the liberals underline that states are not unitary actors and non-states actors are significant enough to be engaged with[vii].
Realism is a theory primarily about power and security and national interest because states relentlessly seek it as they exist in a self-help system. For a Realist, any war that promotes national interest would be a ‘just war’. For a Liberal only a war fought to protect human values is a “just war”. It can be considered that the Afghan war (2001 – 2020) took place due to the national interest of the United States. To maintain peace and prevent terrorist attacks, the superpower deployed itself in the country to ensure its security and that of its allies. In 2017, President Trump outlined his Afghanistan policy in his address to the troops in Arlington, saying that “initial instinct was to pull out,” but instead he will go ahead with an open-ended military commitment to prevent the rise of “a vacuum for terrorists”. At this point, he knew that pulling out the soldiers even though several US troops were dying due to the violence would be beneficial to the citizens of his country by plugging a drain on the US economy. He differentiated his policy from Obama’s by emphasising that the withdrawal would be based on the “on ground conditions” rather than a set timeline[viii].
Some important questions dominate any realistic discussion of this conflict. The first is whether the war was even worth fighting. The second is whether or not it could be won. In the realist perspective, the US has no reason to maintain a strategic presence in Afghanistan or Central Asia. The realistic thought was practiced by putting the country (US) and its welfare first. Whether this can be done without harming its title as a superpower is a moot point.
Liberalism is a theory in which the international system creates opportunities for cooperation and conflict; it is up to the states and other actors in the international and political forum to take advantage of those or to refrain from it. Liberals believe that there are goals and opportunities in which two organisations can work together, for them, interdependence is a solution as people trust each other to make decisions beneficial to all. The Liberal lobby is likely to be loath to leave the Afghan people to a harsh regime. In Kabul, an 28 year old Afghan women activist said that she feared the deal could worsen the situation for women in Afghanistan.[ix] Events like the killing of 24 people including pregnant women, and newly born babies on May 12, 2020 can lead to swings in the Liberal sentiment with potential to change the course of events.[x]
In conclusion, even though the extent of the difference between the two theories is humongous, there have been instances where they have been used in harmony to reach a consensus. The landmark and successful Camp David Accord of 1978 which led to the 1979 Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty is an example. Steered by a Democrat (liberal) President, Jimmy Carter, it had created new possibilities and paved the way for cooperation from theories that are poles apart and gave hope to the achievement of peace.
The situation in Afghanistan could be similar. The United States will have to seek a compromise between its politics and international standing. This is not easy considering that the Republicans have a majority in the Senate (Upper House) and the Democrats in the House of Representatives (Lower House). In national interest liberals can be realist also, however, it does give a faint indication that liberal thoughts can shape public opinion. The peace agreement is a Tabula Rasa awaiting positive realist and liberal (Republican and Democrat) sensory perception in the US at the earliest.
[i] Tabula Rasa, or blank state, is the theory that individuals are born without built-in mental content and all knowledge, therefore comes from experience or perception.
[ii] Mujib Mashal, “Taliban and U.S. Strike Deal to Withdraw American Troops From Afghanistan”. New York Times, Feb 29, 2020. Accessed May 08, 2020 from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/29/world/asia/us-taliban-deal.html
[iii] Saphora Smith, “U.S. sees Taliban deal as exit from Afghanistan”. NBC News Mar 03, 2020. Accessed May 07, 2020 from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/u-s-sees-taliban-deal-exit-afghanistan-militants-see-in1146361t-
[v] Michael Safi, “Taliban warns of more US dead after Trump says he cancelled peace talks”, The Guardian, Sep 08 , 2019, Accessed May 13, 2020 from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/sep/08/donald-trump-says-he-was-due-to-host-taliban-at-camp-david
[vi] “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America”. US State Department. Accessed May 12, 2020 from https://www.state.gov/agreement-for-bringing-peace-to-afghanistan/
[vii] “Comparing the Differences Between Liberalism And Realism Politics Essay”. UK essays Dec 12, 2016. Accessed May 08, 2020 from: https://www.ukessays.com/essays/politics/comparing-the-differences-between-liberalism-and-realism-politics-essay.php
[viii] “The U.S. War in Afghanistan”. Council for Foreign Relations. Accessed May 07, 2020 from CFR: https://www.cfr.org/timeline/us-war-afghanistan
[ix] “Afghan conflict: US and Taliban sign deal to end 18-year war”. BBC News Feb 29, 2020. Accessed May 09, 2020 from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-51689443
[x] Connor Finnegan & Aleem Agha, “Horrific attacks on maternity ward, funeral in Afghanistan may derail peace process”, ABC News , May 12, 2020 . Accessed May 13, 2020 from https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/horrific-attacks-maternity-ward-funeral-afghanistan-derail-peace/story?id=70644131
Varija Maini is a graduate student at the Christ College, Bengaluru, she is pursuing a Triple Major Programme (Humanities) in History, Economics & Pol Science. She is doing an online summer internship at the USI of India with the Editorial Team.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he/she belongs to or of the USI of India.