Negotiating peace

March 1, 2020

The much-anticipated Taliban-US peace agreement could be the culmination of the talks that began in 2018 and continued despite occasional breakdowns

The one-week “reduction in violence” announced by the Taliban from February 22 created the right conditions for the signing of the Taliban-US peace agreement on February 29.

The ceasefire almost brought an end to the rampant violence in Afghanistan as there was no major violation of the understanding reached by the parties. As the last major hurdle in signing the agreement was overcome, the government of Qatar started sending out invitations to the stakeholders and major and regional powers and international organizations for attending the ceremony.

The US had made the signing of the deal conditional to (preferably) a ceasefire by the Taliban or a reduction in violence. The marked reduction in violence brought a sigh of relief to the long-suffering Afghans. The limited ceasefire was the longest in the more than 18 years of war that started in October 2011 when the US invaded Taliban-ruled Afghanistan to avenge the Al-Qaeda-sponsored 9/11 attacks. The only other time the Taliban declared a ceasefire was on occasion of the three-day Eidul Fitr festival in 2018.

One major reason for the US to insist on the “reduction of violence” condition was to see if the Taliban’s highest decision-making body, Rahbari Shura, and Qatar-based Taliban Political Commission holding peace negotiations had the power to enforce a ceasefire. The Afghan government, concerned about its fate in case of a US deal with the Taliban, initially demanded a permanent ceasefire before the intra-Afghan talks, but it stepped back and agreed to the ‘reduction in violence’ after persuasion by the US.

The much-anticipated peace agreement could be the culmination of the talks that began in 2018 and continued despite occasional breakdowns. President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision on September 8 last year to call off talks with the Taliban almost ended the peace process. The talks resumed after three months primarily due to the efforts of Pakistan, which hosted the first meeting between Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Envoy on Afghanistan Reconciliation, and Taliban deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Biradar, in Islamabad and helped break the impasse. The tiny Gulf state of Qatar, which has been hosting the talks, as usual played its part to move the peace process forward.

Both the Taliban and the US had to make compromises along the way. The Taliban had all along baulked at the idea of a ceasefire as the group knew its military prowess had forced the US to the negotiation table, and halting the conflict even for a limited period would deprive it of its strong bargaining position in the talks. Besides, the Taliban gradually warmed up to the idea of intra-Afghan talks as a way forward to decide Afghanistan’s future through an inclusive process.

Withdrawal of US-led forces in return for security guarantees by the Taliban to not use Afghan soil under their control for undertaking attacks against the US and others. The timetable for withdrawal of US forces, totalling 13,000, and its NATO allies, said to be 17,000, has reportedly been mentioned in the peace agreement.

Also, the Taliban through an article by deputy leader Sirajuddin Haqqani in The New York Times gave reassurances of peaceful co-existence with fellow Afghans and to build trust and even partnership with the US in future.

The US, too, made concessions when it accepted the Taliban demand to engage in direct peace talks while keeping the Afghan government out of the process. This had been an old Taliban demand as the group considered the US as the main party to the Afghan conflict and refused to recognise and talk to the Afghan government first led by President Hamid Karzai and then President Ashraf Ghani. The US predicament was not to be seen as abandoning the beleaguered Afghan government and at the same time securing a face-saving solution through a political settlement with the resurgent Taliban.

The US, despite its apparent disinterest, also had to do something to contain the political crisis that emerged in Afghanistan due to Dr Abdullah’s refusal to accept the result of the presidential election announced by Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission in Ashraf Ghani’s favour after a five-month delay on February 12. It finally issued a statement on February 26 to ask the new government led by Ashraf Ghani to be inclusive and reflect the aspirations of all Afghans.

This was a message to Ashraf Ghani that his government needs to broaden its base due to the low turnout in the polls and the insignificant number of votes polled by him. It could even lead to the formation of a national unity government as was done in 2014 when the US had to intervene after both Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah claimed victory in the presidential election.

The US in its statement also made it obvious that the concerns regarding the election process ought to be handled in accordance with constitutional and legal procedures. The US statement was also critical of Abdullah’s move to establish a parallel government as this was inconsistent with the constitution and rule of law. Terming the move as destabilizing, the US felt it could raise questions about Afghanistan’s sovereignty and unity. It wanted the country’s leaders to ensure that the political issues are handled in a calm manner free from the use or threat of violence.

The US keenness to make the peace process a success was reflected in its advice to the Afghan politicians to focus not on electoral politics, but on ending the war with Taliban through intra-Afghan negotiations. It advocated the need for the immediate establishment of an agreed national framework for peace representing Afghanistan to lead the negotiations. This clearly meant forming an inclusive national delegation and not just the Ashraf Ghani government for negotiating peace with the Taliban.

(Main) US and NATO forces have been in Afghanistan since 2001; (middle) US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad talks with a Taliban delegation; (above) US, Taliban and Qatar officials during a meeting for peace talks in Doha, Qatar.

To make this possible and to provide adequate time for resolving these issues, the US had asked President Ashraf Ghani to postpone the planned inauguration of his new five-year term on February 27. Abdullah too was planning his own inauguration ceremony after having already appointed some governors of provinces as he claimed he was the winner of the disputed presidential election held on September 28, 2019. By getting the inauguration postponed, the US has managed to buy time to be able to stay focused on signing its peace agreement with the Taliban and also ensuring that the political crisis facing the Afghan government is resolved.

The intra-Afghan dialogue is going to be most complicated and challenging part of the peace process. It is likely to start in March with the first meeting most probably taking place in Germany. The Taliban and the anti-Taliban forces, including the Afghan government, are poles apart on major issues and stepping back from stated positions to make compromises would need time and support from all stakeholders.

The main element of the Doha deal is the withdrawal of the US-led foreign forces in return for security guarantees by the Taliban not to allow the use of Afghan soil under their control for undertaking attacks against the US and other countries. The timetable for withdrawal of US forces, totalling 13,000, and its NATO allies, said to be 17,000, has reportedly been mentioned in the peace agreement.

Once the agreement is signed, confidence-building measures such as an exchange of prisoners will take place. An expected 5,000 Taliban prisoners would be freed in exchange for 1,000 men, mostly personnel of the Afghan security forces, presently in Taliban custody.

Negotiating peace: US-Taliban head towards peace on Feb 29