A stalemate in Afghanistan

Daily: Future Directions International
Date: 25.03.21

Background

On 19 March 2021, Suhail Shaheen, a member of the Taliban’s negotiation team, held a
press conference in Moscow and warned the US to honour its pledge to withdraw its troops
completely from Afghanistan by 1 May or be ready to face a reaction, which could take the
form of renewed US-Taliban confrontation. The conference was conducted because of
Russia’s initiative.

Comment

On 29 February 2020, the US-Taliban accord took place in Doha, according to which, the
Taliban had to fulfil certain commitments, such as observing a ceasefire with the Afghan
forces and engaging in meaningful negotiations with the government in Kabul in return for
the complete withdrawal of the US-NATO forces from Afghanistan. The Taliban, however,
initiated a selective ceasefire, which spared foreign, but not Afghan, forces. The Taliban
failed to implement a ceasefire with the Afghan forces and remained indisposed to scale
down violence against the government in Kabul.

On 12 September 2020, the first round of intra-Afghan dialogue began in Doha to settle the
differences between the Taliban and the Kabul regime, but remained inconclusive after two-
and-a-half months. The Taliban pressed their demand to take Afghanistan back to pre-
2001 conditions. Further, they demanded a full replacement of the government in Kabul.
These conditions were obviously unacceptable to the Kabul regime, which grew wary of a
situation in which departing foreign forces would leave them at the mercy of the Taliban.
The Taliban’s hostility would not permit them to share political power with the Kabul regime.

On 5 January 2021, the second round of intra-Afghan dialogue was held in the Doha talks,
did not proceed because US President Joseph Biden wanted to review the US-Taliban
Doha Accord signed in February 2020 between the Taliban and the Trump Administration.
President Biden was of the view that the complete withdrawal of foreign troops before any
reasonable intra-Afghan peace settlement would be tantamount to deserting the Kabul
regime to the Taliban. That was unfair to the Afghan politicians and people who wanted to
see Afghanistan a modern democratic constitutional republic.

On 15 January 2021, the US reduced the number of its troops to a nominal 2,500 to honour
the Doha accord of 2020. The Biden Administration, however, expressed its explicit intent to
extend the withdrawal deadline for some time, as the Taliban did not fulfil their commitments
under the accord. The US wanted to delay the withdrawal of the last 2,500 troops from
Afghanistan, thereby transgressing the 1 May deadline. On the other hand, the Taliban
have said that they are running out of patience and would not tolerate any breach of the
Doha accord. Apparently, the Taliban see the situation as an opening to cash in on the
opportunity to convince the world that the US is a violator of the Doha accord that yearns to
meddle in the internal affairs of Afghanistan.

On 28 February 2021, the Biden Administration presented a Transitional Peace
Government proposal, which said that the current government in Kabul be replaced with an
interim one to include Taliban representatives, frame a new constitution and hold elections.
Second, a joint commission was to be formed to monitor a ceasefire. This was the limit of
the Biden Administration’s accommodation of the Taliban’s demands. Afghan President
Ashraf Ghani, however, turned down the proposal to step aside for a transitional
government.

At the conclusion of the Moscow conference and one day before Shaheen’s press
conference, Russia, China, Pakistan and the US issued a joint statement opposing the
restoration of an Islamic government in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, at the press conference,
Shaheen reiterated the resolve of the Taliban to return an Islamic government (as the
Islamic Emirate) to Afghanistan by replacing the current Kabul government of President
Ashraf Ghani. The Taliban’s firm demand to revert to an Islamic Emirate is bound to
neutralise the US advances, such as the transitional peace proposal. Reportedly, the
Taliban are also reluctant to accept the proposal.

In the transitional peace proposal, another catch was that the interim government would
include women and members of all ethnic groups, who would ensure that their interests
were represented in the new constitution. That was unacceptable to the Taliban; in his
press conference, Shaheen said that the Afghans themselves should determine their
governing order without outside interference. Shaheen did not elaborate on the mechanism
that the Afghans would deploy to make that determination, especially when it is known that
the Taliban are still disinclined to ascend to power through elections. On the other hand,
most Afghans believe that institutional structures built in the last 20 years have established
the rule of law and held the powerful accountable. Any hint of the collapse of the existing
system would dissipate democratic gains ranging from the empowerment of women and
minorities to the practice of non-violent politics.

Interestingly, the Taliban are motivated by the assumption that they are the legitimate
representatives of most Afghans. Second, they believe that there is no need to put in place
a mechanism to determine their legitimacy to represent the Afghan people. This is where
the rub lies. Self-assertiveness and self-righteousness have been the bane of peace in
Afghanistan.

There is another dimension to the challenge. In the recent past, the US sponsored the idea
of an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process. Essentially, the idea barred regional
players from the peace process meant for internal stabilisation. Now, the reluctance of the
Taliban to enter into a dialogue with the Kabul regime and the futility of the intra-Afghan
dialogue in Doha has put the US in trouble.

The conference was held by Russia and representatives from Iran, Pakistan, India and
China participated as regional stakeholders. On the inclusion of India in the conference,
Pakistan could not raise objections to Russia, as Pakistan used to do with the US. Perhaps,
Russia is showing the US way out through regional multilateralism.

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