After more than eighteen years of war in Afghanistan, the United States and the Taliban reached an agreement in what were both sides’ most intensive efforts yet to end the war. Central to the deal is a significant drawdown of U.S. troops and guarantees from the Taliban that the country will not become a safe haven for terrorists.
Following nine rounds of discussions, negotiators signed a peace agreement in February 2020 that addresses four main issues:
- Cease-fire. Negotiators agreed to a temporary reduction in violence and said that a lasting cease-fire among U.S., Taliban, and Afghan forces will be part of intra-Afghan negotiations.
- Withdrawal of foreign forces. The United States agreed to reduce its number of troops in the country from roughly 12,000 to 8,600 within 135 days. If the Taliban follows through on its commitments, all U.S. and other foreign troops will leave Afghanistan within fourteen months. Experts have cautioned that pulling troops out too quickly could be destabilizing.
- Intra-Afghan negotiations. The Taliban agreed to start talks with the Afghan government in March 2020. Throughout the negotiating process, the Taliban had resisted direct talks with the government, calling it an American puppet. But the Taliban has more recently indicated that talks are possible, with deputy Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqaniwriting in a New York Times op-ed, “If we can reach an agreement with a foreign enemy, we must be able to resolve intra-Afghan disagreements through talks.”
- Counterterrorism assurances. The United States invaded Afghanistan following September 11, 2001, attacks largely to eliminate the threat of terrorism, so it seeks to halt terrorist activities in the country, including by al-Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State. As part of the agreement, the Taliban guaranteed that Afghanistan will not be used by any of its members, other individuals, or terrorist groups to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.
On March 10 the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution welcoming the US-Taliban agreement as a significant step “towards ending the war and opening the door to intra-Afghan negotiations”. This marked an important development as it conferred international legitimacy on the agreement signed in Qatar on Feb 29. But other developments have been far more consequential for the peace process, already at a standstill following a series of setbacks.
What are challenges to the peace process?
The inability to start intra-Afghan talks slated for March 10, the deadlock over the prisoners’ release issue and the rival inauguration ceremonies of the Afghan president on March 9 — all underline how fraught the post-Doha situation has turned out to be. This raises serious questions about the future of the peace process as envisaged by the Doha accord.
While considering the ramifications of these developments it is important to keep in view the limits of the Doha agreement. This is indicated by its purposively vague nature in some respects and the obvious fact that it excluded the Afghan government with whom Washington signed a separate declaration.
The crux of the Doha agreement is Washington’s commitment to a total but phased withdrawal in return for the Taliban’s commitment to prevent Afghanistan’s soil from being used by terrorists and agreeing to intra-Afghan talks.
While the peace process is supported by a vast majority of Afghans, many issues remain to be worked out during intra-Afghan negotiations, including sharing power, disarming and reintegrating Taliban fighters into society, and determining the future of the country’s democratic institutions and constitution. These negotiations were already off to a precarious start following the U.S.-Taliban deal in February. The United States and the Taliban agreed to the release of up to five thousand Taliban prisoners in exchange for up to one thousand Afghan security forces, but the Afghan government said it had not committed to such a swap. The process could be complicated by a weak central government, afflicted by ethnic, sectarian, and tribal differences. The country’s 2019 election was marred by many problems: only 1.8 million out of 9 million registered voters cast ballots, polling stations were attacked, and results weren’t released for months. When incumbent President Ashraf Ghani was announced the winner, his challenger, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, contested the results and said he would form his own government.
Disagreement over the prisoners’ release, which the Taliban insist is a prerequisite for the commencement of an intra-Afghan dialogue, has become the immediate obstacle in the peace process. But a bigger challenge is the political crisis sparked by the clash between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah over the disputed presidential election. Since the U.S.-Taliban deal was signed, the peace process has stalled amid political turmoil in Afghanistan, as Ghani and Abdullah remained deadlocked over who was elected president in last September’s presidential polls. They both declared themselves president in dueling inauguration ceremonies earlier this month.
If not expeditiously addressed, the tussle can snowball into a bigger crisis. This would further delay intra-Afghan talks at a time when the US withdrawal is already underway while the Taliban have resumed operations against government forces and vice versa.
THE global coronavirus crisis has understandably overshadowed the international endorsement earlier this month of the Doha agreement between the US and the Afghan Taliban. While Covid-19 will impose obvious limits on diplomatic efforts, Khalilzad has used it to press the urgency of resolving the prisoners dispute. Yet despite his prolonged stay in Kabul, he has been unable so far, to overcome the impasse on both the prisoners’ issue and parallel governments.
US cuts financial aid to Afghanistan
As a result of all the delay,US State Secretary Mike Pompeo on Monday announced a $1 billion cut in US aid to Afghanistan after he failed to convince Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his political foe to end a feud that has helped jeopardize a US-led peace effort. The United States also is prepared to cut 2021 assistance by the same amount and is conducting “a review of all of our programmes and projects to identify additional reductions, and reconsider our pledges to future donor conferences for Afghanistan,” Pompeo said in a statement.
Pompeo’s statement came as he flew home from a fruitless day-long effort in Kabul to end competing for claims to the presidency by Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah and win their agreement to form “an inclusive government.”
The harshly worded announcement at the end of the mission he undertook — despite the spreading global coronavirus pandemic — underscored how badly stalled the US-led effort to end America’s longest war and decades of strife in Afghanistan has become.
The U.S. and NATO have already begun to withdraw some troops from Afghanistan. The final pullout of U.S. forces is not dependent on the success of intra-Afghan negotiations but rather on promises made by the Taliban to deny space in Afghanistan to other terror groups, such as the insurgents’ rival Islamic State group.
What does that mean for Pakistan?
The Taliban formed in Pakistan in the 1990s following the Soviet Union’s departure from Afghanistan. Many of its original fighters were Pashtuns who studied in Pakistani madrassas. After the U.S. invasion, Pakistan granted the Taliban safe havens and its Inter-Services Intelligence, which was thought to have some degree of control over the Taliban for years, provided military expertise and fundraising assistance. Experts say Pakistan now desires an Afghan government that includes the Taliban and is friendlier toward Islamabad than it is to New Delhi. Officials in Islamabad have long feared Pakistani rival India gaining influence in Afghanistan.
Countries on Afghanistan’s borders, including Pakistan, which serves as the home base for the Taliban leadership, could feel excluded from talks and mobilize opposition against them. Additionally, the threat of terrorism is still present, with more than twenty terrorist groups operating inside the country, according to Afghan officials. Many of the groups are aligned with the Taliban or al-Qaeda, and the resurgence of the Islamic State is a concern. The United States pays billions every year toward the Afghan budget, including the country’s defense forces. But with no US funding to Afghanistan, the idea of a free Afghanistan seems endangered and so does Pakistan’s idea of a friendly Taliban-inclusive Afghan Government.
25 Mar 20/Wednesday Written By: Saima Ebrahim