On 29 February 2020, the United States and the Afghan Taliban signed an “historic” peace deal, paving the way for US and NATO forces to leave Afghanistan within 14 months, provided that the Taliban fulfil their obligations under the deal. This paper will examine the contents of the deal and the problems that it faces, including the areas on which it is silent, which may pose a challenge during the process of building peace and stability in Afghanistan.
Contents of the deal
The US deal with the Taliban contains four key axes for ensuring peace in Afghanistan. The first and second axes set out the mutual obligations to which the United States and the Taliban have committed. These include five commitments on the part of Washington and its allies, including the start of gradual US and international withdrawal from Afghanistan, culminating in full withdrawal within 14 month. It also covers the release of prisoners, the removal of Taliban members’ names from US and international lists of sanctions, the non-use or threat of use of force against Afghanistan, and non-interference in Afghan internal affairs.
The Taliban also have five obligations, including a pledge to prevent any of its members or affiliated groups (including Al-Qaida) from using Afghan territory to threaten the security of the United States or its allies. The Taliban has also pledged to send a clear message to such groups that there is no place for them in Afghanistan, in addition to preventing its members from working with any individuals or groups that threaten the United States or its allies and stopping all such individuals and groups from recruiting, training, funding, or hosting elements in Afghanistan. The Taliban has also committed to handling all asylum or visit requests submitted to Afghanistan in accordance with international law. Lastly, the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” has promised not to provide entry visas, travel passports, or other legal documents to persons who pose a threat to the United States or any of its allies.
The third and fourth parts of the agreement place an obligation on the Taliban to engage in Afghan–Afghan dialogue, starting on March 10, 2020, to discuss, among other things, a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire agreement. The agreement explicitly states that these four axes are interdependent and that the implementation of each of them, starting with the mutual obligations, will pave the way for the implementation of the remaining axes.
The US–Taliban agreement provides clarity on two areas of ambiguity that arose during the round of direct dialogue between the two parties immediately preceding the signing of the agreement. The first was the issue of US and international recognition of the Taliban. In almost every clause, the agreement clearly states that the United States does not recognize the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” (the Taliban) as a State, despite their mutual obligations to each other. The second area concerns the relationship between the agreement and the start of the Afghan–Afghan negotiation process. There was deep skepticism as to whether the United States would be able to achieve a peace deal with the Taliban without linking it to a serious negotiation process between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Ultimately, however, the agreement confirmed the existence of a “close” relationship between the two processes.
Areas on which the agreement is silent
The agreement remains silent on a number of issues, however, which may pose an obstacle to the process of building genuine, sustainable peace in Afghanistan. The first issue relates to the nature of the final objective of the Afghan–Afghan dialogue, as the agreement does not specifies what the anticipated outcome of the process is, nor what the nature of the desired peace in Afghanistan is. The agreement does not set out general guidelines for this “peace”, nor specific provisions for the Afghan–Afghan dialogue. It proposes only one criterion, namely a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire. In this sense, the first and second axes of the agreement concerning the mutual obligations of the United States (and its allies) and the Taliban are not necessarily linked to the nature of the expected final outcome of the Afghan–Afghan dialogue. The United States’ commitments are tied only to the launch of the dialogue as a starting point and to the achievement of a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire “agreement” as an end point or final outcome of the dialogue. This means that, from a US perspective, reaching such an “agreement” may be sufficient to trigger the implementation of all the obligations of the United States and its allies.
Another important issue concerns who, among the various Afghan groups, should be involved in the upcoming Afghan–Afghan dialogue. The agreement neglects, for example, the necessity of ensuring that the various ethnic and religious components of Afghanistan are represented in the dialogue. Leaving this issue to the discretion of the Taliban and the Afghan government means that the Afghan government will have the final say in who participates in the various delegations and that the Taliban will be able to prevent certain forces from participating in the dialogue, thereby retaining the same number and type of participants as in previous dialogues.
