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Afghan peace process: What next?

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As Joe Biden takes charge as the President of the United States, the attention of many observers of South and Central Asia is focused on what will his rule mean for peace and stability in the country witnessing bloodshed and destruction for past over 4 decades – Afghanistan.
The hopes have been very high since the US special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban deputy leader Mullah Abdullah Ghani Baradar inked the deal of peace in an opulent hall at a hotel in Doha, Qatar, on February 29, 2020. The agreement called for the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan within fourteen months, and was seen as a turning point in America’s longest war in history.
As we all know, there are two main equations to ensure lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan: one, the settlement between the US and Taliban; and two, a broad-based dialogue and understanding between various Afghan segments – primarily between Taliban and the rulers in Kabul but also involving others – known as intra-Afghan peace process. Both have moved, since the Doha deal of February 2020, but both have fell short of giving us any clear picture of the days to come.
The strategic importance of Afghanistan has always been an important consideration of world powers. The landlocked country at the crossroad of Central and South Asia for long served as the buffer state between the British and Czarist Empires. Many external forces tried to conquer the land but failed, to establish a foothold. In past, Britain’s desired to dominate the frontiers of the Indian Empire which led to three wars without realization of the British objectives as desired.
For the Americans, it is the ‘revenge’ for 9/11 attacks and that continued for next 19 years. The USA declared its war in October 2001 (after the 9/11 attacks, considered the most brazen, shocking and deadliest attacks on US soil in history), in which US sought to remove Taliban from power as they were hosting Al-Qaeda, the main suspects. The then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced the anti-terror campaign as ‘Operation Enduring Freedom.’
More than 12,000 daisy cutter bombs were dropped on Afghanistan in just few weeks after the announcement of Rumsfeld. Fighting operation on ground was conducted by the Afghan Northern Alliance forces with the CIA support. But America did not know that it would take many years without achieving a fruitful result. After a long tiring and expensive military campaign in Afghanistan, US government reached a not-so-pleasant understanding that they are into a conflict which cannot be won and accepted that in the intervening about two decades, America has suffered a lot in terms of military causalities and tens of billions of dollars lost.
It was in this backdrop that the four-page ‘Agreement for Bringing Peace in Afghanistan’, which followed a year of stop-and-start negotiations, came up.
The commitment of US in this deal to withdraw all military forces and other non-diplomatic personnel from Afghanistan within 14 months from the signature date of the agreement. And on the part of Taliban, in exchange, to prevent Al-Qaeda or any other group from using Afghan soil to threaten the security of US and its allies and most importantly, would engage in ‘intra-Afghan negotiations.’
The agreement promised the release of up to 5000 Taliban prisoners & around 1000 prisoners of the other side (Afghan soldiers in Taliban custody) prior to start the intra-Afghan negotiations, as a good gesture. The same agreement included that US will reduce its number of troops to 8600, within 135 days and coalition force will reduce proportionately in the same period of time, and all that will be from five military bases under the control of US and coalition forces. While the complete withdrawal of remaining forces will be done within the subsequent nine and a half months. It did indicate the obligation of Taliban, to not allow any of its member or any other group including al-Qaeda to use the Afghan soil for terrorist activities, and not to host such groups and prevent them from fundraising and training. In concession to the Taliban, the removal the UN sanctions (by May 20, 2020) and US sanctions (by Aug20, 2020) were the part of the arrangement.
Despite the fact that both sides agreed to find a political solution, Afghan government has been reluctant and trying to regain the upper hand in the peace process but it lost the narrative. Earlier, the US started negotiation directly with Taliban without Afghan government taken on board, and feeling of being sidelined was there. Afghan government, initially, rejected the US & Taliban call for prisoner swap by March 10, 2020. President Ghani in his statement said that this deal needs further negotiations and cannot be implemented as a precondition for future peace negotiations but later on agreed to trade 1500 Taliban prisoners on the condition that Taliban would sign pledge to not return to combat. However, Taliban rejected Ghani’s proposal of prisoner exchange and officially withdrew from this deal. Additionally, Taliban refused to continue negotiations with Afghan government, calling them illegitimate entity and Afghan government is a puppet of the US.
The problem in intra-Afghan negotiations is the uncertainty of power sharing shaped with such mistrust as all parties involved want to attain major share in the government. And it’s not only between Taliban and Ghani gov but several other important political factions such as Hizb-e Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, warlords such as Dostum, and civil society organizations particularly those run by women leaders are important players.
Moreover, regional players have also been working on their parts to make the intra-Afghan talks successful, or otherwise, based on their respective interests. Pakistan, in recent months have hosted back-to-back delegations of official High Peace Council as well as Taliban, and other players such as Hekmatyar, and Khalili. Pakistan maintains that peace in Afghanistan is in the best interest of Pakistan, and Pakistan supports any settlement reached between Afghans. But at the same time, Pakistan continues to caution that regional players such as India are spoiling the peace process.
The government of Afghanistan have never been strong enough and Afghan national forces are also not resilient enough to secure their people and country from transnational actors such as ISIS. On the other hand, when one notices the instability in the halls of Afghan establishment, it is visible that the clashes within the Afghan government at the top level have been there. (For instance, President Ashraf Ghani was sworn-in in 2020 for second term in Kabul as a Premier, but his rival Abdullah Abdullah refused to recognize the inauguration and held his own swearing-in ceremony as a President instead, before another power sharing arrangement was censured by US and Abdullah this time became head of official negotiating team.)
Now, in early December, Taliban and Ghani government in Kabul have also signed a Code of Conduct for intra-Afghan talks. However, achieving a peace agreement will not be easy, it is well-established. The intra-Afghan talks have so far not seriously addressed the various issues regarding political power sharing arrangement, Afghan constitution, women rights, prisoner returns and future elections.
Now, with the inauguration of Joe Biden as new US president new questions arise. What will be Joe Biden’s approach to the peace agreement signed by Trump administration with Taliban? Whether America will go for withdrawal as agreed in the deal, and if not, what will be Taliban’s response to any signs – if such is the case – of backtracking by the new US administration? Taliban, indications are clear, would not accept anything a complete withdrawal. Biden’s track record tells us that he was not in favor of Obama’s ‘surge’ and instead advocated a ‘Counter-Terrorism Plus approach.’
Ghani government will also be waiting anxiously as to what unfolds under the new US president. However, all the sides involved will have to keep in mind that war and violence – no matter how strong and determined one side is – does not bring any results are settlements. It only leads to destruction, instability and losses on all sides involved. Afghanistan and its people have suffered immensely and should not be subjected to any more violence and destruction. They must be allowed to live their lives peacefully and with due social, economic rights. That can be brought about only by negotiations keeping in view the interests and rights of all the segments involved.