US-Taliban troop withdrawal deal
Dr Yatharth Kachiar, Research Associate, VIF

After 18 months of negotiations, the US-Taliban signed the troop withdrawal deal in Doha on February 29 in the presence of representatives from 30 countries and international organisations, signalling the end of the 18-year old war in the country. The troop withdrawal agreement was signed by the US special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad and Mullah Ghani Baradar, the co-founder of the Taliban and head of Taliban’s Doha office, after successful completion of a week-long reduction in violence period which was announced on February 22. By giving inordinate concessions to the insurgent group without getting anything substantial in return, the troop withdrawal deal signed between the Americans and the Taliban will become a major impediment to sustainable peace in Afghanistan. The contentious timeline set by the deal for troop withdrawal, the release of 5000 Taliban prisoners, and removing of Taliban members from the UN and the US sanction list, if followed, will weaken the position of the Afghan government vis-à-vis the Taliban in the upcoming intra-Afghan negotiations which are due to begin in Oslo from March 10. The weakened position of Afghan delegation during the negotiations threatens the gains made by the people of Afghanistan in last 18 years and thereby have the potential of eventually unravelling the whole deal and bringing more chaos in the conflict-ridden country.

The major takeaways from the troop withdrawal agreement include firstly, the commitment given by the Taliban to prevent any group or individual including al-Qaeda from using the Afghan territory to carry out attacks against the US and its allies. Secondly, it stipulates a gradual withdrawal of the US and NATO troops from Afghanistan in two phases. In the first phase, within 135 days of signing the agreement, the US will reduce the number of its troops in Afghanistan to 8,600, and proportionally bring down the level of NATO troops as well. In the second phase, conditional on the fulfilment of counter-terrorism commitment by the Taliban, the US and NATO allies will completely withdraw their troops from all the five military bases in Afghanistan within the next 14 months. Thirdly, it indicates that the intra-Afghan negotiations will begin from 10 March 2020. Further, as a part of the confidence-building measure, the US is committed to expediting the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners, and 1,000 prisoners from the other side before the beginning of the intra-Afghan dialogue. Fourthly, with the start of intra-Afghan negotiations, the US will start the process of removing the Taliban members from UN sanction list by May 29, 2020; and from the US sanction list by August 27, 2020. Fifthly, it states that a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire will be an item on the agenda of intra-Afghan negotiations.1 On the issue of the ceasefire, President Ghani has expressed his hope that the ongoing reduction in violence will eventually culminate into a comprehensive ceasefire in the country.2

Fault lines in the troop withdrawal deal
Taliban’s Counter-terrorism commitments

The US-led war in Afghanistan began in the aftermath of 9/11 with a clear objective of killing Osama bin Laden, destroying al-Qaeda, and ousting its ruling ally, the Taliban. The troop withdrawal agreement signed by the US with the Taliban in Doha clearly indicates the failure of US policy in Afghanistan. What makes the whole episode more humbling for the world’s superpower is the fact that it fails to even include the word “terrorist group” for al-Qaeda in the troop withdrawal agreement. At the same time, it shows the discomfort of the Taliban in denouncing al-Qaeda as a terrorist group with which it shares deep religious as well as family ties. There are reports which indicate that “al-Qaida members act as instructors and religious teachers for Taliban personnel and their family members.”3
The counter-terrorism commitment made by the Taliban in the deal specifies certain steps for the armed group “to prevent any group or individual, including al-Qaeda from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.”4 The deal focuses on certain commitments by the Taliban such as preventing the use of Afghan territory by groups inimical to the security of the US and its allies, instructing its members not to cooperate with such groups, preventing such groups from recruiting, training, and fundraising in Afghanistan, and accepting the US demand of not hosting such groups within the country. It is important to note that the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is dependent on the fulfilment of these vaguely defined counter-terrorism commitments by the Taliban. To assess the progress on the commitments, the United States and the Taliban are to establish a joint monitoring body in Qatar.

