Ms Naireen Khan Writes:
Even with the U.S government and the Taliban signing a troop withdrawal agreement to pave the way to end a 19-year-old war, peace remains elusive for the Afghan people. COVID-19 together with a political crisis between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, despite signing a power-sharing agreement[i], and the deadlock in negotiations with the Taliban threatens to stall an already precarious arrangement. The U.S- Taliban deal[ii] seeks to achieve an intra-Afghan dialogue; the reduction of U.S military personnel in Afghanistan to eight thousand six hundred soldiers within the first hundred and thirty five days; and the release of five thousand prisoners of the Taliban in exchange for a thousand Afghan security force detainees. The U.S. is also expected to lift sanctions against the Taliban.
At the outset, there has been no cessation in violence as a result of the deal. The Taliban is still attacking the Afghan National Security Forces and the U.S has already bombed the Taliban in Helmand Province[iii]. In March, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) claimed the responsibility for bombing a Sikh temple in Kabul[iv]. A maternity hospital was also attacked.[v] This calls to question the entire premise of the intra-Afghan dialogue and threatens to erode public trust in the process. Furthermore, a bargaining impasse on the exchange of prisoners and the domestic political stalemate has prevented progress in initiating a meaningful dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Since Kabul was not a party to the deal with the U.S, it holds that the release of the prisoners should be an outcome of the negotiations[vi], not a pre-requisite to get Taliban to the table.
The electoral uncertainty, despite the recent power-sharing agreement, continues to persist even in the face of an impending human catastrophe which could have been an opportunity for the Afghan political elites to demonstrate their ability to efficiently govern, thereby delegitimizing Taliban as a viable alternative. This optics of dysfunction and disunity seems to benefit the Taliban. After Secretary Pompeo’s visit to Kabul in March, the U.S decided to reduce its aid by one billion dollars registering its disappointment in the inability of Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah to work together. Taliban ostensibly gains from the resulting perception of being a more amenable partner to the U.S and therefore holds more sway in the intra-Afghan talks. Moreover, the internal dispute on Kabul’s side impedes its ability to enter into the talks on an equal footing, since political unity would provide it the negotiating strength. Afghanistan’s government is represented by a panel of twentyone members; both the Ghani and Abdullah factions constitute this group. Given the stalemate, who gets to set the terms and give political guidance? More importantly, what does the Kabul delegation stand for? Are they negotiating under one umbrella? The Ghani-Abdullah deadlock also gives rise to the possibility of disgruntled factions playing spoilers.
In wake of the pandemic it is difficult to envision how an intra- Afghan dialogue would proceed. A cohesive response to the COVID crisis by all stakeholders could have acted as a confidence building measure for the Afghan people. However, the refusal of the Taliban to honour the ceasefire commitment of the deal, and its continued adherence to violence despite COVID, potentially threatens the idea of an Afghan owned and Afghan led peace process. For substantive peace in Afghanistan, the U.S needs address these concerns by appointing an empowered and neutral mediator; the U.S itself being an interested party cannot be a neutral mediator. However, no government or institution will be able to push themselves forward in that role without the backing of the United States. Since this is a presidential election year in the U.S, politically expediency rather than considerations about the comprehensive success of the peace process will drive the country’s actions if it continues to play a dominant role in Afghanistan.
The U.S should also work with both parties to establish a structure for the intra-Afghan talks. It is important that this be fluid but not vague so as to prevent disintegration of Afghanistan. Currently, there is no apparent structure for the intra Afghan negotiations in terms of procedural arrangements (for example, how do members vote? Is it by consensus or majority?). In terms of agenda, the dialogue should also aim to address substantive issues such as the organization of the state, constitution, elections, power sharing arrangement, justice system, the role of religion and fundamental rights (primarily human rights, women’s rights and minority rights) given that the Taliban has a different interpretation of these. How to interpret and translate the Shariah in these domains? What kind of an executive would the Taliban agree to? As of now, Taliban’s strategic ambiguity on these matters allows them to deal in bad faith.
Both the U.S-Taliban deal and the Intra-Afghan talks have significant implications for regional peace in South Asia. It would be prudent to have a forum of regional plus other powers to provide support to the peace process, rather than an ad-hoc involvement of states, which would not achieve the desired results. While it is necessary to include all regional players to prevent proxy meddling by parties with vested interests, it is important to note that both Pakistan and Iran are neither neutral nor reliable partners. Both have been opportunistic in Afghanistan. The balance of power interests of these states has meant that they benefit more from the instability in Kabul.
For India, Taliban’s return to political office in Afghanistan as the deal envisages, would mean that it would lose a friendly government in Kabul. A total withdrawal of the U.S military forces essentially puts the onus of ending the bloodshed on Asian forces. In the event of the Taliban adopting a radical approach to establish power, militancy may rise in India’s neighbourhood, which may further be fuelled by Pakistan across India’s borders. The fact that there has been no let- up in Taliban sponsored violence could be an early indication of the same. Furthermore, India’s access to Central Asian markets may be curtailed rendering its assets in Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries, such as the Chabahar port, ineffective. Therefore, despite its absence from the “6+2+1” group[vii] on regional efforts to support peace in Afghanistan, India should direct its efforts in mending the Ghani-Abdullah divide so as to prevent the intra-Afghan from becoming a “dialogue of the deaf” as well as not completely rejecting the possibility of engaging with the Taliban.
[i] ‘Afghanistan: Ghani and Abdullah sign power-sharing deal’, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/05/afghanistan-ghani-abdullah-sign-power-sharing-deal-200517105526348.html
[ii] ‘Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America.’ https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Agreement-For-Bringing-Peace-to-Afghanistan-02.29.20.pdf
[iii] US conducts first air strike against Taliban since peace deal, Al Jazeera, March 4 2020.
[iv] 25 dead as gunmen attack Sikh gurudwara in Afghanistan, The Hindu, March 25 2020. https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/11-dead-as-gunmen-attack-sikh-gurudwara-in-afghanistan/article31159962.ece
[v] ‘Afghan attack: Maternity ward death toll climbs to 24’, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-52642503
[vi] Hirsh, Michael, Did Trump Cave to the Taliban?, Foreign Policy, March 13, 2020. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/13/trump-cave-taliban-peace-agreement-prisoner-swap/
v ‘‘6+2+1’’ is a group constituted to mobilize regional efforts to support peace in Afghanistan. It is made up of six neighboring countries: China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan; global players United States and Russia, and Afghanistan itself.
Allen. John R, The US-Taliban peace deal: A road to nowhere, Brookings Institution, March 5, 2020. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/03/05/the-us-taliban-peace-deal-a-road-to-nowhere/
Qahtani. Multaq bin Majed, US-Taliban deal: Can peace finally come to Afghanistan? Al Jazeera, March 7, 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/talktojazeera/2020/03/taliban-deal-peace-finally-afghanistan-200306070535568.html
Afghanistan peace deal: Taliban walk out of ‘fruitless’ talk, BBC, April 07, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-52199398
Haidar. Suhasini, Afghan peace and India’s elbow room, The Hindu, April 30, 2020. https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/afghan-peace-and-indias-elbow-room/article31466678.ece
Brown. Vanda Fellab, What’s in store after the US-Taliban deal, Brookings Institution, March 4, 2020. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/03/04/whats-in-store-after-the-us-taliban-deal/
Naireen Khan is a Research Intern 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.