The US – Taliban Agreement: Vindication of terrorism and betrayal of the common Afghan
It had been argued in the EFSAS Commentary of 06-09-2019 titled ‘Strange negotiations in an incongruous environment do not portend well for peace in Afghanistan’ that the talks that the United States (US) was engaged in with the Taliban represented basically an acceptance of defeat by the US, its willingness to renege on the promises, both articulated and implied, made to the people of Afghanistan, and in its rush to get out of Afghanistan its sheer lack of interest in, or commitment to, the prospects of long-term peace in the country.
On 29 February, the US confirmed all of this when it finally and formally signed an agreement with the Taliban in Doha.
The “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a State and is known as the Taliban, and the United States of America” that was signed by the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, the chief US negotiator in the talks with the Taliban, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's political chief, outlined a series of commitments from the US and the Taliban related to troop levels, counterterrorism, and the intra-Afghan dialogue that were ostensibly aimed at bringing about “a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”.
The US – Taliban agreement essentially has four points: a 14-month timeline for withdrawal of all US and NATO troops from Afghanistan; a Taliban guarantee that Afghan soil will not be used as a launchpad that would threaten the security of the US and its allies; the launch of intra-Afghan negotiations by 10 March; and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire. The US also pledged to lift sanctions against the Taliban and work with the United Nations to lift its separate sanctions against the group. In the initial phase of the agreement’s operation, the US would reduce its forces in Afghanistan from about 13,000 to 8,600 within 135 days, with US allies also drawing down their forces proportionately. The US – Taliban deal stipulated that 5,000 Taliban prisoners and 1,000 Afghan security force prisoners would be exchanged by 10 March, when the talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government are due to start.
In essence, from the US perspective the agreement was nothing more than a dressed-up surrender and a face-saving exit for US forces from the longest war in US history. For the Taliban, it was a victorious achievement that fulfilled its most vital and immediate wish – the withdrawal of US and other foreign forces from Afghanistan. With this huge impediment out of the way, the Taliban firmly believes that the route for it to Kabul has been paved and smoothened. The confidence of the Taliban on this count was evident from Taliban chief Hibatullah Akhundzada’s statement of 29 February that “The Islamic Emirate believes in maintaining positive bilateral relations with the world and especially with the regional countries and is committed to the principle of good neighbourly relations with its neighbours”. The implication of the Taliban speaking of future ties with other countries before the prescribed intra-Afghan talks have even commenced was not lost on keen observers of the region.
The US – Taliban agreement legitimized the Taliban as the key player in Afghanistan and catapulted the outfit, that till recently was widely accepted to be a terrorist group, into one that had not only driven the mighty Americans out of their country but had also signed an agreement as an equal with the most powerful country in the world. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended the signing in Doha, as did representatives from Pakistan, Qatar, Turkey, India, Indonesia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
The mood in the Taliban camp following the signing of the agreement was upbeat, and their jubilation was palpable. Taliban fighters in Afghanistan celebrated the signing, hailing a “victory”, while in Doha, chief Taliban negotiator Abbas Stanikzai emphatically asserted that “There is no doubt we have won the war. … This (is) why they are signing a peace treaty”. At the Doha signing ceremony, Abdul Ghani Baradar said that he hoped that “with the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan the Afghan nation under an Islamic regime will take its relief and embark on a new prosperous life”. The Taliban released a statement soon after in which it called the deal a “termination of the foreign occupation”. It added, “The accord about the complete withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan and never intervening in its affairs in the future is undoubtedly a great achievement”.
President Donald Trump’s revelation on 29 February that he would be “meeting personally with Taliban leaders in the not too distant future” buoyed the Taliban spirits even further. CNN quoted Muhammad Suhail Shaheen, a member of the Taliban negotiation team, as saying that the Taliban had accepted Trump's invitation for talks in the US. He added that Trump had set the agenda for the meeting and “of course this will be shared with us through proper channel and we will have own opinion about that. And then it will take place”.
In Washington and Kabul, however, there was little celebration. A discernible sense of foreboding pervaded. In Doha, Pompeo told the media that while “This is a hopeful moment, but it's only the beginning. There's a great deal of hard work ahead on the diplomatic front”. He added that the US “will closely watch the Taliban's compliance with their commitments, and calibrate the pace of our withdrawal to their actions. This is how we will ensure that Afghanistan never again serves as a base for international terrorists”. Pompeo sought to temper expectations from the agreement by pointing out that “There will be a temptation to declare victory. Victory for Afghans will only be achieved when they can live in peace and prosper. Victory for the United States will only be achieved when Americans and our allies no longer have to fear a terrorist threat from Afghanistan”.
Trump, meanwhile, impervious to the considerable criticism that the agreement generated within the US, claimed that “Everybody wanted this to happen”, and that “If the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan live up to these commitments, we will have a powerful path forward to end the war in Afghanistan and bring our troops home”. He added that “We'll be very much hoping that they will be doing what they say they're going to be doing”. Trump’s insecurity about where precisely the agreement would lead to found reflection in his words. Claiming that US troops had been killing terrorists in Afghanistan “by the thousands”, Trump averred that it was now “time for someone else to do that work and it will be the Taliban and it could be surrounding countries”. His opinion on how the Taliban would treat the deal going forward was loaded with negativity and included a direct threat. He said, “I really believe the Taliban wants to do something to show we're not all wasting time. If bad things happen, we'll go back with a force like no-one's ever seen”. This certainly was not language that is normally used to project optimism regarding a freshly brokered deal that has been touted as highly advantageous.
