Afghanistan: Status of Doha Agreement and the Way Forward
Amb Amar Sinha

To mark one year of the Doha Agreement between the US and the Taliban, signed on 29 February 2020 in Doha, the Vivekananda International Foundation in collaboration with a prominent Kabul based think tank, Afghans Institute for Strategic Studies (AISS) organized a dialogue involving a set of well informed and knowledgeable Afghan and Indian interlocutors on 27 February 2021. The objective was to assess the current state of play in Afghanistan in every sector- political, economic and security- the efforts being made in Doha through direct engagement of the Taliban by the Afghan negotiating team, attitude and tactics of the Taliban, issues related to the much anticipated review of the deal in its entirety by the new US administration, and the evolving regional context.

Background

The Doha deal has generated a great deal of hope as well as fear in Afghanistan.

The very fact that for the first time in 20 years Taliban has engaged in face to face talks and peace seems within grasp if the dialogue is taken forward in good faith is a reason for hope. Afghans expect a dignified peace. The change in the White House has added to the expectation that the infirmities of the Doha Accord may be finally rectified. While the Taliban has maintained ambiguity on their vision for the future of Afghanistan except for establishment of an Islamic state, there are enough signs to suggest that their main objective remains being back in the saddle in Kabul based on a simplistic argument that the US, which removed them from power in 2001, before leaving owes it to them to restore status quo ante. Leave it as it you found it, as the popular saying goes.

Of course, this overlooks the fact that Afghanistan has since changed. It also underplays the costs associated with such an outcome for the international community that has invested heavily to help rebuild a modern, democratic and inclusive Afghanistan. The Taliban leadership also seem oblivious of the reality that their first regime was a global pariah- recognized only by its mentor state (Pakistan) and two others (Saudi Arabia and UAE) and today there is hardly any certainty of this number even reaching this minimum threshold. There is no global or regional, or even national, appetite for an Islamic Emirate 2.0. The process of encouraging the Taliban to end its fratricidal war and join the Afghan political mainstream through negotiations, which included their delegations being received in various capitals, is being misread as global acceptance and legitimacy. This has led to the Taliban hardening its position. They have adopted stalling tactics and have made repeated public appeals to the new US Administration and the US people, to stick to the timelines of the Doha Agreement. This demand has been echoed by the Pakistan’s Foreign Minister as well.

The US and its major partners in joint statements (with Russia on 28 Feb, with NATO allies in March 2020 as well as the Troika of US, Russia and China) have unambiguously stated that an Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan will not be acceptable. This view is shared by Iran, India and the Central Asian Republics. While Pakistan has been steadfastly supporting the Taliban it is not clear that a full blown Emirate run by the Taliban on its western border will provide it much satisfaction. The recent statements by Pakistan military of extending a hand of friendship to both its neighbours and not helping Taliban to regain power in Kabul is a good pointer, but yet to be tested in action.

The following points emerged in the deliberations.

Intra Afghan Talks in Doha-Taliban’s Attitude

Taliban has not been able to restrain expression of triumphalism and already sees itself as the victor, just waiting to get the foreign troops out of Afghanistan on 1 May before it makes the final push to gain full power in Kabul.

Dilatory tactics are being deployed and it has sought major concessions on substantive issues- such as insistence on Hanafi (fiqh) jurisprudence as the basis of future governance and prioritizing it over the Shia jurisprudence (Jaafri School). This is a red flag for the Shia Hazara population and runs counter to the provisions in the Afghan constitution. It has also insisted on their Agreement with the US as the only basis for negotiations to which the Afghan government is not a party. (It is indeed ironic since this agreement while signed with the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan has over a dozen disclaimers that the US does not recognize the same.) It has repeatedly called the Kabul Government a puppet regime.

Close to three months, starting 12 September, were spent on just negotiating the rules and regulation for the talks without moving forward on the agenda. Clearly the Taliban waited for the US election results, and still awaits a clear indication from the new US Administration before they move forward.

In the meantime, the major flaw of the Doha Agreement, which imposes no restriction of Taliban’s level of violence against Afghans, has been fully exploited. They have changed their strategy by refraining to attack US and NATO forces, or mounting major attacks in the cities, but have kept up military pressure around the country and relied on targeted killing, choosing soft targets and faces and representatives of the new Afghanistan- journalists, mid-level government officials, women and students. Tragically, the Doha Agreement has an inbuilt tolerance for such violence against Afghans.

The three weeks pause in the talks (from mid-December to early January 2021) was used by the Doha based Taliban leaders to consult with their Pakistan based leadership shura, as well as consult with the Pakistan government on their strategy going forward. In a brazen show of defiance to the global public opinion the Taliban leader also openly visited its fighters recuperating in a Karachi Hospital, as well as its cadre’s training camp. This was not too subtle a hint to the incoming US Administration on its true intentions.

Violence levels in Afghanistan, since the Doha Deal, has reached very high levels, and the pause in international action against them has provided the Taliban greater freedom of movement within Afghanistan and enabled it to position fighters in strategic locations and control important lines of ground communications. It is only lately that their denials of continuing violence have been challenged by Senior American officials.

Doha Deal and US Options:

The Doha deal prioritized the Taliban over the elected government in Afghanistan exacerbating the structural weakness of the Kabul regime. It tilted the balance against Kabul both diplomatically and militarily. During the negotiations US acceded to most of the Taliban demands, including taking commitments on behalf of the Afghan government. Besides release of the 5000 prisoners from Afghan jails it also provided specific timelines for troop reduction and other follow up actions such as review and removal of UN and US sanctions. No verifiable commitments were made by the Taliban except for bland promises to cut links with AQ and other terror groups. Taliban did not provide any commitment on reduction in violence, or a ceasefire, nor were any restrictions imposed on the released prisoner going back to the battlefield.

