Biden Administration to Review Agreement with Taliban: Likely Scenarios

Mohamed Fayez Farahat | 07 Feb 2021

Despite the strategic mistakes in the peace agreement between the Taliban and the US, which was signed in February 2020 during the era of the Donald Trump administration, the Biden administration was not expected to announce its intention to review the agreement a few days after assuming its duties on 20 January 2021. In a phone call on 22 January 2021, the US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan informed his Afghan counterpart Hamdullah Mohib that the US will review the peace agreement concluded with the Taliban and that pursuant to this review, the US will reassess "whether the Taliban was living up to its commitments to cut ties with terrorist groups, to reduce violence in Afghanistan, and to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government and other stakeholders”.

Assessment of the agreement one year after its implementation

The agreement signed between the Taliban and the US included four main axes. The first of these includes five commitments on the part of the US and its allies, including starting the gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan, leading to a full withdrawal within 14 months, the mutual release of prisoners, removing the names of the Movement’s members from the list of US and international sanctions, and refraining from the use of force or from threatening to use it against Afghanistan and non-intervention in its internal affairs.

The second axis includes five corresponding commitments on the part of the Taliban, including a pledge not to allow any of its members or groups associated with it to use Afghan territories to threaten the security of the US or its allies, its members' commitment not to cooperate with any individuals or groups that threaten the security of the US and its allies, its commitment to prevent any of those individuals or groups from recruiting, training and fundraising, and not to host them in Afghanistan, its commitment to deal with any asylum or residence requests in Afghanistan in accordance with international law, and finally its commitment not to grant entry visas, passports, travel permits or other legal documents to persons who represent a threat to the security of the US or any of its allies.

The third axis obliges the Taliban to engage in an intra-Afghan dialogue starting from 10 March 2020, while the fourth axis indicates that a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire will be one of the items of this intra-Afghan dialogue. The agreement explicitly mentions the close interrelation between those four axes.

In practice, despite the important privileges obtained by the Taliban under the agreement, including the ability to deal with the Taliban as a "responsible political party" inside Afghanistan, the Movement did not, however, commit to faithfully implementing the terms of the agreement. Despite the start of the dialogue between the Movement and the Afghan government, that dialogue came nearly six months later than the date agreed upon in the agreement, after severe procrastination by the Movement, and often under severe pressure on the part of the Trump administration on the Movement in order to save the agreement from collapse. The dialogue did not end with the achievement of any significant results on the road to real peace in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the start of the dialogue did not prevent the Movement’s military operations against the Afghan government from continuing, which showed the Movement’s adherence to the separation between the dialogue path and the path of violence and military operations, which is the same approach adopted by the Movement in managing its dialogue with the US until the signing of the agreement. On the other hand, the US continued to reduce the size of its forces in Afghanistan, which reached 2,500 soldiers, the lowest level since 2001.

Most importantly, the agreement did not entail any practical measures at three levels:

1. Taliban’s relationship with Al-Qaeda

Contrary to what was expected, the period following the signing of the agreement between the Taliban and the US witnessed an increase in Al-Qaeda activity inside Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda proceeded to carry out specific operations. Some observers suggested that the Taliban had made promises and provided assurances to Al-Qaeda before signing the agreement that the agreement would not affect the relationship between them.[1] A dispute arose during the Trump administration between political and military officials about the Taliban’s commitment to implementing the contents of the agreement regarding its relationship with Al-Qaeda. Whereas on 1 July 2020, Secretary of State Pompeo confirmed that there were indications of the Taliban’s confrontation with Al-Qaeda, General Kenneth MacKenzie, the Commander of the US Central Command, confirmed on 15 July 2020 that there was no clear evidence about whether the Taliban had taken specific steps in terms of the confrontation with Al-Qaeda.[2]

2. Taliban’s operations against the Afghan government

One of the main weaknesses of the agreement is that it did not include any obligation on the part of the Taliban to cease its operations against the Afghan government. It simply included the Movement’s pledge not to allow its members or groups associated with it to use Afghan territories to threaten the security of the US or its allies, which was translated into the cessation by the Movement of its operations against US and international forces inside Afghanistan. This pledge was not extended to the Afghan government and institutions, nor even to Afghan citizens, which explains the Movement's continuing operations against those targets, and even the escalation of those operations during 2020.

