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Watch Part 2
In Afghanistan, Biden inherits America’s longest war and Trump’s peace deal
With less than 100 days before American troops are scheduled to leave for good, Afghanistan’s Vice President Amrullah Saleh sat down with NewsHour Weekend special correspondent Jane Ferguson to discuss the agreement, America’s legacy here, what he sees as major mistakes by the Trump White House and what he hopes can happen under a Biden administration.
This year marks 20 years since the start of the war in Afghanistan, and the Biden administration finds itself weighing the promises of the previous administration to withdraw all U.S. troops from the country by may, while maintaining diplomatic relations with a key ally in the region.
This week, PBS NewsHour Special Correspondent Jane Ferguson and Producer Emily Kassie have a series of reports from Afghanistan. We begin that series with her interview with Afghanistan's Vice President, Amrullah Saleh.
The Afghan people, of which I am one of them, they are tired of war. But they are not ready to sell their soul.
When President Trump's administration signed an agreement with the Taliban to withdraw all U.S. troops from the country, he fully intended to oversee that process in his second term. Instead, it's President Biden who inherits America's longest war, and that deal.
Popular as leaving the war behind might be in the U.S., it would be a disaster for the government in Kabul.
When the United States bypassed us and reached out to the Taliban directly it was both a surprise for us and also a dream for the Taliban. What is this? I think that was a mistake.
With less than 100 days before American troops are scheduled to leave for good, Afghanistan's Vice President Amrullah Saleh sat down with the NewsHour to discuss the agreement, America's legacy here, and what he sees as major mistakes by the Trump White House.
One criticism his government had of the U.S. talks with the Taliban was how they were conducted. The group were welcomed in five star hotels in Qatar, greeted for photo ops and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of their top leaders, was even given a direct line to Trump.
They brought President Trump over the phone to speak for 45 minutes with who? I couldn't imagine that. I could not imagine.
Did you get a heads up about that?
I'm glad I didn't. I don't think bringing the United States president to the level of a non-entity insurgent group was a good idea.
The February 2020 deal with the Taliban resulted in an unofficial ceasefire, with the group agreeing to not attack U.S. forces. Since that point there have been no U.S. casualties, but deadly assaults on Afghan troops escalated.
Sometimes back I read a statement by Secretary of State Mr. Pompeo saying that no American was killed in Afghanistan. We are glad that no American was killed, but he forgot how many Afghans were killed. The way he put that statement, that's not how you treat your allies.
Relations between the White House and the Kabul government worsened as the Trump administration pushed on, determined to exit this war no matter what.
They were trying to simplify and say 'oh it's war between Afghans' and I would say 'stop it, it's not war between Afghans, we fight the same enemy as in 2002, if they were your enemy then they are your enemy now.'
Do you feel abandoned by the United States?
I would say there were moments. There have been moments over the past few years. The U.S. diplomacy hurt the U.S. more than Afghanistan.
Part of the deal with the Taliban was that the Kabul government would release 5000 of their prisoners before the group began peace negotiations with them. This put the government at a major disadvantage for those talks, argues Saleh. By the time the Afghan negotiating team sat down with the Taliban in Doha last November, the group had been bolstered by their discussions with the U.S..
They think they are superpower on this end of the world, and they are talking to another superpower. De-elevating them, bringing them down requires a lot of effort. And we have told the United States that you should use your political and diplomatic might, to make them understand that they are a group at best. They are not a state, they are not even a dominating group.
It's unclear how seriously his government is taking these talks. A peace settlement would likely require the formation of a new administration, as the Taliban still refuse to recognize President Ashraf Ghani's legitimacy.
Do you in principle support these talks?
I support any effort to lead to a peaceful political settlement but not political surrender.
Every U.S. troop out of here by the 1st of May. Too soon?
It depends what did they come here for. Is that achieved? No. Because the Taliban committed to separate themselves from Al Qaeda. Many many months after they committed to doing this, we together with the CIA we conducted two operations, one in Ghazni, another in Helmand, we killed two Al Qaeda leaders inside the Taliban command compound.
Carrying out joint attacks like that could be impossible if the U.S. pulls all troops out of the country. Under the current deal it's not clear if the Afghan National Security Forces could survive.
This is the only military in this region, in the entire region, which is your honest, affordable, straightforward ally.
Comments from the White House, Pentagon and State Department over the last two weeks have hinted at a possible delay in fulfilling the deal.
State Department Spokesman Ned Price:
We're reviewing what has been negotiating, including that agreement.
Arguing the Taliban has broken the terms by continuing to host Al Qaeda and ramping up attacks on fellow Afghans. If Biden does try to stall on the U.S. drawdown, the Taliban could walk out on all negotiations completely, and escalate violence. To the Kabul government, what Biden decides to do will determine their fate.
My hopes for President elect Joe Biden is 'define the American interest'. Define the interest of the Trans-Atlantic alliance, define the interests of the global institutions which have been created primarily with the United States leadership, championship and resources. Because if United States backs off from some of its responsibilities it will be a political earthquake for the whole world.
The recent messaging coming from the White House could simply be threats meant to pressure the Taliban into conceding more to the Kabul government.
If the group call's Biden's bluff, then he will have to make a decision fast – end America's involvement in the war at the cost of abandoning its allies, or let the nation's longest war continue. The former option could throw the country into a devastating civil war, one Vice President Saleh views as preferable to surrender.
I hope there will be a day that we have war of words and war of ideas, fighting over air time and for control over the mic and not the gun. But if I don't have that opportunity and my only way to fight is to fight, then sure. I think it's more important to define the quality of your life than the length of it. And even if surrender to a terror ideology prolongs your life, but it shatters your soul.
Watch the Full Episode
Jane is a New York-based special correspondent for the NewsHour, reporting on and from across the Middle East, Africa and beyond. She was previously based in Beirut. Reporting highlights include the lead up to and aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, front-line dispatches from the war against ISIS in Iraq, an up-close look at Houthi-controlled Yemen, and reports on the war and famine in South Sudan. Areas of particular interest are the ongoing cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, Islamist groups around the world, and US foreign policy.
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