A week-long “reduction in violence” entered into force Friday afternoon, Washington time, between the US and Afghanistan’s extremist Taliban group.
The truce is a test for Taliban leaders, whether they will be able to control their armed cells scattered all over the country that has been war-torn for decades.
Intensive and complicated talks between US and Taliban representatives have been ongoing since December 2018, announced Taliban Spokesperson Dhabih-Allah Mogahed.
The talks led in September 2019 to the agreement to pull 5,400 US soldiers and close five US military bases within 135 days. There are some 12,000-13,000 US troops and other NATO forces in Afghanistan.
If the week passes peacefully, the US and Taliban will sign a peace agreement 29 February after which they will exchange prisoners of war. There are 5,000 Taliban and 1,000 US prisoners of war, according to international media reports.
It is yet unclear whether the US agreed to withdraw all its troops or leave some forces in Afghanistan in exchange for security guarantees that Afghanistan will not become the source of attacks against the US and its interests.
The Taliban was founded in 1994 by students of religious sciences in Afghanistan following the Mujahideen War and the withdrawal of the Soviets from the country in 1989. The Taliban took over Kabul in 1996 supported by the Pashtuns, the Afghan majority.
During their rule, which lasted until the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban adopted a strict interpretation of Islam, opposing the rights of women and minorities, and using the proceeds of opium production to finance its survival in power.
The Taliban hosted the terrorist Al-Qaeda organisation and refused to hand over its leadership to the US after Washington accused Al-Qaeda elements of involvement in the events of 11 September 2001.
The Afghan group currently controls more areas than it did after its overthrow two decades ago. The BBC estimates that the militant movement is active in 70 per cent of the country.
Since the movement is primarily supported by the Pashtuns, it is active in the regions and territories in which they constitute a majority, while it lacks social support in the regions inhabited by Uzbeks, Tajiks and Shia Hazaras.
The Taliban has engaged in a continuing war against any foreign presence, be it the US or NATO members, for the past two decades. “America’s longest war”, as described by US President Donald Trump, resulted in the death of 3,500 troops from the international forces, including 2,300 US soldiers. A UN report issued in February 2019 estimated 32,000 Afghan civilians were killed during this war.
The Watson Institute at Brown University said 58,000 security forces, 42,000 opposition forces — including the Taliban — and more than 38,000 Afghan civilians were killed in the war. The institute added that more than 2,400 US soldiers and close to 4,000 contractors were killed, and 20,000 were injured.
A number of US observers believe Washington’s withdrawal from Afghanistan could replicate the way it pulled out from Vietnam, while others believe the Americans are running away from a war in where they couldn’t achieve “total victory” — the words used by Trump during his visit to Afghanistan in November 2019.
However, Trump wants to bring home the American soldiers stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq, which will grant him a win against his Democratic opponents in the presidential race slated for November.
Reaching a settlement with the Taliban will enhance Trump’s chances of renewing his term.
The move is not as easy as portrayed by Trump’s supporters. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan could facilitate the Taliban’s rise to the helm of power, which in turn would result in the eruption of a new civil war in the country, particularly because the ruling regime and those that benefit from it will not let go of their interests.
Complicating the matter even further are squabbles within the regime in Kabul in opposition to the results of the presidential elections in which President Ashraf Ghani won a second term.
The elections were held in September 2019 and the results were announced two months later, resulting in conflicts due to poor turnout and fragile security conditions amid Taliban attacks.
Ghani won more than 50 per cent of the vote against his opponent Abdullah Abdullah, the executive president of Afghanistan, who garnered 39 per cent.
The elections were held amid US-Taliban talks, rendering the winning president a party in the talks.
Ghani’s electoral win has made it more difficult for the government that rejected from the outset the talks.
Moreover, the Taliban’s return to power would draw the ire of India, China and Russia. These countries can’t tolerate political Islamic groups, wherever they are located.
Indo-Pakistani relations could be further strained by the link between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani political forces supporting their counterparts in Kashmir, divided between New Delhi and Islamabad.
A Taliban takeover of the country would be an “implicit defeat” for the US, which removed the Taliban from power two decades ago, before it recognised the group as a negotiating party and a group that controls Afghanistan on the ground.
For the Taliban to take over may open the door for division between Afghanistan’s ethnic, lingual and cultural groups.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly