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Afghanistan is making progress for a peace agreement, but such an agreement will not necessarily mean an end to war or even assure the Afghan government’s survival, says Matthew Hoh

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GREG WILPERT It’s The Real News Network and I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

The United States is saying that the Doha peace talks between the US and the Taliban are going well in Afghanistan. The two sides recently agreed to reduce attacks on civilian casualties as a first step towards US withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, Sohail Shaheen, the Taliban’s spokesperson in Doha, tried to lower expectations before the talks began this week. Here’s what he had to say.

SOHAIL SHAHEEN, TALIBAN SPOKESPERSON This is not an optional negotiation. These were informal talks. And it has, you know, this has the weight of a moral obligation and that was a collective demand of the participants of this two-day conference. And they asked from all sides also for a reduction in the civilian casualties and demanded for withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan because they confirmed the statement of the Moscow Conference.

GREG WILPERT The war in Afghanistan has lasted for eighteen years, costing the US taxpayer over one trillion dollars, and the lives of hundreds of thousands of Afghanis, and of about 2,000 US soldiers. The Taliban’s main and only demand is that the US leaves Afghanistan. The US has several issues on the table. Among them, a commitment from the Taliban not to cooperate with ISIS or Al-Qaeda, which is something that the Taliban has already accepted. And that the Taliban recognizes the government of Afghanistan, which it considers to be a US puppet.

Joining me now to discuss the latest developments in Afghanistan and the peace talks is Matthew Hoh. He’s a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy, and a former Director of the Afghanistan Study Group. He’s also a former Marine Corps officer who took part in the Iraq War, and is now a member of Veterans for Peace. Thanks for joining us again, Matthew.

MATTHEW HOH Hi, Greg. Thank you for having me on.

GREG WILPERT So do you think that these Doha talks could end up being similar to the Paris peace talks that ended the Vietnam War? That is, an agreement that would help the US save face as it pulls out of a quagmire that it cannot win.

MATTHEW HOH Yes, and that’s an excellent comparison you want to have for the American government, particularly for the Trump administration. President Trump campaigned on getting out of these “stupid wars,” as he would call them I guess, alongside of campaigning and talking about getting us into new wars. So I think for American political reasons you see the Trump administration very much interested in getting some agreement before the US election that would allow President Trump to say, look, I campaigned on this and I did it. Again, while he’s starting other wars potentially. And as you mentioned, saving face is the right way to describe it for the United States. The idea— the same thing too with the Nixon administration— that we were going to pull out of Vietnam, and there would be a duration of time where the South Vietnamese could be pinned with losing the war so that it wouldn’t look like the United States had cut and run, abandoned the South Vietnamese, and allowed the North Vietnamese or the Vietnamese people to win the war. The same would be safe for Afghanistan.

So you set up some agreement where the United States withdraws its military forces. And then there will be some period of time that the fault or the blame for the loss of war could not be pinned on the Trump administration or the US military, but could be pinned on the Afghan government so there is that aspect of it that all people need to be very concerned about particularly the Afghan people because they’re the ones who this will continue to be borne upon. I mean, the suffering of the Afghan people has gone on since the 1970s. I mean, I was born in 1973. That’s the year the king was deposed. And so, if I was an Afghan, my life would only know at best political chaos, or at worst the horror of these wars.

GREG WILPERT Now, one of the main sticking points for a peace agreement is the mutual recognition of the Taliban and Afghan government. Do you think that this issue could be resolved anytime soon so that there is an actual peace agreement?

MATTHEW HOH I think what’s going to have to happen is there’s going to have to be some type of power sharing as well as revenue sharing for the Taliban to receive, to coexist with, as you stated correctly, a puppet government. And that’s the way I think all people outside of the US government and the Afghan government view the actual Afghan government, as a puppet government. It’s an illegitimate government. There have been elections, but all those elections have been incredibly fraudulent, you know, marked with massive corruption, massive ballot stuffing, and so there’s no legitimacy to these elections. And so, I think alongside of the Taliban you also have to realize that there are plenty of other forces and powers within Afghanistan— warlords basically, and drug lords.

The warlords and the drug lords are one and the same in Afghanistan, and that’s potentially what a lot of the fighting has been over these last several years in the South, has been for control over some of the better opium poppy fields. But you have to be concerned about these warlords splintering off from the Afghan government and creating their own fiefdoms. So as a power-sharing agreement comes into place with the Taliban, and again the Taliban is a name we call this mass insurgency. It’s predominantly Pashtun. The Pashtuns make about 40% of the Afghan population and the Taliban represent them in many ways in the south and east particularly and some parts of the north. But within the constituency that supports the Afghan government, you have these various warlords who represent different ethnic factions as well as different geographic factions as well.

