The wider consequences of the agreement between the US and Taliban remain ambiguous, writes Iqbal Dawari for South Asia Monitor
Long-deferred political efforts to put an end to the protracted war in Afghanistan gained new life in 2018. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the Taliban, and NATO forces observed mutual truce for three days over the Eid ul-Fitr holiday in June 2018. In an earnest statement, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said that his government was ready for “comprehensive peace and talks” and that he would be willing to discuss all Taliban concerns, including “the future role of international forces” in the country. President Ghani’s historic speech aimed to build on the extraordinary success of the truce’s first day, in which pictures of thousands of Taliban members, government troops, and civilians celebrating the Eid holiday together across the country flooded social media.
A remarkable shift in US policy on peace negotiations with the Taliban also formed new momentum after Washington came to the predictable conclusion that it must give up on a military solution and embrace negotiations with the Taliban. Having decided to accelerate peace talks, and speak directly with the Taliban during a new round of peace negotiations, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appointed veteran diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad as Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation in September 2018 aimed at eventually winding down America’s longest war. The US and the Taliban have since held several rounds of negotiations in Doha. Khalilzad’s stated position at the commencement of the talks was that there were four topics to discuss and that these topics were tied into a package. The principle was reflected in the phrase “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.
The four topics were:
• Withdrawal of US and other foreign troops from Afghanistan
• Anti-terrorism guarantees by the Taliban
• Inclusion of the Afghan government in the negotiations, and
• Permanent Afghanistan-wide ceasefire
The Taliban declined to talk directly to the Afghan government until an agreement on US forces withdrawal is secured, although Taliban leaders met with Afghan warlords and ex-government officials in nonofficial talks to marginalize the Afghan government. The US negotiating team, led by Khalilzad, and the Taliban team have reportedly made significant progress in nine rounds of negotiations. Khalilzad announced that Washington and the Taliban had reached an “agreement in principle” with regard to the withdrawal of American troops from the war in Afghanistan. In exchange, the Taliban would accept to enter immediate peace negotiations with the Afghan government and stop ISIS, al-Qaida, or any other terrorist organizations from operating out of their territory.
But just days prior to the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks which led to America’s protracted war in Afghanistan, President Donald Trump in September last year disclosed in a series of tweets that he had canceled a secret Sunday summit with Taliban and President Ghani at Camp David and he also stated that the peace negotiations between the US and the Taliban were “dead” after Taliban militants claimed responsibility for a car bombing that killed 12 people, including an American soldier in Kabul. The reason, he claimed, was that the Taliban insurgents had confessed to killing an American soldier in order “to build false leverage” in its peace talks with the US. In a statement to Al Jazeera, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said Washington would regret canceling negotiations led by high-level officials from both sides. "We had two approaches to put an end to the occupation in Afghanistan, one was jihad and fighting, the other was negotiations," Mujahid said. "If Trump wants to stop negotiations, we will take the first approach and they will soon regret it.”
The abrupt announcement of Trump left in doubt the future of the deal agreed in principle by Khalilzad for the withdrawal of thousands of American troops over the coming months. The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee subpoenaed Khalilzad, President Trump’s top negotiator for Afghanistan, demanding him testify before lawmakers about his talks with the insurgents. Congressman Eliot Engel accused the Trump administration of keeping Congress and the American people "in the dark" about the talks. President Ghani formerly had spoken of the risks of moving too quickly to reach an agreement with the Taliban and warned Trump’s administration not to marginalize his government in the negotiations. But Hamdullah Mohib, National Security Adviser to President Ghani, went a step further, blasting Khalilzad for selling out Afghanistan, betraying the trust of a strategic ally, and questioning the intentions of Trump's Afghan-born emissary.
Resumption of Talks
Following a three-month-long impasse of the US-Taliban negotiations, President Trump paid a surprise Thanksgiving visit to Afghanistan to meet with both US troops and Ghani on November 28, 2019. He told reporters that he had resumed peace talks with the Taliban and claimed they are eager to ink a deal, less than three months after he abruptly called off official talks. "The Taliban wants to make a deal and we’re meeting with them and we’re saying it has to be a cease-fire, and they didn’t want to do a cease-fire and now they want to do a cease-fire," Trump said during a meeting with Ghani at Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul. "We’re going to stay until such time as we have a deal, or we have total victory, and they want to make a deal very badly, "Trump asserted.
The statement came on an unexpected journey as the president sought to highlight a record of achievement while he campaigned for re-election. As a reaction to Trump’s statement, Taliban’s spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid welcomed Trump’s announcement and he said, “We are ready to recommence negotiations from the stage that had been stopped. However, it will take some time to formally commence the peace talks with the US.”
Khalilzad launched a new chapter of the Afghan peace process in October 2019 by meeting with Pakistani leadership, the Chinese, Russians, European, and NATO, and Mullah Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s top political leader in Qatar. Khalilzad resurrected peace negotiations with the Taliban on December 7, 2019 in Doha. The talks were held behind closed doors since both sides had agreed on confidentiality.
On February 29, 2020, the US and the Taliban signed a landmark agreement in Doha that could result in American troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan within 14 months. The US-Taliban comprehensive accord predetermined a series of commitments from both sides related to the US and coalition forces withdrawal mechanism from Afghanistan, counterterrorism, intra-Afghan negotiations and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire in Afghanistan. The Taliban also agreed not to assault American and coalition forces provided they were withdrawing their troops from the country, while in return 5,000 prisoners would be released from Afghanistan’s prisons. But despite the promise, the militant group has kept attacking Afghan forces, while claiming they will only conduct operations on rural bases.
It is correct that this landmark accord offered a golden opportunity to end one of the longest-running conflicts in the world if the intra-Afghan negotiations were to commence. But finalizing the end of an almost two-decade war is not like finishing the production of a television-show season.
The wider consequences of the agreement between the US and Taliban remain ambiguous. Plenty of Afghans believe that bringing the world’s superpower to the humbling point of withdrawal has been a great triumph for the Taliban, giving that there are no clear pledges in the agreement to secure the achievements made since 2001, including the Constitution, women’s rights, human rights, civil and political rights for all citizens, and the culture of tolerance.
Khalilzad became a biased party to the conflict with vivid interests and intentions. More precisely, he played the role of viceroy whereby he took over command from his superiors of the procedural homework and reframing the issues. It appeared that the US envoy neglected Western sacrifices and betrayed Afghans by dropping the “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” principle and have conceded two of the four original topics of the negotiations to future “intra-Afghan negotiations” including the all- comprehensive cease-fire.
Khalilzad also suggested that the “intra-Afghan negotiations should not be conducted by a team of the Afghan government alone" but by an “inclusive and efficient national team". This team would encompass government, warlords, civil society, and women’s emissaries. The shift in Khalilzad’s approach further marginalized and undermined the position of the internationally recognized Afghan government.
Engaging in bilateral talks was perhaps the only diplomatic approach to get around the Taliban on having direct negotiations with the Afghan government. But as a means to encourage the Taliban to hold actual peace talks, it seems to have faced a deadlock. In lieu of taking more time and inducing engagement on the full four-point package agreement, addressing the root causes of terrorism, and putting pressure on sponsors of the Taliban, especially Pakistan which is the main sponsor of terrorism and clearly uses proxy war as a foreign policy tool. Khalilzad has given into Taliban pressure and has conceded the crucial negotiations on Afghanistan’s future political system to intra-Afghan negotiations, which may or may not take place.
(The writer is a former NATO political advisor in Afghanistan. He is an MA in International Conflict and Security, University of Kent, Brussels School of International Studies. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)