Another distressing reality is that the Trump administration has signed the troop withdrawal deal with an insurgent group which includes the US-designated terrorist organization Haqqani network, notorious for its gruesome campaign of suicide bombings. The leader of the Haqqani network, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is the Taliban’s deputy leader and operational commander. The Doha deal signed between the US and the Taliban will embolden the extremist and terrorist organizations across the globe. It sends a very wrong message to such organizations that they can fight against the world’s strongest army and yet win.

Intra-Afghan negotiations and withdrawal timeline

The agreement on troop withdrawal between the US and the Taliban forms the easy part in the Afghan conundrum. What comes next is the actual peace process in which the Afghan delegation will negotiate with the Taliban on contentious issues such as the Afghan constitution, Afghan security forces, women’s rights, rights of religious and ethnic minorities, and reintegration of Taliban fighters. The negotiations on these issues will be extremely difficult and it is most likely that intra-Afghan talks will span over a year before reaching any final conclusion. However, the agreement clearly states that the US and allied forces will completely withdraw from the country within 14 months from the announcement of the troop withdrawal deal. What it indicates is that the US security cover is available to the Afghan government only for the next 14 months within which it has to reach an understanding with the Taliban on all the contentious issues. It is crucial to note that the agreement signed between the US and the Taliban in Doha doesn’t make the troop withdrawal conditional on the progress in intra-Afghan negotiations. This, in turn, doesn’t leave any incentive for the Taliban to negotiate sincerely with the Afghan delegation to achieve sustainable peace in the country. The Taliban can easily wait for the next 14 months when the last US/NATO soldier leaves the country before terminating the intra-Afghan negotiations and launching renewed attacks in the country. After all, the goal of the Taliban insurgency is to regain power in Kabul and establish the rule based on their version of Islam.

The US has signed a joint declaration with President Ghani in Kabul on February 29 in which it reiterated the already existing financial and military commitments of America towards the Afghan government and stressed the non-abandonment of Afghan people by the US. President Trump also stated that “if bad things happen we'll go back ... go back with a force like nobody has ever seen”5, however, it is highly unlikely that the US will send back its troops to Afghanistan if the country is engulfed in a civil war-like scenario. What is more conceivable is that the US will end up cutting deal with a party who is more powerful militarily and is more likely to bring stability in the country.

Nevertheless, the joint declaration did provide some relief to the Afghan opposition members by suggesting the formation of “inclusive negotiating team” for the intra-Afghan dialogue.6 The political fragmentation in Afghanistan after the declaration of Presidential election result has deepened. In this background, it will be a tough challenge for the Ghani government to bring everyone on board and form an actual inclusive negotiating team comprising of all ethnicities, women, youth, and other relevant stakeholders. There are already signs of an increasing rift between President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah over the formation of the negotiating team.7 However, irrespective of the challenges, the basic principle of realpolitik makes it imperative for the Afghans to resolve their internal differences and form a strong and inclusive negotiating team vis-à-vis the Taliban. It is important for the Afghans to realize that what is at stake at present is the very survival of the Islamic Republic which they have painstakingly built over the last 18 years. At the same time, it is crucial for the Afghan government to continue its diplomatic outreach to the international community in an attempt to avoid the repetition of the 1990’s scenario when Afghanistan became invisible to the outside world.

Release of the Taliban prisoners

As mentioned before, the deal specifies that as a part of confidence-building measure the US will ensure the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners and 1,000 prisoners from the other side by March 10, 2020, the first day of intra-Afghan negotiations. However, the joint declaration which the US signed with the Kabul government doesn’t mention any number and timeline for the release of Taliban prisoners. Instead, it clearly stipulates that as part of confidence-building measures, the Afghan government will participate in the US-facilitated discussion with the Taliban “to determine the feasibility of releasing significant numbers of prisoners on both sides.”8 It is clear that the US kept the Ghani government unaware of its commitment made to the Taliban in the deal regarding the specific number of prisoners to be released by March 10, 2020. This has become the first bone of contention between the US, the Afghan government, and the Taliban in the post-deal scenario.

