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Persistent peace talks in Afghanistan are a good sign for the region

Many knowledgeable people are surprised, in some cases amazed, that these talks have taken place at all

In this Sept. 12, 2020 photo, a Taliban delegation arrives to attend the opening session of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar.
Hussein Sayed, Associated Press

Serious, sensitive, tangled negotiations aimed at bringing peace to Afghanistan have now reached and surpassed the six-month mark. Many knowledgeable people are surprised, in some cases amazed, that these talks have taken place at all.

Representatives of the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban movement continue their direct peace negotiations in Doha, the capital of the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. The two sides held their first meeting on Sept. 12.

An al-Qaida Islamic terrorist group based in Afghanistan planned and carried out the horrific, murderous attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. Hijacked civilian aircraft became large lethal missiles; high-octane aviation fuel provided massive explosions on impact as well as propellant.

Planes struck the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Another went down in the Pennsylvania countryside. The last likely was to hit the U.S. Capitol or White House. Passenger heroes prevented that.

In response, military forces of a comprehensive international coalition of nations led by the U.S. overthrew the fundamentalist Taliban regime in Kabul. Both the United Nations and the NATO have implemented this effort, which has steadily developed increasingly large-scale economic modernization and political reform dimensions along with the military.

In February 2020, after nearly two decades of occupation, the U.S. government and the fundamentalist Taliban movement signed a formal agreement for the phased withdrawal of international troops. The accord includes detailed stipulations to help protect the population and discourage the return of terrorists.

This struggle to find a reasonably responsible, acceptable diplomatic route for departure reflects subtle but sustained sentiment among Americans. Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory reflects this sentiment, involving strong support among our rank-and-file military.

Context is important. Afghanistan has no established history of formal representative elections, Western-style rule of law or reliable national government. Local tribal leaders remain powerful — dominant politically and socially, lethal in armed conflict.

The Soviet Union, after years of de facto control over the national government, in 1979 took over directly through that nation’s massive military invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. A decade of unconventional warfare followed before Moscow finally faced reality and withdrew.

President Jimmy Carter, to his great credit, provided aggressive, effective leadership in supplying American weapons and related support for the Mujahideen warriors who fought the Russian military. President Ronald Reagan expanded aid to include light, relatively inexpensive Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.

Over time, Afghanistan became a continuing nightmare quagmire. The steady killing of mostly young men in the Red Army led to popular opposition, expressed even in the totalitarian Soviet Union.

The frustrating nature of the South Asia struggle can mask such positive changes as reasonably honest elections and growing participation of women. Despite lack of infrastructure, technology spreads steadily. Cellphones and the internet, as well as traditional television, are now features of isolated communities.

Afghanistan remains important for the U.S. in a manner broadly similar to the priority Great Britain attached to South Asia traditionally. Major East-West trade routes traverse the region today, as in ancient times.

Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, leased from Britain in 1966, contains a major American military base. B-52 bombers based there supported the allied military invasion of Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks.

The U.S. and allies were right to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan and are now right to withdraw. In the future, disciplined collective effort should guide Washington policy.

The Afghan people are responsible for their nation. That also is right.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact acyr@carthage.edu.