Is peace finally in sight for Afghanistan?
In a bid to end the two-decade protracted war, a definitive peace process is finally underway in the landlocked country of Afghanistan. Acknowledging the co-signing of a peace agreement between the Taliban and the US, there remains a considerable way to go in achieving lasting peace with the Taliban in a post-conflict Afghanistan. With Washington’s impending withdrawal, the question arises as to how the Afghan government will manifest a power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban.
The current administration in Kabul faces numerous challenges to its legitimacy that extend beyond the Taliban. Indeed, settling the score amongst competing political actors demonstrates a treacherous path forward. The future of Afghanistan hangs in the balance. What exactly will it take for peace to become a reality for the Afghani people, or are current peace efforts doomed to falter?
How will the US-Taliban deal create peace?
The US has a checkered history with the Taliban. Beginning in 2001, Washington invaded Afghanistan in pursuit of the international terrorist organisation, Al-Qaeda. The main insurgent group fighting against the Afghan government and coalition forces, known as the “students,” then granted sanctuary to Al-Qaeda and its now-deceased former leader Osama Bin Laden.
Following years of fighting, diplomatic and peace efforts intensified in 2018 between the Taliban and Washington. These efforts gave rise to the US-Taliban deal, officially signed on 29 February 2020 in Qatar's capital, Doha. Under the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan (also known as the “Withdrawal Accord”), Washington agreed to discontinue all US and coalition operations in Afghanistan within the following 14 months. In return, Taliban leaders have committed a reduction in armed violence and pledged not to cooperate with terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda. In addition, to encourage the key players to the Accord, a prisoner swap was incorporated as part of the deal. While these exchanges have helped to propel dialogue, the promises made by the Taliban to meet those goals have been vague and it has been difficult to ensure compliance.
As the Accord’s name suggests, the government of Afghanistan is not a party to it. Woefully, this constitutes a missing and crucial ingredient to long-term peace. Open dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban in a power-sharing arrangement is a necessity. Therefore, the intra-Afghan dialogue is fundamental as both sides must continue to coexist in a post-US exodus era. This will require the arrangement of a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire between the warring sides. However, there are no publicly available details on how such a roadmap will materialise.
Washington’s concerns: to leave or not to leave?
The war in Afghanistan has been a costly 19 year conflict for America, not just in lives lost but also in financial terms. The peace deal is more than a year in the making and its conclusion will bring an end to the longest war in US history. After nearly two decades, 2,400 soldiers killed and 20,000 wounded, and as much as $2 trillion spent, the US is understandably eager to extricate itself from the country. Furthermore, approximately 61,000 Afghan civilians have been killed and injured throughout the conflict.
Highlighting the fulfilment of his 2016 campaign promise to end the war, President Donald Trump has sought a speedy resolution to the conflict to claim its outcome as political capital in advance of the November 2020 election. Indeed, such a political victory would contrast against the achievements of the Obama administration, and present a significant talking point against his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden.
Regardless, Washington’s departure from the country may be of some benefit to the Afghan people. UK Journalist Mehdi Hasan has accused the Trump administration of neglecting the ordinary Afghan people, as demonstrated by the President’s rhetoric (i.e. about dropping the “mother of all bombs”) as well as cutting US aid to the country. Additionally, Trump’s pardoning of two U.S. army officers accused of committing war crimes in Afghanistan has been met with international condemnation. In summary, the Trump administration has failed to demonstrate a consistent policy in Afghanistan, aside from its desire to exit the conflict as soon as possible. The US has begun honouring its side of the Withdrawal Accord and is in the process of winding up its mission in the country.
In order to build confidence between the Taliban and the Afghan government, a prisoner swap was also made as a goodwill gesture between the two parties. Where the Taliban submitted a list of 5,000 prisoners whom they sought to be released from Afghan control, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani signed a decree for the release of only 1,500 prisoners. This deal is seen by President Ghani as a key move in securing direct talks with the Taliban.
This initial prisoner release is intended to build trust between both sides and catalyse direct talks to end the war. However, the slow pace of negotiations has at times been delayed due to the demands over the prisoner releases. In response to Kabul’s actions, the Taliban accused the government of acting in bad faith, saying it only planned to release "those prisoners who are elderly, very ill, or those whose sentences have expired.” However, from what little is publicly available, the Taliban have met only one of the seven conditions stipulated in its peace accord.
The remaining six conditions in the Withdrawal Accord demands, in various ways, that the Taliban sever all ties with militant organisations like Al-Qaeda which has long provided funds for the Taliban’s insurgency in Afghanistan. According to a May 2020 United Nations report, the Taliban met with Al-Qaeda repeatedly in 2019 and early 2020 to coordinate “operational planning, training and the provision by the Taliban of safe havens for Al-Qaeda members inside Afghanistan.” However, the enforcement mechanism and verification of these elements remain an issue. There is little to ensure that peace will be long-lasting given the lack of enforcement measures in the Accords – noting the absence of direct consequences should the Taliban violate their commitments.
The Taliban v. the Afghani government
The Taliban has been notoriously difficult to negotiate with for Washington. Taliban leaders have refused to place any limits on their military capabilities now or in the future, and have long refused to sit down with the Afghan government in Kabul - calling it an illegitimate "puppet regime.” A failure to recognize and cultivate the legitimacy of Afghanistan’s government presents a vital measure in peaceful coexistence between both sides – requiring the end to hostilities. This objective is complicated by the rampant corruption and bureaucratic incompetence within Afghanistan’s government. Indeed, Afghanistan has faced an internal struggle on two fronts - both against the Taliban and against its own government. In recent months, brewing political chaos has deepened divisions between President Ashraf Ghani and his political rival, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, over the results of the 2019 presidential election.
Where Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has also concerned himself with the issuing of Presidential decrees, demanding that all leased prisoners give "a written guarantee to not return to the battlefield,” there remains the fear that the Withdrawal Agreement serves only as an intermission between conflict. Consequently, following the signing of the Withdrawal Accords, it has been reported that the level of violence in Afghanistan has increased. US diplomat and former ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, has stated that “this [peace] deal is a surrender.” Should intra-Afghan talks bear fruit and a ceasefire materialise, this would certainly be welcomed by the Afghan people.
The achievement of peace in Afghanistan has been a long time coming, and the Withdrawal Accord represents the most significant achievement to end the conflict to date. Now, more than ever, the path forward requires ongoing international attention and support. It is hoped that a political arrangement between Kabul and the Taliban can be sorted out before the complete withdrawal of US troops. However, this process has been further complicated by additional Taliban requests for the withdrawal of all US military advisers from the country. Once the dust settles and American election has taken place in November, at least the American administration's commitment will be clarified moving forward.
Acknowledging the role of the US as one of the main actors in this conflict, it is essential that Washington provides continuing assistance to ensure Afghanistan’s long-term socio-economic development. At some point, negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban must be made concerning the fate of Afghanistan moving forward. The long-fought achievements of women’s empowerment, freedom of speech, and freedom of expression must not be compromised - forlornly, representing attainments paid for in American and Afghan blood.
Fortunately, in December, it will also soon be winter in Afghanistan, therefore there are higher chances of dialogue, making war less feasible. Irrespective of the current situation, the desire of the Afghan people to live in peace and harmony should not be underestimated, and the achievement of peace in Afghanistan must remain the focus of all parties. Despite decades of continuous conflict, the resilience and determination of the Afghan people continue to shine through. To this end, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has boldly declared that failure is “not an option.”
Faseeha Hashmi holds a Master of International Relations from the University of Melbourne, and has an interest in human security and international diplomacy.