A recently freed Taliban prisoner at Bagram prison, north of Kabul
It has been around two months since Washington and the Taliban signed the historic peace agreement that signalled the start of the withdrawal of US and allied forces’ troops from Afghanistan within 14 months. However, the recent breakdown in talks between the Taliban and Kabul over prisoner exchanges and de-escalation, and mounting mutual recriminations between the Taliban and Washington, threaten to fuel another re-escalation in violence and to derail the agreement unless tensions can be contained quickly. Given the current climate, the Taliban may seize the anniversary of the Spring Offensive to ratchet up military pressure on Kabul.
The Taliban has warned that the Doha Agreement it signed with the US on 29 February 2020 is on the verge of collapse due to US violations of the accord and Kabul’s delays in releasing Taliban prisoners. They accuse US forces of breaching the agreement by continuing to target civilians in drone strikes, cautioning that said violations create mistrust and would force them to retaliate which, in turn, could precipitate spiralling violence. The movement also insisted that they have not attacked international forces, in keeping with the agreement, and that they limited their attacks to government security forces in the countryside and have not targeted government forces in the cities, or military facilities.
A US military spokesman denied the accusations. US forces are committed and will remain committed to the articles of the agreement, he said. He called on the Taliban to cease the violence, stressing that US forces would continue to assist Afghan troops if they come under attack, in accordance with the agreement.
General Scott Miller, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, and Taliban leaders met in Doha on 11 April in order to resolve differences and give a fresh push to the fragile peace process. Nevertheless, the fact that the agreement did not stipulate that the Taliban must completely cease hostilities while simultaneously giving the US forces leeway to intervene militarily to support Kabul’s forces in the event of an attack creates a large and dangerous loophole that both sides could easily exploit while pointing the finger of blame at each other.
Under the Doha Agreement, the US committed to withdrawing its approximately 5,000 troops from five US bases in Afghanistan within 135 days in exchange for the Taliban’s pledge to guarantee that the country will not serve as a shelter or operational base for extremist groups bent on targeting the US or its allies. The Taliban also committed to reduce violence, enter into prisoner exchange negotiations with the government and work to reach a comprehensive settlement that will end the conflict and achieve peace. The agreement also states that the withdrawal of the remaining approximately 8,000 US troops is contingent on the ceasefire holding and on the progress of negotiations between the government and the Taliban.
However, the talks between the government and the Taliban, which controls 40 to 70 per cent of the country and has a force of 20,000 to 40,000 militants, ground to a halt over the number and rank of the prisoners to be released. At the same time, tensions have surged again. After the week-long truce that preceded the Doha Agreement, Taliban militants resumed attacks against government forces, compelling the latter to retaliate. The retaliatory operations were backed by US forces.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani maintains that he is not under any obligation to release the 5,000 prisoners that the Taliban have asked for. Kabul has also expressed its concern that if it released the 15 senior commanders that the Taliban asked for, they would return to combat. On the other hand, the government stated that it was prepared to release an initial 400 lower ranking militants as a gesture of good faith and it went ahead and released 300 of them. Following the meeting between General Miller and Taliban commanders, the Taliban reciprocated the gesture, releasing 20 out of approximately 1,000 government POWs. However, they have not returned to the negotiating table. Negotiations, which were supposed to start 10 March, have been repeatedly postponed. When, at last, a videoconference was convened, the Taliban quickly withdrew, describing the meeting as futile.
Even though the situation, whether between the government and the Taliban, between the Taliban and the Islamic State (IS) group, and even within government itself, does not bode well, nothing is likely to halt the US and coalition troop withdrawal during the stipulated 14-month period. US President Trump is calling the shots on this and he is adamant on bringing most US troops home in time for the upcoming US presidential elections. On 3 March, Trump personally phoned the senior Taliban negotiator to congratulate him on the Doha deal and urge him to remain committed to it. This month, Washington announced plans to slash $1 billion in US aid to Afghan security and has threatened to cut another billion as a means to pressure the Afghan president into being more flexible with the Taliban in order to reach a peace agreement that will facilitate a complete US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The US lost around 2,300 troops in the nearly 20-year-long war against the Taliban. Trump also noted that the US has been spending $50 billion a year on Afghanistan. He would have also been conscious of the wishes of the US’s coalition partners who have sustained more than 1,300 dead and many more times that number of wounded, and also lost untold sums of money in that war.
Even if the Taliban and President Ghani reach a power-sharing agreement that halts the war, other conflicts could erupt. For example, the Taliban could find itself at butting horns with one of the many other political/tribal factions, or with IS whose influence in Afghanistan has increased since the collapse of its caliphate in Syria and Iraq. The group has staged many terrorist attacks since the Doha Agreement. Its Khorisan affiliate claimed responsibility for the attack against the presidential palace during Ghani’s oath taking ceremony 9 March. In early April, it fired five missiles at a US air base. Russia has warned that the situation will deteriorate severely in Afghanistan, in which at least 20 terrorist organisations are active.
Finally, tensions between the Ghani camp and that of his rival in the presidential elections in September 2019, Abdullah Abdullah, could also be potentially explosive. Ghani won the polls with 50.64 per cent of the vote compared to 39.52 per cent in favour of Abdullah, who claimed massive fraud. Tensions between the two sides, which has weakened the government’s negotiating position with the Taliban, could escalate into a violent power struggle. Abdullah held a parallel swearing in ceremony on the day that Ghani took his oath in Kabul. He is not facing Ghani alone. A number of hardline military leaders who had fought the coalition against the Taliban and in the civil war in the 1990s took part in Abdullah’s parallel ceremony.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly