On-again, off-again

March 8, 2020

The Taliban-US agreement is still in place, but doubts are increasingly being highlighted — whether it can hold and is implementable in the face of rising violence in Afghanistan once again

Both the Taliban and the United States began expressing their commitment to implementing the landmark peace agreement signed by their representatives in Doha, Qatar on February 29 as soon as early hiccups threatened to derail the deal reached after 18 months of secret negotiations.

This was reassuring as uncertainty loomed within days of the signing of the accord, more so as violence returned after about 10 days of quiet and peace due to resumption of Taliban attacks against the Afghan government forces and the retaliatory airstrike by the US targetting Taliban fighters in Helmand province. The violence had registered a dramatic fall when Taliban agreed to ‘reduction in violence’ for a week leading to the signing of the peace agreement. Though the Taliban had offered the concession specifically to the US-led foreign forces, they extended it to the Afghan government as a goodwill gesture to ensure that the peace accord is inked at a time when there is no violence across Afghanistan. Even now, Taliban said the departing foreign forces would not be attacked as long the US and its NATO allies observe the ‘reduction in violence’ principle.

Neither the Taliban nor the US could possibly afford the collapse of the agreement as they would be blamed for concluding a deal that was already seen by some as largely unworkable. President Donald Trump, in particular, would have to face the flak as he was already facing criticism, including from sections of his Republican Party, for conceding ground to the Taliban and sidelining the Afghan government. The failure of the agreement would translate into Trump’s inability to bring his troops home as promised by him in the 2016 presidential election campaign. This could be politically damaging for him in an election year.

The agreement is still in place, but doubts are increasingly being highlighted whether it can hold and is implementable in the face of the rising violence in Afghanistan once again. The most uncomfortable stakeholder in the process is the beleaguered Afghan government, which was kept out of the Doha peace talks by the US due to Taliban opposition and is understandably upset.

President Ashraf Ghani is trying to play the few cards in his hand, including the fact that his government is holding around 11,000 Taliban prisoners. Under the Taliban-US agreement, 5,000 of the Taliban prisoners have to be released in exchange for the 1,000 Afghan government prisoners in Taliban’s custody by March 10 to pave the way for the start of an intra-Afghan dialogue on the same day to discuss a host of issues concerning Afghanistan’s future.

The Afghan president refused to release the Taliban prisoners as a pre-requisite to the intra-Afghan talks by arguing that this should be part of the dialogue’s agenda. He even put up his own conditions, ranging from a complete ceasefire by the Taliban to breaking ties with some countries including Pakistan as well as all militant groups, for making a success of the intra-Afghan talks.

The tussle between President Ghani and his rival Dr Abdullah over the outcome of the September 28, 2019 presidential election could also delay the dialogue between the Taliban and the anti-Taliban camp, which includes the Afghan government.

Meeting the first deadline in the agreement appears increasingly difficult as 10 days isn’t enough time to release all the prisoners and prepare for the intra-Afghan talks. However, the important thing is to start the process of prisoners’ exchange if completing it isn’t possible in the given time because such confidence-building measures are necessary to create goodwill and the right conditions for the forthcoming dialogue.

The tussle between President Ghani and his main electoral rival Dr Abdullah over the outcome of the September 28, 2019 presidential election could also delay the dialogue between the Taliban and the anti-Taliban camp, which includes the Afghan government. Though Ghani and Abdullah delayed their separate swearing-in ceremonies following a statement by the US until after the signing of the agreement with Taliban, they haven’t given up plans to do so now. If this happens as both have claimed victory in the controversial poll, Afghanistan would have two parallel administrations and the US wish for formation of an inclusive Afghan national negotiating team for talks with the Taliban won’t materialize.

Despite all these distractions, the focus hasn’t shifted from the core issues listed in the agreement. Trump has assigned his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to talk to President Ghani to remove the hurdles, including the prisoners’ swap, holding up the implementation of the peace deal.

After the agreement: A flare-up in deadly violence.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for Afghan Reconciliation, has reached Kabul to hold talks with Ghani and his political opponents, including Dr Abdullah, not only to help resolve their differences concerning the presidential vote, but also to clear the obstacles impeding intra-Afghan negotiations. He sent a loud and clear message to Ghani by declaring that the US was committed to facilitating the prisoners’ exchange and ensure the release of a significant number of inmates. However, Khalilzad’s appeal to all Afghans to rise to the occasion, put the country first and not to lose this historic opportunity for peace may not elicit the required response, particularly from the Afghan ruling class that has been competing for power, sometimes violently, all these years.

The hurdles being faced in implementing the agreement aren’t unexpected. It had taken the Taliban and the US 18 long months of on-again, off-again negotiations to make the deal and even then there were serious concerns if it could be timely and properly implemented. The two sides suffered from a deep mistrust of each other and this had forced them to make the agreement conditions-based and phase-wise to cope with instances of violations.

Calm has apparently been restored after Trump made a phone call to Taliban deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Biradar, who is the group’s chief negotiator and is based in Doha. His decision to assign Pompeo the task of talking to President Ghani could break the deadlock over the prisoners’ swap even though the Afghan government would want something in return that may not be acceptable to the Taliban.

The Taliban decision to hold the first-ever formal meeting with an Afghan government delegation in Qatar to discuss the prisoners’ exchange issue is also a breakthrough as they had until now refused to recognize and talk to Kabul. It is too early to say that this signals a change in Taliban policy, but the group would have to interact with the Afghan government as certain issues, including changes in constitution and the post-settlement government set-up cannot be resolved without involving Kabul.

Taliban-US agreement still in place, but doubts are increasingly being highlighted