The criticism of the agreement in the US was scathing. Rep. Liz Cheney said in a statement that “releasing thousands of Taliban fighters, lifting sanctions on international terrorists, and agreeing to withdraw all US forces in exchange for promises from the Taliban, with no disclosed mechanism to verify Taliban compliance, would be reminiscent of the worst aspects of the Obama Iran nuclear deal”. Rep. Cheney led a group of 21 other Republican lawmakers in expressing “serious concerns” about the agreement and sought assurances from Pompeo and Esper that “you will not place the security of the American people into the hands of the Taliban, and undermine our ally, the current government of Afghanistan”. James Dobbins, who served as Special Envoy for Afghanistan during the Bush and Obama administrations, felt that “All of the conditions in Afghanistan militate against a successful peace process”, while Daniel Feldman, who served in the State Department's office for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2009 to 2015, underlined that “The fact that we could fully withdraw before any sort of negotiated settlement is finalized - let alone implemented - between the Taliban and the Afghan government leaves us with virtually no leverage to help ensure that Afghanistan is on a sustainable and peaceful path, and particularly imperils the gains that women and civil society have made there”. Brett McGurk, the administration's former Special Representative to the coalition against the Islamic State, asserted that “The withdrawal provisions in this Afghanistan agreement seem far more comprehensive than advertised. It's a TOTAL withdrawal of ALL American and NATO forces within 14 months. That would likely produce a gradual collapse of the state, civil war, and the Taliban back in Kabul”.
Meanwhile, in Kabul, US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in a joint ceremony with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on 29 February concluded a separate “Joint Declaration between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan”. The intention behind this declaration was to demonstrate continuing US and NATO support for the constitutional government of Afghanistan, and to provide military and civilian assistance to achieve mutual security goals. The Afghan government had sought this reassurance because it is not a party to the US – Taliban agreement. This joint US declaration with the Afghan government also stipulated a parallel commitment from the Afghan government to fight terrorist groups that threaten the US. After the signing of the declaration, Esper cautioned, “This is a hopeful moment, but it is only the beginning. The road ahead will not be easy. Achieving lasting peace in Afghanistan will require patience and compromise among all parties”. President Ghani, on his part, said that Afghanistan was “looking forward to a full ceasefire”, and that his government was ready to negotiate with the Taliban.
An agreement that one party has been constrained to conclude with the sole purpose of getting out of a tight situation can never be favourable to that party. Whether the US acknowledges it or not, the plain fact is that the US has achieved little, if anything, in strategic terms by signing the deal with the Taliban. It has literally handed over all the cards to the Taliban and left its supposed ally, the Afghan government, in a highly unenviable position. The controversial and contested results of the last Presidential election have left the Afghan polity in disarray, with divisions running deep. Even a united political dispensation in Kabul would have quite a task keeping the empowered Taliban at bay. A highly polarized and divided political class stands little chance.
It is hardly surprising, given the advantageous position that the Taliban has negotiated itself into, and the US has succumbed to, that barely 3 days after the signing of the agreement it has started unraveling and is coming off at the seams. As early as the day after the signing of the agreement, President Ghani on 1 March rejected a major clause of it. He said, “The government of Afghanistan has made no commitment to free 5,000 Taliban prisoners” prior to the stipulated commencement of his government’s talks with the Taliban. He added, “It is not in the authority of the United States to decide, they are only a facilitator”. Ghani was right in asserting this as the relevant section of the joint declaration between the US and the Afghan government only stated that “To create the conditions for reaching a political settlement and achieving a permanent, sustainable ceasefire, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan will participate in a US-facilitated discussion with Taliban representatives on confidence-building measures, to include determining the feasibility of releasing significant numbers of prisoners on both sides”. Handing over the 5,000 prisoners to the Taliban even before the talks start would, in any case, be viewed as daft by Ghani as that would substantially reduce his already diminished leverage with the Taliban if and when the direct talks begin. If Ghani sticks to his guns and the US refrains from pressurizing him using its economic and other leverages, the US – Taliban agreement could fall apart on this issue alone.
Meanwhile, the Taliban had announced on 2 March that it was, after a weeklong ‘reduction in violence’, resuming normal military operations against Afghan forces but would hold back on attacks on foreign troops. An Afghan Ministry of Defence spokesman informed on 4 March that in the past 24 hours there had been clashes between the Taliban and Afghan security forces in 9 provinces, including Helmand. The US responded to this provocation by conducting an airstrike against Taliban fighters in Helmand province on 4 March. The future of the agreement in a milieu such as this so soon after the signing does not bode well.
Amidst the din of all these influential American and Afghan voices, a large section of common Afghans is by and large unheard, in disbelief, and apprehensive. This is especially true of the women, who had suffered immeasurably during the Taliban rule at the turn of the last century. The Afghans had not invited the US into their country, nor had they asked US troops to remain in the country for close to two decades. It was the US, on account of its own longing and drive to ensure accountability for the US lives lost in 9/11, and to safeguard its long-term security interests, that barged into Afghanistan and chose to remain there. A Taliban takeover, or at the very least dominance, of Afghanistan appears to be the most likely outcome if the US and allied troops depart from the country in the agreed upon 14 months. The people of Afghanistan, especially the youth and women, had by virtue of the US presence and influence grown up in a country where basic freedoms were available to them, despite the war that raged across the country. This was a major and welcome change from the dark days of the Taliban regime.
It would certainly have behooved the US to question its values, sense of responsibility and fairness towards the Afghans prior to tamely agreeing to all but hand over the country and its people to the mercy of the very same Taliban once again.