This problem raises more ambiguity not only about the chances of continuing negotiations between the Movement and the Afghan government, but also – which is more important – about the nature of the final outcome of the negotiations, given that conducting those negotiations under the pressure of the Movement’s military operations and in conjunction with the continued US withdrawal operations from Afghanistan, would put the Afghan negotiators under severe pressure and establish their weakness in the face of the Taliban.

3. The ambiguity of the Movement’s position on Daesh

In 2020, no clashes between the Taliban and Daesh (Islamic State, ISIS) were recorded in Afghanistan. This observation is significant for two important considerations: the first is that Daesh constitutes an important traditional enemy of the Taliban, given that Daesh is a foreign organisation in the Afghan arena that controls an area of ​​land, which undermines Taliban's strength. The second relates to one of the interpretations put forward for the Trump administration’s decision to sign its agreement with the Taliban, namely channeling the latter’s combat capabilities towards fighting Daesh on the Afghan scene.

Thus, the previous three observations raise important questions about the seriousness of the Taliban’s commitment to a real peace process in Afghanistan, the extent of its willingness to abandon violence, its disengagement from terrorist organisations, especially Al-Qaeda, and its willingness to confront Daesh. While it is difficult to say that there is secret coordination between Taliban and Daesh, this does not prevent Taliban from tending to employ the presence of Daesh in Afghanistan to pressure the US and international forces to accelerate the withdrawal from Afghanistan. All of this indicates Taliban’s belief that confronting the "local enemy" (the Afghan government) has priority over confronting the "foreign enemy" (whether US and international forces or Daesh).

The future of the agreement (likely scenarios)

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan indicated that the review process will focus on assessing whether the Taliban has severed its ties with terrorist organisations, assessing Taliban’s commitment to reducing the level of violence in Afghanistan, and engaging in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government and the other partners.[3] Despite the importance of the three approaches to assessing and reviewing the agreement, it is not possible to conclude that a specific scenario would reflect the outcome of the US review of the agreement, the possible adaptation by the Movement during the next few years in response to this US approach, or the future of the agreement in the event that the US and Taliban engage in new negotiations, if any. Within this framework, the following three scenarios could be put forth:

1. Acceleration of negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government, and the Biden administration’s backdown on the idea of ​​review

Under the influence of the Biden administration’s announcement of its intention to review the agreement, the Taliban Movement may have to speed up its negotiations with the Afghan government and reduce the level of its military operations against the Afghan government, with the aim of preserving the agreement and the political and military gains it has already achieved through it, thus discouraging the US from the review. This scenario is supported by the actual start of the negotiations on 12 September 2020, which provides an opportunity to accelerate them through the Movement's display of a greater degree of flexibility on contentious issues. This scenario is also reinforced by factors related to the nature of the current elite within the Movement, and the control of the political wing over the Movement, starting with Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Movement’s leader who succeeded Mullah Mansour after the latter was killed in a US air raid in Pakistan in 2016. Haibatullah Akhundzada is more of a cleric than a military man, given that he was one of the leaders of the Taliban's religious courts, which means that he is capable of putting forward religious justifications to conducting any tactical reviews regarding the Movement’s position on the issues under negotiation or on violence against the Afghan government. Furthermore, the military successes achieved by the Movement during his term have guaranteed him a degree of legitimacy and the achievement of a greater degree of cohesion within the Movement.[4]

However, this does not necessarily mean that this decision by the Taliban would necessarily express a strategic shift, as it may remain a tactical decision whose main aim is to overcome the difficulties of the initial phase, including, firstly, preserving the signed agreement that provides huge concessions to the Movement, and in a way that guarantees, secondly, the completion of the full US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which is planned to take place by 1 May 2021, given that this is a central issue for the Taliban that would entail a fundamental change in the balance of power inside Afghanistan in favour of the Taliban. This explains the call by the spokesman for the Taliban's political office in Doha Mohammed Naeem on the Biden administration, only two days before it assumed its duties, to respect the agreement signed with the Trump administration and complete the withdrawal process, indicating that failure to implement the agreement may affect the ongoing negotiations with the Afghan government.[5]

2. The introduction of partial amendments to the agreement

Despite the importance of the three approaches or criteria put forward by Jake Sullivan to the US review of the agreement, those declared approaches may simply constitute cards to exert US pressure on the Taliban in order to achieve another more important goal, namely to force the Movement to accept the retention by the US of part of its military forces in Afghanistan. While limiting the review process to this goal may constitute a gain for the Afghan government in terms of improving the balance of power with the Taliban, it would not be sufficient to correct the manifestations of imbalance contained in the agreement in favour of the Taliban.

