After a week-long reduction in violence to test the Taliban’s ability to control their fighters on the ground in Afghanistan, the US and the Taliban signed their long-awaited peace agreement on February 29 in Qatar’s capital, Doha. The deal, officially titled the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan, was signed by the US envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-born American diplomat, and the Taliban’s political chief, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the group.
The agreement is expected to bring an end to nearly two decades of American and NATO military presence in Afghanistan in return for the Taliban cutting ties with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups threatening the security of US and allied troops. However, another key element of the deal is for the Taliban to formally sit down with what is referred to as the “Afghan sides” — not once mentioning the Afghan government — to hammer out a sustainable end to the conflict as a whole.
Is Afghanistan Ready to Negotiate With the Taliban?
In tandem with the signing ceremony in Doha, Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, spoke to his countrymen and women in the capital Kabul. In an apparent show of solidarity with the Afghan government, Ghani was flanked by the NATO chief, Jens Stoltenberg, and US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. The Afghan and US governments issued a joint declaration of commitment to future “positive relations, including economic cooperation for reconstruction.”
A similar, albeit vague and caveated line, is also contained within the US-Taliban agreement, which states that “The United States will seek economic cooperation for reconstruction with the new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government as determined by the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations.” The US has left enough wriggle room for itself about its future relationship with Afghanistan, whatever turn the country takes.
Within hours of the agreement being signed, the leader of the Taliban, Hibatullah Akhundzada, congratulated his men on their “great victory” and urged them to “strengthen and organize your ranks to achieve the establishment of an Islamic government” following the withdrawal of foreign troops. His representative in Doha had struck a somber tone earlier, calling on Afghans to come together for “Islamic values” — no doubt a point of great contention in future intra-Afghan talks.
The Taliban now have in writing — and signed — what they wanted from Washington. In fact, they have extracted much more than they bargained for.
Despite US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warning the Taliban against declaring victory and reminding them of how much Afghanistan and its people have changed since the first US soldier landed in the country almost two decades ago, the Taliban’s sense of victory is not out of place. Not only have US-led forces agreed to leave the country, but the Taliban has now also gained de facto international recognition and legitimacy in the process of negotiating their demands.
To mark their day, the Taliban delegation marched triumphantly through the streets of Doha, proudly waving white flags to the chants of “Long live the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan!” The Taliban can now partner with the US against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State Khorasan Province, as Mike Pompeo alluded to in his speech during the ceremony, an admission of failure by America’s diplomat-in-chief.
The sense of victory for the Taliban makes the intra-Afghan dialogue difficult because, having been granted de facto legitimacy, the group will not soften its position in the negotiations with non-Taliban sides like the official government. This increases the concerns about a negotiated settlement in the future.
The Pakistan Factor
The US lost the war against the Taliban because, in its nearly two decades of involvement in Afghanistan, it failed to pursue a coherent political or military strategy capable of winning the war, which required turning Pakistan into a truthful ally. The Bush administration managed to make the then-Pakistani military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, join in the war on terror within days of 9/11 attacks by cajoling him to give up on the Taliban despite his plea to facilitate talks between the US government and the group harboring al-Qaeda. In return for its cooperation, Pakistan was showered with military and economic aid, as well as being elevated to the status of Washington’s major non-NATO ally.
But Pakistan never fully came on board. It kept the Taliban as an indispensable policy instrument toward Afghanistan and helped it mount an insurgency that cost countless lives. Years of vigorous protestations from American officials, including Zalmay Khalilzad, and their Afghan counterparts did little to dissuade Islamabad. In the end, with the US failing to turn Pakistan, the latter succeeded in turning the former. Roles reversed: Pakistan managed to get the US to talk to the Taliban, and on its terms. What we saw unfold in Doha on Saturday was a victory made in Islamabad.
In order to have Pakistan’s cooperation in reaching a “peace deal” with the Taliban, the US ignored mentioning anything about the future of the Taliban’s sanctuaries in Pakistan in the agreement with the Taliban. This leaves the Taliban-Pakistan alignment as a critical factor that can undermine the process of the intra-Afghan talks. Thus, Pakistan will continue its support of the Taliban as its regional ally, making it difficult to put an end to the conflict once and for all.
Giving Pakistan a major role in negotiations without discussing its support for the Taliban brings back the specter of the 1988 Geneva Accords between Kabul and Islamabad that paved the way for the Soviet withdrawal and, subsequently, the collapse of the Afghan government. After the accords were signed, Pakistan continued its support for the mujahedeen to attack Kabul and overthrow the government of Mohammad Najibullah. This time again, the Taliban kept sanctuaries in Pakistan and signed an agreement with the US to leave the country without recognizing the Afghan government as part of the intra-Afghan talks.
Afghan Leadership Crisis
Having triumphed over the United States, the Taliban are ready to enter the intra-Afghan talks with confidence and purpose. The Afghan government, led by Ashraf Ghani and his partner, the Chief Executive of the National Unity Government Abdullah Abdullah, is mired in a political crisis over the result of the last presidential election, with Ghani declared as the winner by the country’s Independent Election Commission. The ongoing tussle for power in Kabul has left little bandwidth for much else, least of all preparations for talks.
Kabul-based leaders, and the political class as a whole, have failed to agree on a framework in order to face down the Taliban and defend what the country has gained since the group was last in power. The lack of direction and unity in Kabul casts a dark shadow over what the negotiations with the Taliban will hold for the future of the country. We are yet to hear what objectives the Afghan government and those with a stake in the upcoming talks will pursue.
The Taliban have kept a constructive ambiguity on issues relating to women’s rights, the rights of religious and ethnic minorities, freedom of the press and the future make-up of the Afghan state and its political system. This ambiguity is the main source of concern in the country because of the Taliban’s past human rights violation, their fanatical interpretation of Islamic law and their ethnocentric ambition for a monopoly of power. In addition, they are yet to accept the legitimacy of the Afghan government as the representative of the people of Afghanistan in the negotiations.
However, with the US set to leave Afghanistan in 14 months’ time, and the terms of the agreement being relatively easy for the Taliban to meet, Kabul will have no leverage unless it quickly forms a united front with a set of resolute, shared objectives. Kabul’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along attitude will not only jeopardize any existing chance of a political settlement for the country, but will feed into the Taliban’s over-confidence and make the feasibility of compromise from both sides difficult. United, armed and experienced, the Taliban will have very little incentive to soften their attitude or lower demands while seating across from an inept, self-centered and disunited group of Afghans.
This will heighten the risks of derailing the whole process and plunge the country into a new cycle of violence and bloodshed. The Taliban have resumed attacks on Afghan security forces, putting an end to the “reduction in violence” across the country against Afghan security forces and civilians. With tensions brewing between Kabul and Washington over the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners, it seems that the group wants to head into the intra-Afghan talks with guns blazing.
It is noteworthy that disunity among non-Taliban sides does not mean that the Taliban could easily take over the entire country by defeating Afghan security forces and other anti-Taliban groups. Rather, disagreement between everyone on everything makes peace difficult, especially when one side has sanctuaries in a neighboring country and uses it to enforce violence. The bloody civil war in the 1990s shows that any attempt to solve disagreements by force and by enforcement from a neighboring country only prolongs violence and involves more regional actors in the conflict.
Given a sense of Taliban victory, concerns arise that the group will not soften its position and will attempt to use violence during the negotiations as bargaining leverage to receive more concessions. If this happens, it will intensify the conflict that will now likely involve more regional actors and rivals, taking on a proxy-war dimension.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.