Deadlock in Afghanistan
Dr Yatharth Kachiar, Research Associate, VIF

In a dramatic turn of events, the US President announced in a tweet on September 7 that he has called-off the secret meeting with the Taliban leaders at Camp David, and ended the peace talks with the armed group.1 Further, keeping alive the whimsicality of his administration, President Trump fired John Bolton, his National Security Advisor (NSA), who was also a prominent voice within the Trump administration against any deal with the Taliban.2 While citing the reason for the cancellation of talks, President Trump tweeted “in order to build false leverage, they (the Taliban) admitted to an attack in Kabul that killed one of our great soldiers, and 11 other people.” 3 The killing of the US soldier in Kabul attacks by the Taliban and its relentless use of violence in order to gain more leverage in the peace talks with the US is what triggered President Trump to cancel the peace process. This shift in the US policy came after the nine rounds of painstaking negotiations which had almost resulted in an agreement ‘in principle’ with the Taliban.4

The following article argues that the real reason behind the cancellation of talks lies in the ‘draft deal’ and the criticism it has encountered from various sections of the US administration. The draft deal was seen as more of a surrender agreement by the US rather than a peace deal. The cancellation of talks itself could be a tactic by the Trump administration to put psychological pressure on the Taliban in order to gain more consensuses, which it has been refusing so far. Nevertheless, there is an increasing possibility that the present deadlock will ramp up the violence in Afghanistan as both the sides have vowed to increase the military operations, especially in the backdrop of upcoming Presidential elections in the country.

Reasons behind Cancellation of Talks
Criticism within the US Administration

After the announcement of the draft deal at the end of the ninth round of peace talks in Doha, there were already indications that it was perceived as too risky and has raised serious debate in the US about President Trump’s Afghan peace plan. Under the draft peace plan, within 135 days of signing the agreement with the Taliban, the US was supposed to withdraw 5,400 troops from Afghanistan5. In addition to the troop withdrawal, the US had agreed to either closed down or hand over its five military bases in Afghanistan. According to reports, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo and the US Special Representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, were more eager to clinch a deal with the Taliban so that President Trump can “fulfill his pledge to bring home US troops.” 6 However, the division within Trump’s national security team over the correct approach with regard to the Taliban and withdrawal from Afghanistan became graver since NSA John Bolton, and institutions such as Pentagon “has long been skeptical the negotiations will ever lead to a deal the insurgent group will uphold.”7

In addition, nine former US envoys to Afghanistan, including a former deputy secretary of state, had warned the US administration in a letter that a hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan might result in a civil war in the country, an outcome which will be far worse than the status quo. They also stressed that “a major troop withdrawal must be contingent on a final peace.”8 There are also indications that the rift within the US administration further increased over President Trump’s invitation to the Taliban leaders at Camp David, just few days before the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Finally, Representative Eliot L. Engel, Chairman of the House Committee on foreign affairs had asked Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, “to testify in an open hearing on the Trump administration’s peace plan with the Taliban and the path forward in Afghanistan.”9 After the cancellation of talks, the U.S House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee once again stated that “it will subpoena President Donald Trump’s Special Afghanistan envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, to testify on September 19.”10

Unending Violence

The unrelenting violence unleashed in Afghanistan by the Taliban, and the inability of the US administration to push the armed group for a ceasefire had attracted widespread criticism of the peace talks. Despite the nine rounds of peace talks, the two sides could not reach an agreement on a nationwide ceasefire to end the ongoing violence in the country. In the draft agreement, the two negotiating parties had agreed to create ‘safe zones’ in the provinces from where the US forces were supposed to withdraw. The ceasefire was supposed to be announced only in such safe zones, while in the rest of the country the violent attacks would have continued till the complete withdrawal of the US forces. 11 According to various sources, in the first stage, “the provinces of Kabul and Parwan - where the Bagram Airfield is located - will see a reduction in violence.”12 In the rest of the country, violence will continue and may even increase as the Taliban will try to strengthen its negotiating position vis-à-vis the Afghan government in the peace talks.

