The framework agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban is a welcome sign, but the violence still rages
After two months of discussions in Qatar, the Afghan government and the Taliban announced on Twitter on 2 December that they had agreed upon a code of conduct for the peace talks aimed at ending the ongoing civil war that has plagued and ravaged Afghanistan for close to two decades. Although this agreement was only a preliminary one in the larger scheme of things, it was nevertheless the first written agreement between the two sides, and one that is expected to enable the negotiators to proceed to more substantive issues. Importantly, in a situation where Taliban attacks on Afghan government forces have continued unabated even as the talks lingered on in Doha, negotiations on a ceasefire that could stem the unnecessary and deplorable loss of lives could now begin in earnest. However, despite this agreement on the framework rules the road ahead is likely to continue to remain rocky and uncertain, and the Taliban is likely to predicate its negotiating strategy on the attitude and the signals that emanate from the new administration in Washington DC, especially those pertaining to the contours of the future engagement with Afghanistan.
The intra-Afghan peace process, which had commenced in mid-September after the controversial and dragged-out exchange of prisoners between the Afghan government and the Taliban had been completed, ran into road blocks almost as soon as they got underway. The issues of contention ranged from such elemental aspects as how the two sides would address each other given that neither recognized the other to more fundamental principles such as the kind of country Afghanistan was, and the future that it should aspire to. The school of Islamic jurisprudence that should be used for reference in case of disputes and the status of Afghanistan’s religious and ethnic minorities were among the other contentious questions. The three-page framework agreement for the talks that was announced by negotiators from both sides suggests that a broad agreement had been eventually hammered out. Some reports have suggested that the two sides had consciously kept some of the more contentious issues aside to be dealt with separately at a later stage.
Nader Nadery, a member of the Afghan government’s negotiating team, told Reuters on 3 December that “The procedure including its preamble of the negotiation has been finalized and from now on, the negotiation will begin on the agenda”. He later described the deal as a “significant step forward”, and added that the negotiating teams will now try to set an agenda for the talks. He said, “We are starting on that part on Saturday onwards. We are looking to create a balance between the sense of urgency and avoiding rushing through”. The Afghan President’s spokesman Sediq Sediqqi, quoting Ashraf Ghani, said that “(The agreement) is a step forward towards beginning the negotiations on the main issues, including a comprehensive ceasefire as the key demand of the Afghan people”. A Taliban spokesman also confirmed the agreement and said that “A joint working committee was tasked to prepare the draft topics for the agenda (of peace talks)”.
Perhaps for the first time since the peace parleys began between the US and the Taliban, there appears to be a sense of optimism creeping into the Afghan government towards the peace talks. Afghanistan’s National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib reflected this when he averred on 5 December that a successful peace process with the Taliban was achievable, which in turn would allow the government to focus its resources on countering the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its attacks on soft targets in Afghanistan. Mohib said, “It has been a long conflict, four decades – to end that conflict there are, of course, a lot of grievances that need to be addressed. Everyone’s tired. The demand of the Afghan people is to end this conflict, but there are a lot of differences. But I think in good spirit, we will be able to achieve peace”. He added, “One of the reasons we’re focused on this peace process with the Taliban is that if we were to achieve peace with the Taliban, our security forces will be able to divert their capabilities onto terrorist groups like Daesh (ISIS) and then we can contain them much easier”.
The United States (US), which had signed a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban in February, a follow-up of which the ongoing intra-Afghan talks are, also welcomed the preliminary agreement of 2 December. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo congratulated the two sides on their “perseverance and willingness to find common ground”, and added that the US would “work hard with all sides in pursuit of a serious reduction of violence and ceasefire”. US Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, a key player who continues to remain actively engaged in the peace process, described the intra-Afghan preliminary agreement as a “significant milestone”. He congratulated the two sides for the “three-page agreement codifying rules and procedures for their negotiations on a political roadmap and a comprehensive ceasefire”. He added, “This agreement demonstrates that the negotiating parties can agree on tough issues. The people of Afghanistan now expect rapid progress on a political roadmap and a ceasefire. We understand their desire and we support them”.
The stress on a ceasefire laid by all the Afghan and US officials quoted above is reflective of the considerable pressure exerted upon them by the surge of violence in Afghanistan in recent months, with the Taliban launching near daily attacks against government forces even as the negotiations were underway in Doha. A ceasefire remains the most urgent demand of Kabul, even after the Taliban refused one during the preliminary stages of the talks. The Taliban’s disinterest in a ceasefire stems from the clear recognition that it was their ability to cause bloodshed that had brought the US and the Afghan government to the negotiating table with them. The Taliban also appear to be more interested in playing for time rather than ending the war, which fits in well with their aim of ultimately taking over the entire country by force once the Afghan army can no longer count on the support of the US military. As Mohib put it, “The Taliban wanted to get the maximum advantage at the negotiating table and I think they perhaps were testing the Afghan security forces, maybe also on how far it will go before our allies come to our support… We still rely on US air power for a lot of the conflict and we need that to maintain our advantage over the Taliban until our own capabilities are built”.
President Donald Trump’s most recent decision to slash US troop presence in Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500 by mid-January 2021 would have further encouraged the Taliban to hold on to its anti-ceasefire position. It, therefore, came as no surprise that the Taliban on 18 November welcomed the Pentagon’s announcement that it would be pulling out 2,000 US troops from Afghanistan in January 2021. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP that “It is a good step and in the interest of the people of both countries. The sooner the foreign forces leave, the more the war will be prevented”.
