The future of peace in Afghanistan

Daily: Future Directions International
Date: 24.02.21

Background

At a news conference on 15 February 2021, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg
asked the Taliban to reduce violence in Afghanistan, saying that the withdrawal of allied
troops would be contingent on the situation on the ground. He added that the allies’
common goal was to keep Afghanistan from serving as a haven from which terrorists could
launch attacks on foreign lands. He noted, further, that no ally country wanted to stay in
Afghanistan longer than was necessary.

Comment

On 5 January 2021, in Doha, under the auspices of the US, the second round of the
dialogue began between the Taliban and the Kabul regime took place. The negotiations
collapsed soon, however, because US President Joseph Biden wanted to review the US-
Taliban Doha Accord, which was signed on 29 February on the understanding that the
Taliban would fulfil their commitments, such as observing a cease-fire with the Afghan
forces and engaging in meaningful negotiations with the government in Kabul.

Stoltenberg’s concerns are shared by many others. On 22 December 2020, acting US
Secretary of Defence Christopher Miller visited Kabul and assured President Ashraf Ghani
of Washington’s commitment to bring peace to Afghanistan. According to the Doha Accord,
the US had to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by 1 May 2021. Thus, on 15 January
2021, the US reduced the number of its troops to 2,500. Hours later, a group of the Taliban
killed more than a dozen members of the Afghan security forces in Herat province. The
Taliban High Command’s excuse for the attack was that their field commanders did not
always heed their instructions.

Since 2008, US presidents have faced domestic pressure to withdraw US troops and end
their 19 year-long military presence in Afghanistan. Various presidents made electoral
promises to do so but changed their view when faced with ground realities. On 20 January,
President Biden inherited the war. The US cannot withdraw its troops without ensuring the
smooth running of the Afghan government under the Afghan Constitution. Kabul’s major
goal is to negate the attacks launched by the Taliban. Accordingly, the US administration’s
decision to withdraw its troops causes anxiety in Kabul.

The Doha Accord was conditional: the Taliban had to scale down violence to effect a
ceasefire and settle their political power-sharing differences with the Kabul regime, failing
which the US forces would remain in Afghanistan. The NATO forces would follow suit.

The ceasefire observed by the Taliban is selective: it spares foreign forces but attacks
Afghan forces. In December 2020, Commander of US-NATO forces, General Scott Miller,
informed the visiting US Secretary of Defence that the Taliban continued to attack Afghan
security forces instead of maintaining a truce. On 28 December, the head of the National
Directorate of Security, Ahmad Zia Siraj, also informed the Afghan Senate that in the past
nine months, the Taliban and other militant organisations had launched 18,200 attacks. Of
those, the attacks also targeted civilians, who were subjected to bomb blasts and targeted
killings in 99 per cent of the attacks. The prime targets were those who publicly espoused
freedom of speech and expression, including writers, human rights activists and journalists,
supporters of a democratic and constitutional Afghanistan, and electronic media channels
that embraced pro-Western views and lifestyles, including ideas that were at odds with the
Taliban’s. The Taliban imposed their conservative views on TV channels through proxy
groups. Despite that, led by Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s High
Council for National Reconciliation showed its willingness to enter into negotiations with the
Taliban, who had a political office in Doha, Qatar.

In principle, the Taliban should have valued the Doha Accord. The peace process
surrounding the intra-Afghan dialogue had progressed, especially after the prisoner swap
to the satisfaction of the Taliban in mid-2020, even though releasing the Taliban prisoners
was an imprudent step. On 12 September 2020, the first round of intra-Afghan dialogue
began and continued for around two-and-a-half months in Doha. The first round had failed,
as the negotiations foundered on certain issues. First, the Taliban wanted to replace the
existing title of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Second, the Taliban sought to interpret Islamic jurisprudence in accordance with their
conservative beliefs. Third, the Taliban were ready to grant rights to women as per Islamic
law (again, in accordance with their own interpretation of those laws), but refused to give
women modern rights. Fourth, the Taliban wanted to establish the Shura system to elect
and run the government, while discarding general elections. Fifth, the Taliban sought to
supplant the Kabul regime altogether instead of entering into a power-sharing formula,
such as acting as governors and entering into the parliament through general elections.

On 5 January 2021, the second round of negotiations began in Doha. Like the first round,
the second also took place in Doha at the insistence of the Taliban, who were loath to hold
talks in Afghanistan, as they considered the Kabul regime to be Western puppets. The
prospect of a complete withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan was predicated on the
success of the negotiations, but the Taliban did not fulfil their commitments.

At the moment, there are two main concerns. First, inside Afghanistan, the Taliban are
unwilling to negotiate peace terms with the Kabul regime, thus requiring the mediation of a
third party. There is inadequate communication between the Taliban and Kabul. That
situation is a bad omen for peace and democracy in Afghanistan, especially after foreign
forces and mediators leave the country. Second, the Taliban are averse to accepting the
Afghan Constitution as a legitimate contract between the rulers and citizens, although a few
amendments could accommodate all. The Taliban have demanded the restoration of the
Doha negotiations before the collapse of dialogue is formally declared. Subsequently,
NATO expects a retaliatory Spring Offensive by the Taliban in March this year.

It is known that the Afghan Government cannot survive without the support of foreign
forces. Acquiescing to the Taliban’s demand for the withdrawal of foreign troops before the
conclusion of an intra-Afghan agreement would be tantamount to squandering all the time
and money that the allies have spent in Afghanistan. Currently, uncertainty continues to
surround the peace process
.

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