President Ghani has already expressed his displeasure over the commitment made by the US regarding the release of Taliban prisoners when he said, “the release of prisoners is not the United States authority, but it is the authority of the government of Afghanistan.”9 The disapproval showed by President Ghani over the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners as a precondition to intra-Afghan talks is legitimate. The uneven and premature release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners before the beginning of intra-Afghan negotiations have the potential of threatening the already fragile security situation in the country. It makes the situation more precarious when the US and NATO forces are already going to reduce their troop strength by 5,000 and 2,000 respectively in the next 135 days.10 Moreover, before the release of the Taliban prisoners, it is important that both sides reach some understanding of the issue of reintegration of the Taliban fighters into Afghan society.

Sanctions removal

Another problematic clause in the troop withdrawal deal is related to the timing stipulated for the removal of the Taliban members from the UN and the US sanction list, which could prove inimical to the interest of the Afghan government. The deal states that with the start of the intra-Afghan negotiations, the US will initiate the process of removing the Taliban members from the UN sanction list by May 29, 2020; and from the US sanction list by August 27, 2020. With the reconciliation process underway in Afghanistan, it is only natural that the US is trying to facilitate the process by giving these concessions to the Taliban to participate in the intra-Afghan dialogue. However, the urgency of the timing of removing the Taliban members from both the sanction list by May 29 and August 27 can prove hostile to the prospects of peace in Afghanistan. By hastily removing all kinds of pressure from the Taliban including the already placed sanctions, the US is removing all the incentives for the armed group to negotiate fairly with the Afghan delegation in the reconciliation process. It would have been more appropriate if the removal of sanctions was made conditional on certain progress achieved in the intra-Afghan negotiations.

Conclusion

The troop withdrawal deal signed in Doha indicates tough times ahead for Afghanistan and its people. The deal provides a narrow window of opportunity for the Afghans to negotiate peace with an insurgent group which hasn’t shown any tangible indications of power-sharing in a democratic system. Moreover, by giving undue concessions to the Taliban on the issue of the prisoner release, sanction removal, and by making withdrawal timeline independent of the progress in intra-Afghan negotiations, the US has weakened the negotiating position of the Afghan delegation vis-à-vis the Taliban. In this background, it becomes crucial for all the political leaders in Afghanistan to rise above their internal differences and turn this limited opportunity into sustainable peace in the country. Any development in Afghanistan has a direct impact on the security and stability of the whole region. Therefore, it is imperative for regional countries including India to keep a vigilant eye on the developments in Afghanistan. At the same time, if needed, India should take the lead in providing the necessary diplomatic support to the nationalist front in Afghanistan at all international platforms. It is important to ensure that the Taliban doesn’t become the only dominant force in Afghanistan and the gains made in the last 18 years are not completely lost. After all, the rationale behind Indian foreign policy to spend over $ 3 billion in Afghanistan was not mere altruism. India’s strategic interest and its national security are closely aligned with a stable, secure, and democratic Afghanistan.

References
  1. https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Agreement-For-Bringing-Peace-to-Afghanistan-02.29.20.pdf
  2. https://tolonews.com/afghanistan/ghani-no-commitment-release-taliban-prisoners
  3. “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
  4. https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Agreement-For-Bringing-Peace-to-Afghanistan-02.29.20.pdf
  5. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/02/taliban-peace-deal-world-reacted-200229165338513.html
  6. https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/02.29.20-US-Afghanistan-Joint-Declaration.pdf
  7. Ghani and Abdullah Divided over Negotiating Team, TOLO News, 1 March 2020, URL: https://tolonews.com/afghanistan/ghani-and-abdullah-divided-over-negotiating-team
  8. https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/02.29.20-US-Afghanistan-Joint-Declaration.pdf
  9. https://tolonews.com/afghanistan/ghani-no-commitment-release-taliban-prisoners
  10. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-afghanistan-taliban/u-s-and-taliban-sign-troop-withdrawal-deal-now-comes-the-hard-part-idUSKBN20N06R

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