After two decades of U.S troops in Afghanistan, will the U.S -Taliban agreement usher in a new political narrative?
The lure of a historic agreement?
On 29 Feb 2020, President Donald Trump announced that the United States and Taliban had signed a potentially historic agreement, to bring an end to the 18-year U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan. The agreement was signed in Doha, by Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. Chief Negotiator and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Taliban Political Chief. The ceremony was witnessed by Mike Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State. The agreement included a 14-month timeline, during which U.S. troops could completely pull out of Afghanistan. As a goodwill gesture, the agreement also mentioned that the Afghan Government would release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, while the Taliban would release 1000 Afghan Security Force (ASF) personnel, held by them. Reportedly, the agreement also gave assurance that all remaining prisoners, held by the Afghan Government, would be released within the next three months. The next round of negotiations, this time directly between the Taliban and the Government of Afghanistan, was slated for 10 March 2020, at Oslo, Norway.
Analysis: Since 2013, when the Taliban opened an office in Doha, Qatar, the U.S.and Taliban have had over nine rounds of official negotiations. The Taliban refused to meet with the Government of Afghanistan, whom they do not recognize; forcing the United States to negotiate on behalf of the Afghan government. In Sep 2019, it was widely reported that a peace accord was likely; but, later, President Trump announced that the 'deal was dead'. The U.S.-Afghan negotiations have been described by President Trump as ‘long and hard’. There are estimated 15,000 Taliban prisoners, held by the Government of Afghanistan and a 1000 ASF prisoners held by the Taliban.
Assessment: The agreement carries an assurance that the Taliban will not allow Al-Qaeda, Daésh and foreign-based terrorist organizations, to operate from Afghan soil. However, it carries no recognition of the recently concluded national elections and the newly constituted Government of Afghanistan. Of equal concern, the agreement lays no conditions for preserving the rights of women and minorities, both of whom suffered grievously under the previous Taliban regime.
Does the agreement only promise a U.S. withdrawal?
Surprisingly, there were no representatives of the Afghan Government, either during the negotiations or during the signing ceremony. Almost immediately after the U.S. President’s announcement, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani declared from Kabul that the Government of Afghanistan and not the U.S. Government would decide about the release of prisoners. He also added that the release of prisoners could not be a pre-condition for talks with the Taliban.
President Ghani’s statement led to bitter disagreements between the government and Taliban negotiators. In order to pressurize the Afghan Government, the Taliban stepped up violence against the ASF. A series of attacks were carried out by the Taliban against ASF positions but avoiding U.S. troops. By 04 March 2020, the Taliban – ASF conflict had escalated, forcing the US to launch airstrikes against the Taliban.
Assessment: For the Government of Afghanistan, Taliban prisoners are important bargaining chips in the forthcoming negotiations. However, for the US having committed to the Taliban that 5000 prisoners would be released, prior to the intra-Afghan talks, the agreement was at risk of collapsing, even before the ink had dried!
On 11 March 2020, President Ashraf Ghani announced that he was prepared to release 1500 Taliban prisoners, prior to the commencement of intra-Afghan talks. In a written decree, the Government committed to releasing 100 prisoners a day, till the ceiling of 1500 prisoners was achieved. Thereafter, subject to progress in talks and reduction in violence, the balance 3000 prisoners could be released. The Taliban rejected the offer, and three days later, on 14 March 2020, the Government of Afghanistan announced that the release of Taliban prisoners, was also postponed.
In the meantime, US forces have commenced withdrawal from Afghanistan. The US spokesman said that US withdrawal was not dependent on successful negotiations, between Afghans on either side of the conflict.
Analysis: In the first phase of troop reduction, which has already commenced, the U.S. garrison will be scaled back from the current strength of 13,000 to 8,600. According to U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper, the first phase of withdrawal is expected to take about four months. Thereafter, General Scot Miller the Commander of U.S.Forces in Afghanistan, will pause the withdrawal and re-evaluate the situation.
Assessment: With U.S. Presidential elections scheduled for November 2020, a timely and orderly withdrawal of U.S. troops, would enable President Trump to fulfil his election promise, 'to bring the boys home'.
One Crown and Two Kings?
On 09 March 2020, Kabul witnessed a strange spectacle. President Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah, both held competing for inauguration ceremonies, at the same time and barely a block apart. Though Ashraf Ghani was declared elected by the Independent Election Commission, Abdullah has rejected the declaration, alleging widespread fraud and corruption. Ashraf Ghani has abolished the position of Chief Executive, held by Abdullah; while, Abdullah has declared that President Ghani is no longer President and that his decrees were no longer valid.
Abdullah is a Tajik-Pashtun politician, who has been Presidential contender three times. In 2009, he narrowly lost to Hamid Karzai. In 2014, he conceded to Ashraf Ghani, after months of deadlock over the disputed election and accepting the newly created position of Chief Executive, with prime ministerial powers. An ophthalmologist by profession, the doctor shares a close relationship with anti-Taliban groups of the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance.
Why is Shah Mohamed Qureshi smiling?
Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi was invited to Doha, to witness the signing of the U.S. – Taliban Peace Agreement, on 29 February 2020. On behalf of Pakistan, he expressed his happiness at this outcome and affirmed that dialogue was the only way forward to resolve the two-decade conflict.
Analysis: In Sep 2018, the US suspended US$ 300 million from the CSF (Coalition Support Fund), in aid to Pakistan. A US spokesman, speaking of the development said the aid was being withheld over what the US perceives as the failure of the Pakistan Government, to act against terrorists. Successive US Presidents have also accused Pakistan of collaborating with the Taliban and providing sanctuary to terrorist groups, including Haqqani Network and LeT, amongst others. Interestingly, in February 2010, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who represented the Taliban at the signing ceremony at Doha, was arrested in Karachi by a joint team of the CIA and the ISI. He was released in 2018, at the request of the US.
Assessment: Pakistan, having nurtured the Taliban, despite US pressure and now successfully mediating the US-Taliban agreement, has reason to celebrate the double-win. Pakistan will hope to secure its northern border, by having a Pakistan-friendly Taliban government, in Afghanistan.
Overall Assessment: There appears to be little prospect for genuine rapprochement between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. In the face of imminent US withdrawal, Ashraf Ghani is likely to seek primary collaboration with the Taliban; while, Abdullah will seek primary collaboration with the Tajiks. From the Taliban point of view, there is little respect for either Ashraf or Abdullah, who they view as American puppets. Taliban would hope to re-establish their government with Pakistan's help, post the US withdrawal. On the one hand, it appears the US is committed to withdrawal, as it would suit President Donald Trump's electoral fortunes. However, on the other hand, it appears unlikely that US national interests will be served, if a pro-Pakistan Taliban Government, is returned to power, as was existing in 2001. For the present, the survival of the elected Afghan Government appears to be at risk.