The violent attacks conducted by the Taliban in Pul-e-Kumri, Kunduz, Takhar, Badakhshan, Balkh, Farah, Herat, and Kabul while the ninth round of peace talks were going on in Qatar is a proof of the negotiating strategy followed by the armed group, through which it aims to gain maximum leverage in the peace negotiations. The gruesome attack in Kabul which targeted the Green Village, that houses aid agencies and international organizations, killed 16 civilians and wounded 119 others, including foreigners.13 Three days later, on September 5, the Taliban attacked again in Kabul killing 12 people, including one US soldier and this became the trigger for the cancellation of the talks. According to a report released by the UN in July 2019, “at least 3,812 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first half of 2019.”14 The joint statement issued by the Taliban and the Afghan delegates during the intra-Afghan dialogue in July 2019 in Doha specifically called to “reduce the civilian casualties to zero”15. However, the continuous violence perpetrated by the Taliban once again proved that the armed group is only interested in maximizing power and is certainly not sincere about its claims of achieving a peaceful solution to the ongoing conflict.

Few Concessions from the Taliban

Another major loophole which made the whole draft agreement unsustainable in the long run is that it failed to push the Taliban to make any concrete concessions in favor of peace and stability in Afghanistan. What was completely lacking in the draft agreement is the required assertion from the US that any future peace deal with the Taliban will eventually depend upon the substantial progress achieved in the intra-Afghan talks. Also, as noted before, the draft agreement failed to reach a comprehensive ceasefire in the country. These two issues - progress in the intra-Afghan talks and a comprehensive ceasefire - were completely discarded by the Americans and were in a way left to the Afghans to resolve on their own.16

The only concession which the Taliban had made is that the armed group will cut-off its ties with the terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, and will allow the withdrawing American forces to leave peacefully. However, there is no way to gauge the sincerity of these claims. Since the beginning of the peace talks, the Taliban has not made a single public statement claiming to cut-off its ties with al-Qaeda and other terrorist elements. It is crucial to understand that any such statement by the Taliban will have a major impact on the morale of its rank and file who are fighting this war on the ground. There are reports which indicate that “al-Qaida members act as instructors and religious teachers for Taliban personnel and their family members.”17 This is precisely the reason why the negotiating team of the Taliban can never publicly denounce their association with al-Qaeda. What is more problematic in the whole process is that the “US has taken on good faith the Taliban’s pledge to break ties with al-Qaeda and deny terrorist organizations an opportunity to operate from Afghan soil.”18 This is despite various reports which suggested that “al-Qaida has grown stronger operating under the Taliban umbrella across Afghanistan and is more active than in recent years and has been intensifying its concentration in the Afghan-Pakistan border area in close cooperation with Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and the Haqqani Network.”19 Moreover, the draft deal also lacked clarity on whether the Taliban had agreed to keep a sizeable US counter-terrorism force in Afghanistan after the signing of the peace deal since they had always insisted on a complete withdrawal of foreign forces.

Conclusion

Throughout the peace process, by appeasing the Taliban with its demand of not negotiating with the elected government in Kabul, the US has already undercut the support for the Ghani government to a point of delegitimizing it. Following the peace deal between the US and the Taliban, the direct intra-Afghan talks were supposed to begin in Oslo. The Ghani government had already prepared a list of 15 members of the negotiating team to negotiate with the Taliban.20 However, it is crucial to understand that after finalizing the withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan, the Taliban will have no leverage to continue the intra-Afghan negotiations. Therefore, in order to achieve sustainable peace in Afghanistan, any future peace process must make success in intra-Afghan dialogue a priority over the withdrawal agreement. Afghans had already shown their complete discontentment towards the draft agreement finalized by the US and the Taliban. The major grievance of the Afghan government was that the “proposed agreement did not include enough assurances that the insurgents will abide by their promises after American troops leave entirely. In addition, the troop withdrawal agreement in no way seems conditioned on progress in the coming Afghan negotiations with the Taliban.” 21

There is a consensus within the international community that the only viable solution to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan is possible through diplomatic negotiations. After the cancellation of the talks by President Trump, countries like Russia and China have asked to resume the peace process. Russia even hosted the Taliban leaders in Moscow to meet Russia’s Special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, in order to discuss the recent developments in the peace process.22 Even the Afghan government stated that it favors the resumption of the peace process with the Taliban, however, not without a complete ceasefire.23 There are also indications that President Trump might withdraw from Afghanistan without signing any peace deal with the Taliban. 24 In that case, the Taliban will again have no leverage to negotiate for a settlement of the conflict with the Afghan people and the country might plunge into a civil war.

