The new US Administration’s starting position bodes ill for the US-Taliban “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan,” concluded in Qatar’s capital Doha about a year ago. While not many are surprised that it has not ended the four decades plus long war so far, it is becoming increasingly questionable that it ever will. The major drawback of the agreement is that it was concluded between only two warring sides, the US and the Taliban was deliberate and pragmatic, to only include the parties that actually went to war with each other.
Totally dependent on the US militarily, economically, and politically the Afghan government has been left out of the purview with the result that it had no say in the conditions of the agreement but had to comply with certain of its stipulations such as releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners from jail. The published part of the Doha agreement does not bind the Taliban to stop fighting, observe a ceasefire or even reduce violence.
There had been an agreement on a period of a ‘reduction of violence’ before its signing and since then the US acknowledges that attacks against American and other foreign troops have mostly stopped, as have large-scale Taliban attacks on city centers. But Taliban attacks on the Afghan army and local militias have risen resulting in a spike of civilian casualties. The US has so far met its commitment to start removing troops and bases, though it seems that so far it has not fulfilled its pledge to review U.S. sanctions against the Taliban or encourage the UN Security Council to remove Taliban individuals from the UN sanctions list.
It would be surprising if the flaws in the deal were just diplomatic blunders. former President Donald Trump was more focused on selling a deal at home than on paving a real way for a peace process. In addition, they didn’t realize or care that after a troop withdrawal the Afghan government would hardly survive or be in a position to negotiate with the Taliban successfully.
The internal peace negotiations between the Taliban and the current Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani had to start under the agreement but its end or outcome was left open as far as the US was concerned. Those talks ended abruptly in January this year, only days after they had started and both sides had submitted their wish lists for points to be tackled during the talks. Certainly, the Taliban were stalling keeping in mind the May deadline for troops pull-out after which they would have a much easier ride to power. Ever since the Doha talks between the two Afghan sides are dormant and in need of revival.
While ending the war in Afghanistan under the main headline of his “America first” policy was a priority of the US government under Trump this seems to be different under Joe Biden. His first policy statement regarding Afghanistan was that his government would “review” last year’s agreement while musing that the pull-out deadline of 1 May for troops would not be possible to achieve for logistical reasons mainly. But even Trump’s administration didn’t mean that troop pull-out would mean to give up real American interest in Afghanistan and the region.
In November 2020 acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller actually alluded to these objectives in his announcement of the troop pullback. According to him, the pullback “does not equate change” to outstanding U.S. policies and objectives. Among those objectives admitted by the US are to disrupt China’s BRI initiative, secondly to potentially keep a check on Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile, which U.S. analysts see as the most unstable stockpile in the world. And third, US presence in Afghanistan could enable the CIA to launch operations in China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region to take advantage of ethnic tensions amongst Uyghurs in Xinjiang as an effective way to destabilize China. So in effect, the commitment for full withdrawal may have been subject to prevailing conditions from the beginning.
This is endangering the whole agreement of February 2020. The central point of interest from the Taliban point of view is the withdrawal of all foreigners – not only foreign troops but including all additional service providers, military contractors, advisers and so on. Consider the comment titled “How can intra-Afghan negotiations succeed” published on 22 March on the Taliban webpage, “We must stress that the most fundamental point for settlement is a commitment to the agreement that was signed between opposing parties a little over a year ago in Doha and supported and endorsed by prominent world powers including the United Nations. This agreement is vital because it serves as a framework and guiding principle towards a resolution and defines the responsibilities of each party — the implementation of which shall gradually lead this process to a final and true settlement.”
They reacted to President Biden’s caution, saying they would launch ‘jihad’ if the United States didn’t fulfill its commitment and prolonged the stay of foreign forces in Afghanistan beyond May 2021. “The valiant and Mujahid Afghan nation will be compelled to defend its religion and homeland and continue Jihad and armed struggle against foreign forces to liberate the country. All responsibility for the prolongation of war, death, and destruction will be on the shoulders of those who committed this violation,” that means that the “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” with regard to the US is almost dead and may have been dead from the beginning and the war will go into another round. That feature has come up in the recent meeting on the Afghanistan issue in Moscow where the Russian Special Envoy on Afghanistan Kabulov mentioned the termination of the agreement of 2020 as a distinct possibility.
Even if the firing stops, how will Afghanistan, without self-existing agriculture or any industry worth naming, likely economically survive? For me personally, this becomes adequately clear while supervising Eastwest Institute’s “Afghanistan Re-Connected Program” for nearly 5 years with Seminars in various world capitals including Brussels, Berlin, Islamabad, Wash DC, Abu Dhabi, etc half a dozen times or so.
The Afghan economy remains totally dependent on the US for cash infusion not only as not only for the budget but also for business transactions, and the poppy trade. Instead of the vast amount of money spent on war material Special Economic Zones are necessary. The proposed Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZs) became a non-starter, it was visionary but built too early during the civil war there was no chance for the process to play out. The same initiatives are necessary for FATA and Swat to a lesser extent even though for the past 5 years Swat has done very well due to a flood of domestic tourists. The facilities still need upgrading including Rest & Recreation (R & R) on the motorways.
However, what is required along the Pak-Afghan Border is a Border Trade Zone (BTZ) so that not only employment opportunities become available to the locals but new townships with modern amenities come into existence with their own economic potential. Unless you give jobs to the locals they will again turn to the gun, either working for the government whether in the Armed Forces, police or paramilitary or for smugglers of various kinds, drugs, arms, etc, organized crime, etc. Therefore for sustaining peace, force-fed meaningful and sustainable economic initiatives are very necessary.
There are two major efforts underway to rescue the situation. The recent meeting convened by Russia in Moscow brought in addition to representatives of the Taliban, the Afghan government and civil society representatives from the US, China and/or Pakistan to the negotiation table. Another meeting initiated by the US and planned for next month in Turkey will include India. If you want to sabotage the peace talks include India as a joker in the pack, they have a vested interest to keep the war going.
On the other hand, give credit to the ISI for their tremendous effort for Afghan peace it was only given knowledge and hands-on experience and despite the constant vilification by the RAW-controlled Afghan intelligence agencies. Why does the US want to bring India into the process, India really has no role, there not being a common border with Afghanistan. In fact the Doha peace process was only possible because India is not at the table. If the intention is to sabotage the gains made, the joker in the pack is India.
India has used first Russian and Afghan lives and Afghan collateral damage in the 80s and then American and Afghan lives along with Afghan collateral damage since 2001 till date. There are already strong differences of opinion visible regarding the formation of an interim government as well as the future political system of Afghanistan for another. The Taliban insist on an interim government and an Islamic political system while the Afghan government of President Ghani rejects it.
While the US, Russia and China have their own interests in the matter one should be careful to try to put pressure on a process that is supposed to be ‘Afghan-led and Afghan-owned; the experience with the Bonn conference in 2001 that tried to prescribe conditions to Afghans have rather not been helpful. And the threat of the US to delay their troop pull-out is a game-breaker looming large over the situation.
The writer is a defense and security analyst.