This increases the likelihood that the upcoming dialogue will face significant hurdles, starting with the basic foundations or premises of the dialogue: will it start from the basis that the existing political model will be retained, or will this “model” also be up for discussion? Either option will have repercussions on the agenda of the dialogue. The former option may lead to the postponement of dialogue on the issue of the current Afghan Constitution, adopted in 2004. This means that the Taliban would remain out of power, while all other items (the party system and the law on political parties, the nature of the economic system, the education system, public freedoms, the nature of the Afghan army, etc.) would be on the agenda for discussion. Even where assuming that participants will start from a viewpoint of maintaining the existing political model, it will not be easy to reach an agreement on the agenda, and on these items in particular, for a number of reasons. Among other things, the balance of power is tipped in favor of the Taliban, and it is in the interest of the United States and its allies (or those acting on their behalf) to preserve the responsibilities that the Taliban has assumed within Afghanistan as stated in the agreement, primarily their commitment to combat extremist organizations. Both of these factors place the Taliban in a relatively better position than the government in the upcoming negotiations.
The second point is related to the future of the Taliban’s weapons stocks. The agreement noticeably makes no reference to the future of the Taliban’s armory. While it includes time-bound commitments for the United States and its allies to withdraw all non-diplomatic elements from Afghanistan (military forces, trainers, advisers, civilian special security forces, and support services), the agreement sets out no provisions — either long- or short-term — regarding the disarmament of the Taliban.
The reason for this lies in the responsibilities that the Taliban have assumed under the agreement with regard to combating other violent religious organizations inside Afghanistan, which means that they will need to hold on to their weapons, as it would be difficult to fulfil this obligation otherwise (a blind eye may even be turned to any increase in the group’s weapons stocks, if considered necessary).
This approach will have repercussions on the agenda of the upcoming Afghan–Afghan dialogue and on the nature of the final outcome of the dialogue. Although the Taliban’s weapon stocks are not expected to feature on the agenda, the fact that they will be able to hold on to their weapons will strengthen their negotiating position vis-à-vis the Afghan government and make it easier for them to impose conditions. The third and most important consideration, however, is that silence on the issue of Taliban weaponry will increase the likelihood of a new “Hezbollah-style” model developing inside Afghanistan, in addition to the Taliban retaining control over a number of Afghan states (by being allowed to retain their weapons and a portion of the territory). This will do little to support efforts to build genuine, sustainable peace in Afghanistan.
Conclusion and expectations
Although the bilateral agreement between the United States and the Taliban has resolved a number of important problems that had been a source of controversy during dialogue between the two sides and that, as the Afghan government had stated on more than one occasion, had impacted the expected dialogue between it and the Taliban, the resolution of these problems is not enough to create the conditions required to build a sustainable peace inside Afghanistan through the anticipated Afghan–Afghan dialogue, given the agreement’s silence on several important points.
In light of the agreement’s silence on the nature of the expected final outcome of the Afghan–Afghan dialogue and its failure to set out general conditions for the dialogue, it is likely that the final outcome of this process will be limited to one of several specific practical alternatives: a fragile peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government, a peace “imposed” by the Taliban on the Afghan government, a peace that does not include any ethnic or religious components other than the Pashtun or Sunnis, or merely a permanent ceasefire agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government that simply preserves the status quo without widespread military confrontation.
Moreover, the failure to set out provisions on the future of the Taliban’s weaponry means that the Taliban will be able to make its own decisions on the matter, outside the scope of the Afghan–Afghan dialogue process. This silence may be the result of the parties’ realization that it is only a matter of time before the Taliban once again rules Afghanistan, at which point the Taliban themselves will be responsible for building the Afghan army.
These ambiguities in the agreement and their impact on the Afghan–Afghan dialogue process are not, however, expected to affect the agreement’s chances of success for many reasons, primarily that the implementation of its provisions and of the timetables that it contains depends more heavily on the act of launching the Afghan–Afghan dialogue than on the contents of the dialogue itself or the results that it produces. Furthermore, the two parties (the United States and the Taliban) have a common interest in implementing the agreement. The current US administration has an interest in ending the war and halting the economic and human costs which it has incurred for nearly two decades without achieving any clear military victory over the Taliban. It is also interested in opportunities to exploit this issue during the current US electoral race. For its part, the Taliban no longer have the same ability to recruit fighters and mobilize funds as they used to. After 18 years of fighting, they may also have realized that military confrontation is not the best way of returning to power. The agreement also provides the Taliban with the opportunity to turn their attention entirely to efforts to confront their new enemy inside Afghanistan, the Khorasan Province branch of Islamic State.
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