At this juncture, what is crucial for the US and international community is to continue supporting the Afghan government and the upcoming Afghan presidential elections. For successful intra-Afghan negotiations, it is imperative that the Afghan state is able to “govern and fight while negotiations take place, as well as a chance to sustain itself if negotiations fail.”25 For this to happen, the international community and the US should throw their weight behind the successful conduct of the upcoming Presidential election in Afghanistan. The Presidential election in Afghanistan which is due to be held on September 28 is an assertion of Afghan sovereignty and the international community must respect it. A strong central government in Afghanistan is important not just for negotiations with the Taliban but to maintain the morale of the Afghan security forces which is already paying a very heavy price in the war against the Taliban. As former US envoys have mentioned, “a major risk is that the Afghan military would break apart with increased doubt about what it is fighting for, and the country would return to civil war leaving space for al-Qaeda and IS to grow.”26

Any future development in Afghanistan will have a direct impact on the security and stability of its neighbors, including India. As a time-tested friend of Afghanistan, Indian government has once again emphasized that the peace process in Afghanistan must include the will of its people. At the same time, it has given its full support to the upcoming Presidential elections in Afghanistan. It stated that “any process should respect the constitutional legacy and it should not lead to any ungoverned spaces where terrorists and their proxies can relocate.”27 As the world’s largest democracy, India should continue to support Afghan people in their fight for peace and stability.

