In a remarkable turn of events, the two parties to Afghanistan's 19-year conflict, the United States (U.S.) and the Taliban, decided to sit at the same table for direct talks aimed at nailing down a "peace deal". This qualitative shift is partly necessitated by massive human and material costs incurred by the two parties since 2001 without either of them being able to resolve the conflict militarily. Nor did the political system that was built in Afghanistan after the removal of the Taliban regime succeed in proving political or economic or security efficiency, which kept the Taliban alive and kicking to this day.
Background and Context
Direct talks between the two sides began in July 2018, when U.S. officials secretly met with Taliban leaders in the group's political office in Qatar. On September 5 of the same year, the U.S. State Department appointed Zalmay Khalilzad, an American of Afghan descent, as Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation to take charge of direct dialogue with the group. After about ten rounds of direct negotiations, the two parties to the conflict managed to hammer out specific agreements, the most important of which was what was known as the "paper of understandings" at the seventh round of dialogue (7-9 July 2019). According to some leaks, the two parties agreed on a number of principles, which include maintaining the "Islamic system" of the state, protecting public facilities and infrastructure, and refraining from targeting civilians by the warring parties. The paper also underlined the importance of preserving the independence of Afghanistan, introducing the necessary reforms in the structure of the Afghan government, allowing the return of Afghan refugees from neighboring countries and giving them land plots. In addition to vowing to refrain from using threatening language and force, the parties also pledge to work to provide the appropriate environment to start direct negotiations between the Afghan parties, in addition to taking the necessary guarantees from neighboring countries not to interfere in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. Likewise, a number of key points were agreed upon, most notably the Taliban’s commitment not to use violence against the U.S. or its allies, and not to allow Afghan territory to be used by any other organization to carry out such operations.
Later, the most significant development came with an announcement in mid-February (2020) that the two parties reached an agreement on a seven-day reduction in violence in Afghanistan, in addition to a set of other confidence-building measures. According to statements by Taliban officials, the implementation of the "violence reduction" agreement will begin during the period February 22-28, and if this move succeeds, a peace agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban will be signed on February 29, after which direct negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government will begin.
Ambiguous and Potentially Problematic Agreement
Notwithstanding the significance of these developments, there is still a high degree of ambiguity about the nature of the agreement to be signed between the U.S. and the Taliban. According to Afghan sources, there are some secret appendices attached to the agreement, intended to regulate the future Taliban-U.S. relationship in a manner that may impact the Taliban's relation with Afghan government itself.
This ambiguity raises many questions about the implications of this agreement, if signed, for the future of the prospective dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan government, the future of Afghanistan in general, and the nature of the political settlement that can be reached between the two parties. This ambiguity also raises questions about the nature of the political rewards that the Taliban will obtain, especially in light of a political and military balance in favor of the group, and its actual control over a number of provinces in Afghanistan. This is particularly relevant given the current U.S. "implicit political recognition" of the Taliban and a potential explicit recognition in the future.
One of the proposed formulas of the prospective settlement is based on the Taliban's departure from violence in exchange for a complete and reciprocal release of prisoners, programs to integrate the group's members into political and social life, and transforming the group into an official political party. At some points, the group raised the issue of power-sharing alongside the Afghan government (through taking over the rule of a number of southern provinces), canceling the current constitution and devising a new constitution that would establish an Islamic state. But even if we assume that the group abandoned the last two demands (power-sharing and the abolition of the constitution), still, it will not be the end of the problem.
The first problem is the Taliban's disarmament. The group is not expected to easily accept laying down its weapons for many reasons, some of which are related to its long-standing trust crisis with the Afghan government while others are related to the group's understanding of the importance of arms in the balance of politics and power in Afghan history. Another and possibly compelling reason that will most likely push the group not to disarm is political instability and security fragility in Afghanistan in general, which is expected to continue for a long time. But the most important factor here relates to the nature of the mutual obligations between the U.S. and the Taliban under the peace agreement to be signed between the two parties. The agreement treats the Taliban as a "responsible" political party inside Afghanistan, and this responsibility includes not only refraining from carrying out any violent operations against the U.S. and its allies, but not using Afghanistan as a launch-pad for terrorist operations (according to what was stated in the paper of understandings and confirmed again in the February understandings). Taking on this responsibility requires the group to have the ability to "compel" others not to carry out such operations, and this, of course, requires the group to be armed with U.S. approval. Indeed, this explains why the planned peace deal overlooked the the future of the Taliban weapons.
