The end of February 2021 marked one year of the US-Taliban Peace Agreement signed in February 2020 in Doha. This was the most recent major attempt to bring an end to the two decades of protracted war and bloodshed that have plagued Afghanistan.
Culminating after 18 months of laborious negotiations, years of mistrust between the US and the Taliban and numerous challenges, the agreement included four essential components: a ceasefire; the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan; intra-Afghan talks; and counter-terrorism assurances from the Taliban (not to participate in or aid others in threatening the security of the US and its allies).
Despite hopes that the country would return towards normalcy through the agreement, very little has been achieved a year later as a negotiated settlement still seems a distant dream.
Since its signing, the agreement has come under constant criticism. Many have questioned its integrity and viability, as it overlooks critical aspects necessary for peace. But despite its shortcomings, the agreement must be acknowledged and appreciated for being signed at all; after all, considering the bloodshed and instability the country has suffered from since 2001, this is the best chance for peace and perhaps the only viable option the people of afghanistan will get.
The war in Afghanistan that affects many other countries in the region as well as the US is a protracted conflict that has continued to be a predicament for successive US governments. The new US administration headed by President Joe Biden has thus inherited a war that appears to have no end in sight.
While it remains to be seen what policy options will be adopted by the new administration on Afghanistan, Biden has announced a review of the Afghan peace process, indicating that counter-terrorism will be a priority and that the US is prepared to gauge different policy options. After all, concerns have been raised regarding the Taliban’s ties with Al-Qaeda and its refusal to reduce the violence.
Addressing these issues will only solve a small piece of the greater puzzle, however. A reduction in violence and intra-Afghan dialogue and its success, as well as prospects for a future political set-up through consensus, are all crucial facets that await the attention of the Biden administration.
The process so far has been slow and complex, and the principal stakeholders, i.e., the Kabul government and the Taliban, have been unwilling to reach a compromise. In fact, there have been a number of hurdles in the implementation of the agreement, and as a result progress has been slow on crucial aspects that are essential for peace.
One factor that has consistently cast a shadow over the deal is the rising level of violence on the Taliban’s part. While the Taliban have voiced support for a peaceful solution to end the conflict, there appears to be no visible reduction in violence on their part. Although the Taliban have reduced and to a large extent halted attacks against foreign forces, they continue to wage violence against the Afghan government.
The Taliban claim to have reduced violence by not announcing their spring offensive and not carrying out complex attacks or overrunning major cities or districts. But their refusal to halt the use of violence let alone to enter into a ceasefire is a major stumbling block. The group justifies violence as a means to liberate Afghanistan from foreign control. But they are not fighting a foreign enemy, but fellow Afghans of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).
According to a January 2021 report from the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), high levels of insurgent and extremist violence have continued in Afghanistan despite renewed calls from the US to reduce the violence. Hence, agreeing to a ceasefire is an immensely difficult pre-condition for a sustained process of peace.
The group needs to show their commitment by reducing and ultimately ending the use of violence. They should do this not as a sign of weakness or submission, but as a chance to further their cause through a non-violent platform and secure for themselves a legitimate place in the future polity of Afghanistan.
While the former Trump administration overlooked the rise in the violence, the new US administration may not be so casual in its approach. There are fears that the increasing violence will put strains on the agreement. While Washington has already voiced concerns about the rising levels of violence that continues to undermine efforts for peace, at the same time it has proposed a 90-day reduction in violence to prevent the Taliban’s spring offensive as well as push for a political settlement.
ONUS ON THE TALIBAN: There is no doubt that the onus of reducing the violence lies with the Taliban as do the counter-terrorism (CT) guarantees that have been fulfilled by the Taliban.
The group claims to have disassociated itself from terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and has termed recent allegations mere propaganda intended to create unwarranted fears. However, a 2020 UN report suggests otherwise, alleging that the Taliban have ties with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Daesh or IS) group, Al-Qaeda and associated individuals and groups.
In a recent statement, the Taliban’s military commission barred fighters from bringing foreign nationals into their ranks or giving them shelter, warning that violators of this command would face punitive action. Moreover, since the inception of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) in Afghanistan in 2014, the Taliban have not only resisted the ISKP but have been engaged in bloody fighting against the group.
This demonstrates the Taliban’s desire to disassociate itself from such groups. Their desire to do so stems from the realisation that any association with such groups will only harm their cause in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the Afghan state continues to be notoriously weak, and the current government is also creating hurdles in the way of peace. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has once again ruled out the prospect of an interim set-up, a notion that has largely been supported by the Taliban, Afghan political figures who took part in the Moscow talks of 2019, and the US, Pakistan and Russia.
While the Taliban have expressed a willingness to enter into a ceasefire and have voiced support for an interim government as well as a power-sharing deal with the Afghan government once foreign forces exit, their stance on political power continues to be shrouded in ambiguity. The group must move beyond the rhetoric and be open to a power-sharing arrangement that includes Kabul as an important and equal stakeholder in the Afghan political arena. This, after all is the best chance the group has for securing a legitimate place for themselves in the future of Afghanistan.
While the third round of intra-Afghan talks recently resumed in Doha, no significant breakthrough has been achieved. Therefore, major compromises need to be made on all sides. While the US is still reviewing its policy options in Afghanistan, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a recent letter to President Ghani urged all sides to do all they can to accelerate the peace talks and bring all the parties into compliance with their commitments, clearly indicating that both the Taliban as well as Kabul will have to accommodate each other and compromise on issues such as power-sharing and a future political set-up.
Here it is pivotal for the US to push for a credible and workable solution that is acceptable to all sides and one that benefits the Afghan people at large. For this to happen, Washington should not shy away from putting pressure on either side to deliver when necessary, be it the Taliban or Kabul, and in this case it appears the onus is on President Ghani’s government, as Washington expects Kabul to accelerate the peace process through consensus and without creating unnecessary hurdles.
The US also has to be clear on its position and clarify a timeframe for withdrawal. Issues such as whether, when and how the US forces need to depart Afghanistan are likely to be dilemmas for the new US government. Under the US-Taliban deal, the US had agreed to withdraw its remaining 2,500 troops from the country by 1 May 2021. However, in order to prevent instability and civil unrest and allow space for further engagement, this deadline is expected to be extended. But the nature of this extension remains unclear.
Whatever the US decides to do, the mistakes of the past should not be repeated. Hasty and haphazard policies must be avoided, and the focus should be on workable structures as well as a responsible withdrawal without showing undue haste. Withdrawal should only take place once there is some semblance of stability in the country.
Critical aspects that have largely been overlooked such as a mutually accepted constitutional framework as well as a future political structure that is acceptable to all should be key priorities for the Biden administration, since without which the chances of peace and stability in Afghanistan remain elusive to say the least.
While there has been much talk of an interim and inclusive set-up as well as a transitional government, little focus has been on its actual structure, composition and implementation. This now needs to be prioritised more than ever.
While the road to peace in this seemingly intractable conflict is long, complex and extremely fragile, the fact that all sides are engaging is an encouraging and a necessary step towards a stable Afghanistan. This is a historic opportunity for the Afghans to rewrite history, but for that to happen both the Afghan government and the Taliban will have to move beyond the rhetoric and find middle ground.
The writer is director of the Centre for Afghanistan, Middle East & Africa (CAMEA) at the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad (ISSI).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly