The landmark Taliban-US peace agreement signed in Doha, Qatar on February 29, raised hopes like never before for the restoration of peace in Afghanistan, but not unexpectedly, its implementation is proving to be a challenge. Trump’s mission to exit Afghanistan is filled with impediments that arose as soon as progress was made toward implementing the decisions made at Doha after 18 months of exhaustive talks between Taliban and American negotiators.
Hurdles arise immediately
Under the terms of the agreement, the exchange of 6,000 prisoners and the start of the intra-Afghan dialogue were scheduled to happen on March 10. The timeline was rather ambitious as it was unrealistic to expect that the prisoners kept in scattered locations, would be identified and released in 10 days to pave the way for undertaking the intra-Afghan negotiations.
Though lately certain positive developments concerning the release of prisoners and the formation of a negotiating team by the Afghan government have taken place, there is still no broad consensus on these issues.
A breakthrough on the prisoners’ issue, which has consumed precious time and held up the start of the negotiations, was made on March 25 when the Afghan government and Taliban reached an understanding, during a video-conference, to start releasing those held by the two sides from March 31.
Qatar and the US facilitated the virtual meeting in which Doha-based Taliban representatives for the first time interacted with Afghan officials in Kabul. No face-to-face meeting has yet been planned due to the continued Taliban refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the Afghan government.
Other countries such as Pakistan, China, Russia and Qatar in their under-stated way have promoted the peace process due to their strong belief that only a political settlement would end the war
Due to coronavirus, when social distancing is being universally recommended and travel restrictions are in place, negotiations through video-conferencing could initially become the preferred way of communication between the Afghan government and the Taliban. It would also be a way out of the Taliban’s refusal to have face-to-face meetings with the Afghan government, which they continue to label as the ‘puppet’ of the US.
The Taliban had managed to keep Kabul out of its talks with the US by questioning its legitimacy and authority. However, the Afghan government will have a critical role in the intra-Afghan negotiations when issues concerning Afghanistan’s future are discussed, as it is internationally recognized and is the only legally elected entity despite its narrow support base.
Trump’s Mission: Exit Afghanistan interminably slow
The release of prisoners may take longer than anticipated and face hurdles along the way. The Afghan government made several demands, including reduction of violence and an undertaking by Taliban prisoners that they would not return to the battlefield, as it tried to use the issue as leverage.
Read more: Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan
Taliban rejected the conditions and have made it clear the intra-Afghan talks won’t take place until their prisoners are unconditionally released as committed by the US. Another hurdle that could delay the process concerns the identity of prisoners whose release has been sought.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)’s help has been enlisted to facilitate the prisoners’ exchange, while a three-member Taliban technical team has reached Kabul and is planning to go to Bagram – the large US airbase where the maximum-security prison is located – to identify the prisoners being freed.
The US is equally responsible for the delay in exchange of prisoners as it used different language in the Doha agreement – in which it committed that Taliban prisoners would be freed – and in the Kabul declaration it signed with President Ghani that says: “Afghan government will participate in US-facilitated talks with Taliban representatives on confidence-building measures, including determining the feasibility of releasing prisoners on both sides.”
Both documents were signed on February 29, one in Doha – where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was present – and the other in Kabul in presence of Secretary of Defence Mark Esper. The US was trying to reaffirm its support to the beleaguered Afghan government, which wasn’t part of the peace deal with the Taliban and was promised nothing in return for releasing the Taliban prisoners.
The other unresolved issue was the formation of an inclusive, national negotiating team by the Afghan government to represent the anti-Taliban forces in the intra-Afghan talks. When the Ghani administration on March 27 finally announced the 21-member team; including five women and some opposition figures and led by former intelligence head Masoom Stanakzai, the US welcomed it with Khalilzad describing it as inclusive.
Initially, certain Afghan opposition groups and the Taliban, in a rare similarity of views, rejected its composition by arguing that it doesn’t represent the whole spectrum of the Afghan society. Objections were also raised that the negotiators include many anti-Taliban hardliners who would block progress in the talks.
Gradually though, the most important opposition leader Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, followed by former National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar and Ata Mohammad Noor, who served as governor of Balkh province for 13 years, welcomed the formation of the negotiating team and offered their support.
Still, Abdullah, who took oath as president on the same day, March 9, as Ghani in a separate ceremony held nearby in Kabul, after refusing to accept defeat in the September 28 presidential election, advocated proper consultation on the issue. This and other issues are linked to the political tussle between Ghani and Abdullah.
Power tussles may affect Afghan outcome
Though Ghani enjoys legitimacy after being declared the winner by the country’s controversial election commission, Abdullah with support from powerful allies like the Uzbek warlord Abdul Rasheed Dostum and the Hazara Shia politicians Mohammad Mohaqqiq and Karim Khalili is capable of posing a challenge to Ghani’s rule.
The dangerous aspect of the confrontation is the ethnic divide as Ghani enjoys support among the Pashtuns, who form the majority in Afghanistan, while Abdullah mostly represents the non-Pashtuns, including Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras.
Though there is no threat of a civil war, as feared by some, if the dispute remains unresolved, the confrontation would further weaken the Afghan government and benefit the Taliban.
After failed mediation efforts by senior Afghan politicians, including former president Hamid Karzai, Pompeo made an unannounced visit to Kabul on March 23 to reinforce the conciliation attempt by Afghan-born American diplomat Khalilzad – in a bid to revive the peace process. When he didn’t succeed, it was time for the US to use the classic carrot-and-stick approach to push the Afghan power-brokers to reconcile.
Criticizing both Ghani and Abdullah for damaging Kabul-Washington relations, Pompeo slashed US assistance to Afghanistan by $1bn and warned of another cut of $1bn in 2021 and a review that could lead to further reductions. At the same time, he tempted the two by promising to restore aid in case they agreed to reconcile.
The reduction in US assistance would have consequences. As Abdullah pointed out, there can be no compensation for the cut in US aid. Though Ghani downplayed its impact, he should know as an economist that the US military and economic assistance has for years been the lifeline for his war-ravaged country.
He has had to give in due to US pressure on many occasions, the latest being his initial refusal to release Taliban prisoners. Perhaps the Taliban were better aware of the importance of American aid as they secured a commitment in the Doha agreement about continued US economic assistance for reconstruction.
Afghanistan’s reliance on US money
Afghanistan’s annual revenues are about $2.5bn while its public expenditures are $11bn, which means 75 percent of the expenses are paid in grants by international donors – particularly the US. The US alone provided $130bn to build infrastructure and reconstruction work since it invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 to avenge the 9/11 attacks.
The aid, however, didn’t bring any real change due to the lack of capacity to spend such huge amounts, high levels of corruption and the non-transparent practice of awarding contracts and hiring expensive international consultants. More than half the population is still living below the poverty line. A World Bank report warned that Afghanistan even after a peace settlement with the Taliban would require up to $7bn a year for several years to deliver basic services.
Trump bluntly stated recently that every country has to defend itself and the US after defending Afghanistan for 20 years cannot protect it for another 20 years. The Ghani-Abdullah tussle for power gave Trump an excuse to cut US aid sooner rather than later
The cut in US aid would affect both civilian assistance – which was $480 million in 2019 – and the security component at nearly $5bn a year. The security assistance is critical in paying and equipping the 300,000 strong Afghan security forces that have to sustain the government in power and prevent the Taliban from making battleground gains in case the peace process collapses.
Ghani said last year his armed forces could collapse in six months if the international security assistance dried up. President Donald Trump added to the uncertainty through his alarming statement that the Taliban could capture power once the US-led NATO forces complete the withdrawal from Afghanistan in the next 14 months under the terms of the Doha agreement.
The US and its NATO allies are seeking the formation of an inclusive, national government to be better able to negotiate with the Taliban. Neither Ghani nor Abdullah polled enough votes in an election – marred by irregularities and record low turnout – to be able to form a popular, broad-based government on their own.
A power-sharing mechanism remains a possibility, with Ghani getting the lion’s share, even though the disappointing experience of the five years when they shared power in the national unity government was a constant struggle for grabbing authority and making appointments. As if Afghanistan didn’t have enough problems already, the coronavirus has contributed to the uncertainty.
The cases reported until now aren’t high apparently due to a lack of awareness and testing services. The biggest worry concerns Afghan refugees returning from coronavirus-hit Iran as 64,000 have come home since the start of 2020. Many Afghans have reportedly died from the virus in Iran and others affected by it could cause an outbreak in Afghanistan.
Furthermore, the economic crises caused by COVID-19 could severely hamper the US capacity to continue assistance to other countries, including Afghanistan. It has been estimated that the US economy could contract by 25 percent and unemployment may reach 20 percent even though a massive relief package of $2 trillion has been announced by the Trump administration.
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Even before the coronavirus outbreak, the US had been gradually reducing its civilian assistance to Afghanistan. Trump bluntly stated recently that every country has to defend itself and the US after defending Afghanistan for 20 years cannot protect it for another 20 years. The Ghani-Abdullah tussle for power gave Trump an excuse to cut US aid sooner rather than later.
With Taliban continuing military operations against the Afghan forces – in rural areas to keep Kabul under pressure – while abiding by their commitment not to attack the departing US-led international forces and claiming the surrender of hundreds of soldiers, cops and militiamen; the need for initiating the intra-Afghan dialogue, as soon as possible, cannot be over-emphasized. A permanent ceasefire can only be secured once the Taliban engage in talks.
Getting the Taliban to drop its objection to the Afghan negotiating team would also require an effort. Possibly the US would ask Pakistan and Qatar to use their influence on the Taliban to get onboard. Though Khalilzad wants the intra-Afghan talks to be concluded in 100 days; this is quite ambitious like the previously missed timelines as the negotiations would be difficult and protracted.
The US would want the talks to successfully conclude before all foreign forces are gone in 14 months; but Ghani’s interests demand the process is delayed so that he could prolong his rule. Otherwise, he would have to make room for a new Islamic government as determined by the intra-Afghan dialogue under the Doha deal.
While the US has been a major party to the Afghan conflict for the last 19 years and was required to play a peacemaking role, other countries such as Pakistan, China, Russia and Qatar in their under-stated way have promoted the peace process due to their strong belief that only a political settlement would end the war.
Though Iran opposed the Doha agreement primarily due to its hostile relations with the US, it hasn’t made any move to torpedo the deal even though Pompeo, without any evidence, warned it not to become the spoiler. Among non-state actors, ISIS, Pakistani Taliban, Baloch separatists, etc have a vested interest to prolong the conflict as they could lose their sanctuaries in Afghanistan in case the peace process makes headway.
Pakistan is the permanent facilitator of the process – acknowledged by the US, derided by the ruling elite in Kabul and envied by India.
Pakistan helped remove bottlenecks in the Taliban-US peace talks earning gratitude from the US and Taliban. However, it should understandably keep a low profile during the intra-Afghan negotiations keeping in view its oft-stated position that the peace process has to be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.
India could be the biggest spoiler due to its strident opposition to Taliban and calibrated support for the Afghan government. It must be kept in check and stopped from using Afghanistan’s soil through support for Pakistani militants to destabilize Pakistan – if the Doha peace process is to succeed.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is Pakistan’s most prominent journalist when it comes to analyzing affairs of Afghanistan, KP and erstwhile FATA. Based in Peshawar, he has been working for print and electronic media for over forty years. He twice interviewed Osama bin Laden and was the only journalist to interview Taliban leader Mulla Mohammad Omar. He has worked as war correspondent for The News, BBC and other publications; was awarded “Tamgha-e-Imtiaz (Medal for Excellence) in 2005 and later Sitara—Imtiaz (2010) by President of Pakistan.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.