Refrences
  1. President Donald Trump’s tweet, Twitter, 7 September 2019, URL: https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/1170469618177236992
  2. President Donald Trump’s tweet, Twitter, 10 September 2019, URL: https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/1171452880055746560, Also see, Peter Baker, Mujib Mashal and Michael Crowley, How Trump’s Plan to Secretly Meet With the Taliban Came Together, and Fell Apart, The New York Times, 8 September 2018, URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/08/world/asia/afghanistan-trump-camp-david-taliban.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FAfghanistan&action=click&contentCollection=world&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=7&pgtype=collection
  3. President Donald Trump’s tweet, Twitter, 7 September 2019, URL: https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/1170469618177236992
  4. Anisa Shahid, US And Taliban Reach Agreement In Principle: Khalilzad, TOLO NEWS, 2 September 2019, URL: https://www.tolonews.com/afghanistan/us-and-taliban-reach-agreement-principle-khalilzad
  5. Taliban deal would see US troops 'withdraw from five bases', Al Jazeera, 2 September 2019, URL: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/09/taliban-deal-troops-withdraw-bases-190902151734211.html
  6. Lara Seligman, Elias Groll, Robbie Gramer, “Trump’s National Security Team Splinters Over Taliban Meeting”, Foreign Policy, 9 September 2019, URL: https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/09/09/esper-pompeo-bolton-trumps-national-security-team-splinters-over-taliban-meeting-peace-talks-details-afghanistan-pompeo-bolton-state-department-national-security-council-pentagon/
  7. Ibid
  8. US-Taliban Negotiations: How to Avoid Rushing to Failure, The Atlantic Council, 3 September 2019, URL: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/us-taliban-negotiations-how-to-avoid-rushing-to-failure
  9. Engel Presses Afghanistan Special Representative to Testify, US House of Representatives: Committee on foreign Affairs, Press Release, 5 September 2019, URL: https://foreignaffairs.house.gov/press-releases?ContentRecord_id=F290E3FD-E546-4CB3-9EA6-C1114975E7B7 ; Also see, https://foreignaffairs.house.gov/_cache/files/e/2/e2953c34-6038-472d-b80f-88b40deda7e3/84B1FBC3A0450AE805F6F417D4365A30.ele-letter-to-amb-khalilzad-invitation-to-testify.pdf
  10. S House panel to force testimony from Trump's Afghan envoy, Reuters, 13 September 2019, URL: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-afghanistan-khalilzad/u-s-house-panel-to-force-testimony-from-trumps-afghan-envoy-idUSKCN1VX2NW
  11. Sayed Sharif Amiri, US And Taliban Make Progress On ‘Safe Zones’: Sources, Al Jazeera, 26 August 2019, URL: https://www.tolonews.com/afghanistan/us-and-taliban-make-progress-safe-zones-sources
  12. Ayaz Gul, Taliban Attack Kabul as US Nears Peace Deal, VOA News, 2 September 2019, URL: https://www.voanews.com/usa/taliban-attack-kabul-us-nears-peace-deal
  13. Massive Kabul blast kills 16 as Taliban steps up attacks, Al Jazeera, 3 September 2019, URL: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/09/suicide-car-bomb-attack-rocks-eastern-kabul-190902180659647.html
  14. Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Rupam Jain, Taliban suicide bomber kills at least 10 civilians, two NATO troops in Kabul, Reuters, 5 September 2019, URL: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-attack/taliban-suicide-bomber-kills-at-least-10-civilians-two-nato-troops-in-kabul-idUSKCN1VQ0J4
  15. Shereena Qazi, Afghan talks: Rival sides agree on 'road map for peace', Al Jazeera, 9 July 2019, URL: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/07/afghan-peace-talks-rival-sides-agree-roadmap-peace-190709012150435.html
  16. Marvin G. Weinbaum, “A US-Taliban agreement but no sign of peace in Afghanistan”, Middle East Institute, 3 September 2019, URL: https://mei.edu/publications/weekly-briefing-us-taliban-agreement-no-sign-peace-afghanistan
  17. “Letter dated to 10 June 2019 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee established pursuant to resolution 1988 (2011) addressed to the President of the Security Council”, United Nations Security Council, 13 June 2019, URL: https://www.undocs.org/S/2019/481
  18. Marvin G. Weinbaum, “A US-Taliban agreement but no sign of peace in Afghanistan”, Middle East Institute, 3 September 2019, URL: https://mei.edu/publications/weekly-briefing-us-taliban-agreement-no-sign-peace-afghanistan
  19. “Letter dated to 10 June 2019 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee established pursuant to resolution 1988 (2011) addressed to the President of the Security Council”, United Nations Security Council, 13 June 2019, URL: https://www.undocs.org/S/2019/481
  20. Intra-Afghan negotiations to follow US-Taliban deal: Khalilzad, Al Jazeera, 28 July 2019, URL: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/07/intra-afghan-negotiations-follow-taliban-deal-khalilzad-190728061121496.html
  21. Mujib Mashal, US Deal With Taliban Meets Afghan Resistance as Violence Intensifies, The New York Times, 5 September 2019, URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/05/world/asia/afghanistan-taliban-deal-ashraf-ghani.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FAfghanistan
  22. Taliban Delegation Meet Russian Envoy In Moscow, TOLO News, 14 September 2019, URL: https://www.tolonews.com/index.php/afghanistan/taliban-delegation-meet-russian-envoy-moscow
  23. Afghans Urge Taliban To End The War After Trump’s Move, TOLO News, 8 September 2019, URL: https://www.tolonews.com/afghanistan/afghans-urge-taliban-end-war-after-trump%E2%80%99s-move ; Also see, Afghan Govt Announces Stance On Peace Talks Cancellation, TOLO News, 8 September 2019, URL: https://www.tolonews.com/afghanistan/afghan-govt-announces-stance-peace-talks-cancellation
  24. Lara Jakes, Trump Declares Afghan Peace Talks With Taliban ‘Dead’, The New York Times, 9 September 2019, URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/09/us/politics/trump-afghanistan.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FAfghanistan&action=click&contentCollection=world&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=4&pgtype=collection
  25. US-Taliban Negotiations: How to Avoid Rushing to Failure, The Atlantic Council, 3 September 2019, URL: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/us-taliban-negotiations-how-to-avoid-rushing-to-failure
  26. Ibid
  27. Afghan Govt, People Should Be Included In Peace Process: India, TOLO News, 13 September 2019, URL: https://www.tolonews.com/index.php/afghanistan/afghan-govt-people-should-be-included-peace-process-india

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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