3. Collapse of the agreement

This scenario is not expected to constitute a valid alternative for the Biden administration, in the light of the announcement by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, weeks before the Biden administration formally assumed its duties, that the US continues to adhere to the diplomatic track with the Taliban.[6] However, this scenario may come as an inevitable result of the failure to review the agreement with the Taliban and the announcement by one or both sides of the withdrawal therefrom.

This scenario has its premises. Despite the existence of a trend that defended the idea of ​​dialogue with the Movement and the exit of the US from conflict areas, the trend rejecting the idea of ​​dialogue and the signing of the agreement remained strong in the US and within many US institutions, including the Department of Defense, based on the serious strategic implications of the agreement with the Taliban. In this context, reference could be made to the cancellation of the meeting that was planned between Trump and a number of the Movement leaders at Camp David in September 2019. According to a number of reports, the cancellation of the meeting was due to the objection by quarters within the US to the idea of ​​the agreement in principle, and because of the symbolic significance of concluding this agreement in the Camp David retreat, which represents a symbol of the important international peace agreements that were held in the retreat, or in terms of the timing, given that this meeting was scheduled to coincide with the anniversary of the attacks carried out by Al-Qaeda (an ally of the Taliban) in September 2001, which killed thousands of Americans. Those factors have likely forced Trump to cancel that meeting.

However, while this scenario remains a strong possibility, some factors may dampen the parties' drive in its direction. On the one hand, the Taliban is aware of the importance of this agreement in terms of the gains it has achieved through it. Besides, renegotiating a new agreement with a Democratic US administration would mean that the US negotiator would stick to an agreement that gives more weight to the Taliban’s obligations towards internal Afghan issues, especially stopping the violence, respecting the Constitution, respecting human rights, and preserving the political and social gains achieved by Afghan women and religious and ethnic minorities, as opposed to the relative importance attached by the Republican Trump administration to the Taliban's commitments to US national security, stopping violence against US and international forces, and the US exit from Afghanistan, which greatly facilitated the chances of reaching an agreement that is biased in favour of the Taliban at the expense of the Afghan interior. On the other hand, the Biden administration’s awareness of the difficulty of renegotiating with the Taliban, and the consequences of the collapse of the agreement in terms of the strong return of violence against US forces, in the light of many internal challenges, would curb the administration’s drive to withdraw from the agreement.

Conclusion

The Joe Biden administration has recognised early on some of the risks associated with the deal concluded by the Trump administration with the Taliban. While it is true that the Biden administration’s position did not amount to a complete reversal of or withdrawal from the agreement, given that it continues to be related to the accuracy of the Movement’s commitment to the content of the agreement and the pace of the Movement’s implementation of its provisions, this does not diminish the importance of this review, considering that it constitutes an important opportunity to correct some of the defects contained in the agreement.

References

[1] For example, Edmund Fitton-Brown, the Co-ordinator of the United Nations Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and Taliban Monitoring Team, confirmed in a statement to the BBC, in October 2020, that the Taliban had made explicit promises to Al-Qaeda before signing the agreement that they would remain allies. He also stressed that the agreement did not affect the said alliance relationship. See: Secunder Kermani, “Al-Qaeda still 'heavily embedded' within Taliban in Afghanistan, UN official warns”, BBC News, 29 October 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-54711452

[2] Congressional Research Service, “Afghanistan: Background and U.S. Policy: In Brief Updated”, CRS Report, R45122, November 10, 2020, p. 12. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R45122.pdf

[3] Biden administration will review deal with the Taliban: White House”, REUTERS, 22 Jan. 2021. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-afghanistan-idUSKBN29R2NG

[4] Congressional Research Service, “Afghanistan: Background and U.S. Policy: In Brief Updated”, op., cit., p. 11. 

[5] “Taliban calls on Joe Biden administration to honor Donald Trump's deal to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by May 2021”, Hindustan Times, January 19, 2021. https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/taliban-calls-joe-biden-to-honor-deal-to-withdraw-us-troops-from-afghanistan-101611039219626.html

[6] “Biden's NSA Pick Supports Continued Afghan Diplomacy”, TOLO NEWS, Jan. 4, 2021. https://tolonews.com/afghanistan-168980

 

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