While the international military support, critical for Afghanistan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) operations, is being reduced substantially, no corresponding obligation has been imposed on either Pakistan or the Taliban to wind up the support infrastructure in Pakistan that the Taliban has relied on hitherto. Without this “strategic depth” that Pakistan has provided to Taliban, it would not have become such a lethal force which engaged the full might of the international community, including the strongest militaries, and created a stalemate on the battle field. As analysts have pointed out, either the battlefield and strategy was wrong, or the effort to defeat the enemy was half hearted.

It was clear that US negotiators were driven by the US electoral calendar, and to make matters worse President Trump, unmindful of objections of his military commanders, ordered an accelerated drawdown, bring down the troop numbers to 2500 before he demitted office. NATO troops have fallen in tandem and the total stands at around 9600, not including the private contractors. However, the looming May 1 commitment applies to all troops (US and NATO) and the related support personnel. This presents a piquant dilemma for the new administration. Even though President Biden is committed to ending the endless wars, he cannot afford to be seen to be indulging in irresponsible withdrawal with serious consequences for democracy and human rights, especially women’s rights in Afghanistan without undermining his party’s policy goals. He will also be more open to listening to his NATO allies, and they have expressed their disquiet at hasty departure. Unlike Trump, he lacks the immunity from criticism if a terrorist attack were to happen on the US mainland. While these considerations will weigh upon the deep review that his new team is undertaking, it is clear that there will not be a satisfactory outcome given that the framework itself is skewed.

A Study group set up by the US Congress, and other US based analysts have suggested ‘seeking’ more time from Taliban since Taliban has not met their part of the commitments- though these are not explicitly mentioned in the Agreement. This would entail fresh negotiations, and additions of conditions, which the Taliban may or may not agree to. Taliban has already started blaming the US and Kabul regime for the current impasse or lack of progress. Taliban has also been making a very literal interpretation of their agreement with the US. It is unlikely they will in any way whittle away the gains they have made at the negotiating table.

Till clarity emerges in the current US thinking, it appears that the Taliban would not seriously negotiate, but will keep up the pretence of engagement, sporadically. This strategy of one step forward to fall back two has been successfully used by Pakistan with the US in its partnership on fighting terrorism in the region.

The Afghans expect a sharp uptick in violence through an undeclared spring offensive. As long as US or NATO troops are not directly attacked by the Taliban, it can operate below the radar. In any case most of the attacks have not been owned up by the Taliban, though increasingly these denials are being questioned. To assuage the new US Administration, the Taliban has issued a directive to all its field commanders to not have any truck with foreign fighters. Whether this will have any effect on the ground is still to be seen.

Way Forward

The changing nature of Taliban violence was clearly noticeable. Reports including of the UN, has documented Taliban’s continuing collaboration with other terror group, including Al Qaeda (AQ). Reports from areas they control indicate that Taliban has not changed at all, even though their Doha based leaders may have taken on a veneer of sophistication.

There was all round appreciation for India’s steadfast position in support of a democratic, sovereign, and united Afghanistan that did not waver despite what a participant called a “tsunami of narrative building in favour of the Taliban.” It was also agreed that it was just a matter of time that Taliban’s true colours will be out in the open. India, and the international community thus need to recommit themselves to preserving the gains of the last 20 years in Afghanistan.

There is also a need to redouble regional diplomatic efforts to rebuild the consensus on the future of Afghanistan- a consensus that seems to have frayed due to geo political contestations and opportunistic hedging strategies.

Taliban desires nothing more than international recognition and a quick review and removal of the UN sanctions. India as the chair of the UNSC sanctions committee needs to coordinate closely with Afghanistan and other likeminded countries to:-

  1. Ensure that Taliban is not rewarded through ‘unearned’ delisting and easing of sanctions;
  2. To ensure that new individuals based on their recent actions (especially those who have recently been released from prison) are added to this list, rather than a trimming as demanded by the Taliban; and
  3. Put an end the misuse and abuse of freedom of travel by Taliban to avoid negotiations.

These suggestions have particular urgency since the review is coming up in March.

The Taliban has been freely using the social media for narrative building and have often revealed their locations from Pakistan. Over 800 BOT run Twitter handles have been tracked. These and other social media presence has been strengthened to amplify the Taliban propaganda and create social media trends. This needs to be restrained.

While one can discern the change in international narrative in the face of Taliban intransigence this needs to be backed up by specific and verifiable commitments on reduction in violence and cease fire, which cannot be allowed to be put on the back burner as an outcome of the peace negotiations. This amounts to forcing the Afghan government to negotiate with a gun to its head.

While signed in a different era and context several clauses of the Geneva Accord of 1988 remain valid to date especially Art. 4 of Section 2 that deals with the issue of non-interference and non-intervention in each other’s affairs, and commitments undertaken by the two nations (Afghanistan and Pakistan) to not support groups that are challenging the government in either country. Both Russia and USA were guarantors of this agreement. The US Afghanistan joint declaration of 29 Feb 2020 contains US commitment to facilitate talks between the two Governments but given the detailed commitments in the Geneva Accord, there is no need to reinvent the wheel.

There is also a need to engage the Afghan government and various stakeholders to ensure political unity and coherence, and marked improvement in some of the key indicators of governance- such as fight against corruption and impunity, rule based management systems, as well as well as much improved delivery of services including justice. Some of the weaknesses of the government have disillusioned the population further eroding the credibility of the Government. There seems a clear rural urban divide in support for the Doha process.

Finally, the Taliban has made it clear, in a rather sinister warning, that their ‘jehad’ will not end with the withdrawal of foreign troops but will continue till the ‘foreign influences’ remain. This should leave no one in doubt what the Taliban want! This should be a wakeup call before it is too late.

(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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