Gaurav Kumar Writes:
“Bargains, deals, and tacit understanding between states and insurgents are common in civil wars. This fascinating mix of conflict and cooperation shapes the pattern of the politics governance and violence,” writes Paul Stainland, Assistant Professor of Political Science in the University of Chicago[i]. The idea of symmetric response in civil wars is driven by the belief and logic of reciprocity-to establish or maintain broad patterns of proportionate response. However, the burgeoning difference between the Taliban and the Afghan Government has never been so evident as it has been since the signing of the agreement between the US and the Taliban on 29 February 2020. In the last few months, the two sides have positioned itself against each other more than ever on the principal issues of peace in the region, at times challenging the fundamental tenets of the agreement. Whether it is on the question of attacks on the Afghan security forces, prisoners swap or the composition of the intra-Afghan dialogue, the two sides have shown more divergences than convergences. The battle between the insurgents and the Afghan Government is also about gaining credibility and increasing the horizontal polarization or ethnic polarization, where the Taliban have ramped up not just the violence but also its propaganda and the Ashraf Ghani government is battling to maintain its credibility at home and abroad.
The Current Impasse
Despite the higher probability that any deal with the Taliban would be a lost cause, the US Government, striving for illusionary peace, signed the agreement, on a very feeble assumption, and against all the odds, that the Taliban government would respect it. The current flow of the events suggests that the tension between the Taliban and the Afghan Government is only going to exacerbate from here onwards. There has been unprecedented spike in attacks in the last few days in which the Taliban have denied its involvement. In a major terrorist attack on 12 May 2020, armed terrorists attacked a maternity hospital in the Dashti Barchi area in the western part of Kabul killing 16 people, including two new-born babies, their mothers and an a number of nurses[ii]. On the same day in a suicide blast, claimed by Islamic State, 24 people were killed and dozens more wounded at a funeral in Khewa district in Nangahar province in Afghanistan. Further, Six Afghan security force members were killed in a Taliban attack in Alishing district of Laghman province[iii]. Another attack by the Taliban on 10 May 2020 killed four soldiers and seven others went missing in northern Balkh province of Afghanistan[iv].
This series of attacks, on the civilians and the Afghan security forces, presents a cumulative picture of the current state of USA’s gamble with the agreement with the Taliban. After initial reluctance, the Afghan President has finally ordered the military to resume offensive operations. “In order to provide security for public places and to thwart attacks and threats from the Taliban and other terrorist groups, I am ordering Afghan security forces to switch from an active defence mode to an offensive one and to start their operations against the enemies,” he said.[v] Zabihullah Mujahid, the spokesman of the Taliban, in response to the Ghani’s order for offensive operation blamed the Kabul administration for the current impasse. He said, “The reason for even the current clashes, which have taken place in some areas, is due to the Kabul administration troops trying to take new areas or construct new check posts and outposts.”[vi] He further said that the Taliban is fully capable of countering the Kabul government’s attacks.
What Went Wrong
Possibly, a late and a not so sudden realization is dawning on the Afghan Government that the peace is unattainable in the current form. “This is not peace, nor its beginnings,” tweeted Afghanistan’s national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib in a post. He said that the Taliban “subcontracted their terror to other entities” and that there is “little point in continuing to engage Taliban in ‘peace talks. “As Afghanistan is witnessing a return to severe violence by terrorist groups, there is ample evidence to suggest what brought the region back to what was considered the ‘normal’ in Afghanistan. Despite conflicting position on the prisoners’ swap, both the Taliban and the Afghanistan government had exchanged prisoners. According to the Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban have recently released 261 prisoners of the Kabul Administration. He, however, blamed the Afghan Government for providing an incomplete list, lacking enough details about identification of prisoners, and of including the names of the prisoners killed by the ISIS. In the first week of May, 300 Taliban prisoners were released. The Taliban considered the release to be incomplete and expected the Afghan government to expedite the process. So far, Kabul and the Taliban have released 933 and 261 prisoners, respectively.
Secondly, the critical part of the agreement, which was to pave way for an Intra-Afghan dialogue, is still in limbo. The Taliban has initially objected to the composition of the delegation suggested by the Afghan Government and are now adamant not to start the process unless the prisoner swap is complete. This is a major bottleneck in achieving long term sustainable peace in Afghanistan. Finally, inadequacies, intentional or otherwise, in the fine print of the agreement has led to the current situation. The agreement is not clear on the mandate of violence by the either sides and has been left open ended, dictated by the rhetoric of ethos, and tactfully exploited by the Taliban. In an interview to the Pakistan daily, Daily Times, Sher Abbas Stanekzai, Taliban chief negotiator, says ceasefire with the US-led foreign forces is intact but there is no ceasefire with the Afghan government forces as it is not part of the US-Taliban agreement[vii].
Therefore, if the US and the rest of the world want to bring any semblance of peace in Afghanistan, it needs to end its pretensions that the violent forces working against the democratic norms and order will be participating in the peace process on altruistic terms. The international community also needs to weigh in on the side of Afghan Government and hence increase its credibility among the masses. Suffice to say, it needs to come up with better a checks and balance mechanism to deal with the external forces who are patronising these armed groups. Ultimately it needs to create the tacit understanding between the government and the Taliban to respect each other’s share of bargain in order to make the deal successful.
[ii] Al Jazeera. “Babies among 16 Killed as Gunmen Attack Maternity Ward in Kabul.” News | Al Jazeera. May 12, 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/05/afghanistan-gunmen-storm-kabul-hospital-200512071439807.html
[iii] “Six Afghan Security Force Members Killed in Taliban Attack in Laghman.” ANI News, May 11, 2020. https://www.aninews.in/news/world/asia/six-afghan-security-force-members-killed-in-taliban-attack-in-laghman20200511174144/
[iv]Zada, Ahmad Shah Ghani. “4 Soldiers Lost Their Lives, 7 Go Missing Following Taliban Attack in Balkh.” The Khaama Press News Agency, May 10, 2020. https://www.khaama.com/4-soldiers-lost-their-lives-7-go-missing-following-taliban-attack-in-balkh-07798/
[v]Jones, Gareth. “Afghan President Orders Troops to Switch to ‘Offensive’ Stance after Attacks.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, May 12, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-security/afghan-president-orders-troops-to-switch-to-offensive-stance-after-attacks-idUSKBN22O2CN
[vii]Khan, Tahir. “Ceasefire with US Intact despite Violations: Taliban Chief Negotiator.” Daily Times, May 5, 2020. https://dailytimes.com.pk/607632/ceasefire-with-us-intact-despite-violations-taliban-chief-negotiator/
Gaurav Kumar is Editorial and Research Assistant at USI of India
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI of India.