Since Trump’s decision, a series of terrorist attacks have rocked Afghanistan, killing scores of people. Three Afghan law enforcement officers were killed and seven injured in a car bomb explosion targeting a police checkpoint in Kandahar province on 5 December. In Ghazni province, 31 soldiers were killed and 24 others wounded when a suicide bomber drove an explosive-laden vehicle into an army commando base on 29 November. Zabihullah Mujahid, when contacted by the media, did not confirm or deny responsibility. On the same day, another suicide car bomber targeted the convoy of a provincial council chief in Zabul province, killing at least three people and wounding 12 others, including children. Haji Ata Jan Haqbayan, the head of the provincial council of Zabul, fortunately survived the attack. Immediately after the US announcement of the latest troop withdrawal, the Afghan capital Kabul was attacked on 21 November with a barrage of rockets that targeted densely populated areas, including the heavily fortified Green Zone that houses embassies and international firms. At least eight people were killed and another 31 wounded. While the Taliban denied involvement, saying that they “do not blindly fire on public places”, Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Tariq Arian clearly blamed the Taliban for the attack, saying that the “terrorists” had fired a total of 23 rockets on Kabul. Arian had earlier informed that in the last six months alone, the Taliban had carried out 53 suicide attacks and 1,250 explosions across Afghanistan that left 1,210 civilians dead and over 2,500 wounded.
President Trump’s tearing hurry to get troops out of Afghanistan without any meaningful consultation with the allies that the US had ushered into Afghanistan in the post-2001 period has led to a fair degree of consternation, as has the ruthless violence that the Taliban continues to unleash on the Afghan people. The United Nations (UN) condemned the rocket attacks on Kabul and termed them “Deeply shocking and deplorable”. UN Secretary-General António Guterres expressed the hope that “The Afghanistan Peace Negotiations can swiftly achieve a de-escalation of the conflict and cessation of attacks in order to save lives”. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last week that “We have seen over the last months and weeks several attacks. Some are conducted by Taliban, some attacks ISIS claimed responsibility for. But what we know is that the Taliban is responsible for attacks and the level of violence is far too high”. The British mission in Kabul in a tweet last week underlined that “The biggest obstacle remaining is the current unacceptable level of violence: this must stop”.
The scale that the violence in Afghanistan has reached can be discerned from the fact that even Mike Pompeo felt the need to ask the Taliban to “stand back and indeed stand down”. He revealed that at a meeting with the negotiating teams in Doha on 21 November, he had “made clear to them that the violence levels can’t continue while these negotiations go on and it won’t work”. US Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison also said, “We do not think the Taliban is keeping its word under the agreement. The violence is too high, and the Afghan people and the Afghan soldiers have paid a heavy price”.
There is a fairly pronounced whiff of hypocrisy surrounding Pompeo’s expression of concern for the violence in Afghanistan at a time when his government is simultaneously overseeing the scurried withdrawal of its troops without putting in place adequate safeguards for the Afghan people against the rampant Taliban. It is not as though the US did not realize that it was leaving the Afghan government in a precarious position by granting the Taliban everything that it wanted just so that US troops could get out. That the Taliban would become rampant once US troops left would also not have been lost on the US government when it agreed to a May 2021 deadline for withdrawal with the Taliban. To make matters worse, a 8 December report by Susannah George, The Washington Post's Afghanistan and Pakistan bureau chief, titled ‘Behind the Taliban’s ties to al-Qaeda: A shared ideology and decades of battlefield support’ claimed that according to UN monitors, “As the Taliban and the United States were finalizing their February deal, Taliban leaders were in frequent communication with al-Qaeda, consulting with their counterparts on the terms of the agreement and assuring them that they would not be betrayed… The active coordination between the two groups has continued to this day, despite the Taliban’s commitment to sever ties as a condition of the peace deal, according to U.N. and Afghan officials and current and former Taliban members”. If this is, indeed, correct, it would totally negate the only real commitment from the Taliban that the US had managed to obtain in exchange for the several that it had conceded.
The apparent lack of concern of the Trump administration to what will happen in Afghanistan once it succeeds in pulling US troops out of the country is not shared by the US allies. Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned last week that NATO must guard against jeopardizing the Afghan peace talks by withdrawing troops from the country too early. He advised NATO to “ensure that we tie further troop reductions in Afghanistan to clear conditions”, something that the US was remiss in not doing. Maas further cautioned that “To safeguard what we have reached so far, we must not take any rash actions”, adding that “This is why we call on the alliance to have a very close look at how far the conditions for a further withdrawal have been met to avoid sending a wrong message regarding the peace process”. Jens Stoltenberg, meanwhile, told reporters that “We face a difficult dilemma. Whether to leave and risk that Afghanistan becomes once again a safe haven for international terrorists. Or stay, and risk a longer mission, with renewed violence. Whatever path we choose, it is important that we do so together, in a coordinated and deliberate way”.
In the words of Maas and Stoltenberg are two invaluable pieces of advice for Joe Biden for when he does take over as US President early next year – review the impractical and damaging timeline for withdrawal set by Trump and do it together with US allies in a coordinated and deliberate way, with the best interests of the people of Afghanistan at heart.