The second problem relates to the group’s future as an Afghan entity and faction. One of the options expected here is to turn the group into a formal political party. Despite the relevance of this alternative, it, in turn, raises the scenario of the Taliban's re-domination of Afghanistan via the ballot box. Although there are a large number of political parties in Afghanistan, they are weak, possibly because of the 2004 constitution which scrapped the parliamentary system and introduced a presidential system. In addition, the group has effective control over a number of provinces, which reinforces its domination over political life if it becomes a political party. It is also not unlikely that the group will compete for the position of the president in the first upcoming presidential elections. Hence, even if the group does not stick to its demand for the abolition of the current constitution, this does not eliminate its ability, within a few years, to introduce fundamental changes to the political system and structures in Afghanistan, which means that there is a high possibility of the Taliban returning to power again.
With this possibility comes another question about the nature of any new Taliban political system. Some people point out here that the current "version" of the Taliban differs from the pre-2001 Taliban. Some say that the current Taliban is clearly aware of the many complexities of governance, and the need to make many changes to their ideas, especially with regard to women, public rights and basic and fundamental freedoms, as prerequisites for its acceptance and integration into the international community. But even if the group realizes this, any real change does not come with a superior decision on its part. Real change must be supported by profound intellectual transformations and doctrinal reviews, which we have not heard of by the group until now, or any of its leaders.
The third problem pertains to the integration of members of the Taliban into political and social life. This "integration" is centered on the release of the group members held by the Afghan government, pardoning its leaders and allowing them to return to Afghanistan, and the integration of them in economic life (allowing them to obtain appropriate job opportunities, or provide them with some economic aid). This integration could include enlisting the Taliban fighters in the Afghan army. The issue, in turn, raises a question about the extent to which the Afghan society can accept this process, especially ethnic and religious minorities outside the Pashtun or Sunni majority (Tajik, Uzbek, Aymaq, Turkmen, Baloch, Hazara, etc.), who together make up about 48% of the total Afghan population. Hence, even if we assume that the Pashtun majority supports the proposed peace agreement between the Taliban and the U.S., or that the former be reintegrated into political and economic life, this is not expected to enjoy the support of other ethnic groups. It is expected that this matter will deepen these ethnic and religious groups' sense of political defeat and dismay with the U.S. political project in Afghanistan. This also raises questions about the cost of economic integration programs and their funding given fragile Afghan economy and weak international commitment for the construction of Afghanistan. Finally, there will remain an important question about the implications of integrating the Taliban fighters in the Afghan army already implicated by ethnic, religious and tribal divisions.
This problem is getting more serious in light of the current political polarization in Afghanistan between President Ashraf Ghani and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah. This polarization became more apparent after the official announcement of the winner in the last presidential elections held on September 28, 2019, which the election commission was not able to officially announce its results until February 18, 2020 (i.e., after nearly five months). Although the commission succeeded in announcing Ashraf Ghani's victory in a second presidential term, but this result pave the way for two problems; the first is the success of Ashraf Ghani with a slight majority (50.64%) while the second problem is Abdullah Abdullah continued rejection of this result and his move to form a parallel government.
This fragile political reality will have negative repercussions on the forthcoming dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan government. On the one hand, this means that the dialogue will take place with a government whose president's legitimacy is not well-established and disputed by his rival Abdullah Abdullah. In addition to the low voter turnout, the number of correct ballots was reduced to 1.8 million after scrapping 2.7 million votes marred by violations. On the other hand, this dialogue will take place in a fragile political environment, which will provide the Taliban with the ability to either impose its political and security conditions on the Afghan government, or not to need to sign a peace agreement with the government at all, and make do with the prospective peace agreement with the U.S. This last scenario will mean that the Taliban and the Afghan government will effectively remain at war, meaning the group prefers to resolve the political conflict with the current regime through arms, and build its political model accordingly.
In conclusion, it can be said that the prospective peace agreement between the Taliban and the U.S. will not necessarily guarantee the stability of Afghanistan, due to many factors related to the ambiguity of this agreement and the possibility of including secret clauses and annexes that may be at the expense of the Afghan government and the political model in this country. Even if it [the agreement] opens the way to a dialogue between the Taliban and the government, this dialogue will take place against a backdrop of dysfunctional political and security forces. It also raises many problems and challenges that the Afghan government cannot handle alone given the fact that the current U.S. administration's top priority is exiting Afghanistan. In this case, Afghanistan will face one of two main scenarios: the return of the Taliban to power, or the outbreak of a new civil war that may be intended to create turmoil and chaos in the immediate regional environment of Russia and China.
* Asian affairs researcher.
EPC | 18 Nov 2020
Shereen Mohammed | 25 Oct 2020
EPC | 19 Oct 2020