In mid-January, the Taliban agreed to take a step towards an agreement with the United States by reducing violence in Afghanistan as a condition for resuming talks with Washington. The United States began negotiations with the Taliban in October 2018, and then abruptly stopped them in December after a Taliban attack on the Bagram Airbase. U.S. President Donald Trump then offered his conditional approval to sign a peace deal with the Taliban if the Taliban abided by the ceasefire for at least seven days. On these assumptions, on 29 February, 18 months of negotiations ended in Doha, Qatar, with U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of Taliban, signing a peace agreement at the Sheraton Hotel.
The peace deal, formally known as 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”, has four parts.
Two mutual reassurances and guarantees between the parties permeate the entire agreement. First, the guarantee that Afghan soil will not be used by any group that threatens the security of the United States or its allies.
Then, the announcement of a roadmap for the withdrawal of all American and NATO forces from Afghanistan. Subsequently, there is a commitment to start negotiations between Taliban and the representatives of Afghanistan as early as 10 March, i.e. in less than two weeks.
A permanent ceasefire will be the basis for intra-Afghan negotiations, together with joint implementation mechanisms and mutual control of their respective commitments. And intra-Afghan talks will be the basis for high-level political agreements on the future of Afghanistan.
The United States has committed itself and its allies to a detailed roadmap over the next fourteen months.
There will be a reduction of U.S. forces down to 8,600 soldiers within 135 days (four-and-a-half months), together with a gradual reconfiguration of the coalition forces in the country, and the total withdrawal from five military bases.
The United States, its allies and the Coalition Forces will complete the withdrawal of all remaining forces from Afghanistan within the remaining nine-and-a-half months. There is also a commitment by the United States to work on confidence building measures in order to strengthen mutual trust between the parties. The U.S. has accepted a commitment to push the Afghan government to free about 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for a mere 1,000 state security forces held by the Taliban and its allies.
The United States will begin work on a comprehensive overhaul and rollback of the targeted sanctions against the Taliban, both those of the U.S. Treasury Department (OFAC) and those adopted by the United Nations Security Council.
Though the United States has committed to a definitive withdrawal—not only military forces, but contracts—it has in theory made this a conditions-based move, as explained by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper while on a recent visit to Kabul. The United States will initiate a “monitoring and verification process” to ensure that the Taliban is abiding by its commitments, and if it is not—if it does not reach a good faith political settlement with the Afghan government—there is no obligation for the United States to withdraw troops.
There are some problems here—not only that President Trump could overrule his diplomats and order a withdrawal, as happened in Syria, no matter what the Taliban do.
The Taliban Advantages
The Taliban continues not to formally recognize the Afghan government, which it considers a “puppet regime”. The Taliban has refused direct dialogue with government officials, and the U.S. agreement abets and legitimizes this intransigence. Furthermore, the Taliban has not repudiated Al-Qaeda, only (vaguely) committed themselves to not letting Afghan territory be used by those who could threaten the United States and its allies. If the will of the Taliban to break ties with the Qaedist groups is in doubt, its ability to do so is perhaps even more so.
The partnership between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda has always been considered a strategic necessity by both groups. The mutual loyalty is strong: Al-Qaeda has an oath of allegiance to the Taliban leader, and the Taliban sacrificed their regime rather than hand over Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after 9/11. The presence of such a strong spiritual links between the groups is added to with their battlefield comingling. Many Qaedist mujahideen are incorporated into the ranks and command structure of the Taliban, makes cutting relationships very difficult.
Furthermore, despite the formal promise by Taliban to reduce violence, the group is not monolithic; it is a sprawling network, with ultra-hardliner factions that are hostile to an agreement with the United States, who could influence the effectiveness of the ceasefire.
Many parts of the United States government are reassured by the fact that the Taliban considers the Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K) an enemy and has fought with it. This means the Taliban will prevent IS-K using the Afghanistan as a base for its activities, the thinking goes, making assumptions about will and capacity that are far from proven.
It is not clear what actually happens if a real cessation of violence does not take hold, or if U.S. interests, soldiers, or allies are attacked. As seen in 2019, any attack that results in an American victim could bring peace talks to a halt—or not, depending on the decision of the moment.
The US also has a Bilateral Security Agreement with Afghanistan, with a strong partnership on counterterrorism and a commitment to support and train the Afghan security forces. The agreement is valid until 2024, unless it is terminated by one of the parties with two years’ notice. It is unclear how the United States is now going to handle this accord, given that even immediate notice of plans to terminate would take the U.S. over the deadline it has agreed with the Taliban for a total withdrawal.
In conjunction with the agreement with the Taliban, there was a joint declaration between the United States and the Afghan government.
The “Joint Declaration between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America to bring peace to Afghanistan” contains four parts, which are:
- the guarantee that terrorist groups will not use the country to launch attacks against the United States and its allies;
- a timetable for the withdrawal of all US forces and the coalition from Afghanistan;
- a political agreement resulting from intra-Afghan talks;
- a permanent and global ceasefire.
In the joint declaration, the United States “re-affirms its commitments regarding support for the Afghan security forces in order to deter and respond to internal and external threats, consistent with its commitments under existing security agreements between the two governments. This commitment includes support to Afghan security forces to prevent Al-Qaeda, IS-K, and other international terrorist groups or individuals from using Afghan soil to threaten the United States and its allies.”
The statement notes that, following the agreement between the United States and the Taliban, the current level of U.S. and allied military force will no longer be necessary to achieve security objectives, yet Washington also reaffirms its commitment to training, equipping, and supporting the Afghan security forces, so they can act and operate independently to defend the country from internal and external threats. The size and composition of the special forces presence and intelligence apparatus in the country for counter-terrorism missions is still unclear and controversial, with Washington considering it necessary and the deal with the Taliban distinctly murky on the question, not mentioning it directly.
The Difficulty of the Political Process
There is an American commitment to help start an intra-Afghan dialogue—but with whom? President Ashraf Ghani was, eventually, announced the winner of the presidential elections, but his main opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, does not recognize the results of the vote. So, there is not even an agreement about the composition of the government side in negotiations—a weakness Taliban will certainly exploit in an intra-Afghan negotiation process that is already going to be an uphill struggle.
Taliban negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai said that from 1 March there will be no more war between the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” and the United States, but an overall agreement with the “Kabul administration” forces (the term used by the Taliban to refer to the Afghan government) is still needed. He added that there is no possibility of direct negotiation with Ghani’s government, because there is no government, the elections have not been transparent, and even if they were the turnout was so low it calls the legitimacy of the outcome into question.
Then the Taliban has conditioned the onset of negotiations on the Afghan state releasing the 5,000 Taliban prisoners, a demand President Ghani has indignantly rejected, reminding his American allies that decisions on prisoner-releases fall within the purview of the Afghan government, not the Americans. Ghani insists that this prisoner-release should be something the Taliban have to negotiate for, not something they receive as a precondition to engaging in negotiations.
The effectiveness of the enforcement mechanisms in the peace agreement between the U.S. and Taliban are clear, as are the difficulties inherent in the negotiation process that it envisions between the parties.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.