And so, you have to be concerned about them splintering off as well and making sure that they are being kept in power, so to say, if you want to make sure that there is—Because what will come with this peace agreement, if there is one, will be a ceasefire and you don’t want the war fracturing into even more pieces than it is now, which is pretty— if you’re paying attention to this war— you say wow, that would be pretty remarkable if that actually splintered any further, but there’s a possibility for that. So it is a very complex process. It’s not an easy process.

I don’t think anyone should be going into this with the idea that all you have to do is just wish for the US forces to leave and everything will be okay. Look, that was a mistake that I was a part of when we worked on this under the Obama administration, trying to get just US forces out without really working on a larger Afghan peace or helping the Afghans work on an Afghan peace, because it has to be an intra-Afghan process. It cannot be a process marked by outsiders or ruled by outsiders. It has to be done by the Afghans. But that’s something we’d be concerned about. If you just pull out the US forces, you can have the war continue, and it can splinter, and it can be worse than it is right now.

GREG WILPERT Right. Now, the two sides recently said that they would stop targeting civilians, but actually on Friday a car bomb exploded in the University of Kabul. And a day earlier, another car bomb cost the lives of twelve civilians. Now, Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute speculated on NBC News that the Doha talks may be nothing but a “desert mirage,” is what he called it. What value do you think these talks have if civilians are still being killed regularly in Afghanistan?

MATTHEW HOH Well, I chuckle because Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute receives a million, two million, three million dollars every year from the Pentagon and O’Hanlon has been a chief trumpeter and advocate of these wars over the years, so I can’t imagine. Look, a lot of these guys in DC here, they’re on the gravy train with these wars so they don’t want to see them end. Or the opposite is, all they’ve ever known is the wars. So you have these think tanks that have for the last 20 years basically been supported by the wars, so there is a very real institutional fear that if these wars end, a large portion of their funding will go away. As well as too is how do you exist without something that you’ve known for the last two decades? You basically set up your institution to support the war making-efforts of the United States. And if those go away, what do you do?

So I’m always very skeptical of my colleagues in other think tanks here. But, you know, I mean, I think what you’re seeing though is that the fighting will go on until a ceasefire occurs. It’s just not the Taliban or the Islamic State of Kurdistan or these other insurgent groups that are causing civilian deaths. United States warplanes are killing more Afghan civilians at any point in the last eighteen years. Just this past week, Afghan commandos who would have been at least advised by, if not accompanied by American commandos, raided a health clinic in Wardak Province and killed four health care workers. So the civilian casualties are occurring on each side. And with each civilian a casualty, you have an aggravation of tensions, right? Every time a civilian is killed, you have another family that is aggrieved against one side.

And so, the complexity of the revenge factor that is already massive in a war that again has been going on since the 1970s, but this is something very real. I think it’s sincere, the quote you began [with] from the Taliban spokesperson. He talked about a moral obligation. And I think we have demonized and our propaganda has been so effective towards the people that we have been fighting these last couple decades, that we can’t imagine them as human in a lot of ways, that they are almost cardboard cutouts of Tom Clancy or Jack Bauer villains. You know, Jack Bauer from the American television show 24, famous for helping American people believe that torture works. But there is a very real sentiment within the side that supports the Taliban, the Taliban’s consistency to end these wars, because they are suffering.

And when I was there and I met with men that were Taliban, they basically said to us—They said, look, we’ve been fighting, our fathers fought, our grandfathers fought. We don’t want our sons and our grandsons to fight, and we don’t want their families to suffer. We’re not going to surrender, but we do not want this war to continue. And that was a sentiment I heard expressed to me directly ten years ago now. And so, that feeling is still there and it’s very real, so we shouldn’t snicker when we hear the Taliban say things about moral obligations because they have been suffering just as any part of the population of Afghanistan has been suffering.

GREG WILPERT Okay. Well on that note, we’re going to leave it there for now, but I’m sure we’re going to come back to you as the peace talks proceed, and hopefully very soon conclude. I was speaking to Matthew Hoh, Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy, and former Director of the Afghanistan Study Group. Thanks again, Matthew, for having joined us today.

MATTHEW HOH Thank you, Greg.

GREG WILPERT And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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Matthew Hoh has been a Senior Fellow with the Center for International Policy since 2010. In 2009 he resigned his position with the State Department in Afghanistan over the U.S. escalation of the war.