Taliban Peace Talks

In February 2020, the United States signed a peace deal with Taliban in Qatar, and set to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, in following fourteen months, provided Taliban upheld the conditions of the agreement, including distancing itself from Al-Qaeda. The U.S. said that it was also committed to close its five military bases, within one hundred thirty five days, and also expressed to end economic sanctions on the Taliban, by August 2020.

The Afghan government, which was not party to the deal, rejected the U.S. and Taliban call for a prisoner’s swap, in the following month, because President Ashraf Ghani believed such a swap would require a further negotiated agreement, and that it should not be implemented as a precondition for future peace negotiations. However, on March 10, 2020, Ashraf Ghani signed a deal to swap fifteen hundred Taliban soldiers, provided they did not return to combat. The United Nations Security Council also announced to back the U.S. –Taliban peace deal the same day. However, also on the same day, the news became widespread that U.S. was not withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan. On the next day, on March 11, 2020, Taliban distanced itself from the prisoner swap talks. The U.S.-Taliban peace deal became exposed to danger when Ghani delayed the release of Taliban prisoners on March 14. The Taliban officially withdrew from prisoner swap talks, on April 7, 2020, which had been taking place in Kabul on March 30, 2020. It eventually resulted in release of hundred Taliban soldiers on April 8, 2020.

However, these developments do represent the fragility of the deal. Most of the commentators have argued that the deal is fruitless, to say the least. Ever since it was signed in late February, violence in Afghanistan has escalated, and a power struggle over the Afghan presidency has deepened.

According to an article by John R. Allen in Brookings: “the official U.S.-Taliban deal details a number of talks that would continue well into the future between the U.S., Taliban, and the government of Afghanistan. And yet, ongoing violence, especially against innocent civilian communities, largely negates the value in these discussions.”

The Afghan government said the Taliban’s move “indicates a lack of seriousness about peace,” according to a statement, from Javid Faisal, spokesman for the Afghan national security adviser’s office. The Taliban statement, in reiteration, warned that continued violations would “create an atmosphere of mistrust that will not only damage the agreements, but also force mujahideen to a similar response, and will increase the level of fighting.”

The Taliban recently had said that their peace deal with U.S. is at their breaking point, as they have accused Washington of killing civilians with drone attacks. Despite violence escalating, they have further said that they had restricted attacks against Afghan security forces to rural outposts, had not attacked international forces, and had not attacked Afghan forces in cities, or military installations. They have specifically stated that the limit of these attacks are specifically laid down in the agreement with the U.S., signed in February 2020. But, they have warned of more violence, if tenets of the deal are breached.

Also, the prospect of talks between the Afghan government, and the Taliban is complicated by disputed election results that fractured political power in Kabul, lately. Frustrated by the lack of political progress, the State Department vowed to cut one billion US dollars in aid, as they believe the situation has harmed U.S.-Afghan relations. This move would prove detrimental for a country whose institutions solely depend on it. The United States has spent more than one hundred thirty three billion US dollars, in aid programs, reconstruction, and Afghan security forces since 2001.

In recent times, negotiations had been advocated by the former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, as well as British and Pakistani governments, but it was only the Americans who resisted it. Karzai initially offered peace talks with the Taliban in September 2007, but it was rejected by the Taliban, citing presence of foreign troops. After being re-elected in 2009 presidential election, Karzai made a televised speech, and called Taliban to leave jihad, and embrace their homeland by coming home. He also laid plans for a loya jirga. But, these plans were underlined by Obama administration, as he wanted to increase the troops in the country. Although, in 2010, Karzai again pledged to reach out to Taliban so that they could lay down their arms. At United States Institute of Peace, he said that peace process would be with Taliban, and other militants, who were not part of the Al-Qaeda network.

At that time, Taliban’s co-founder and second in command, Abdul Ghani Baradar, favoured talks with the U.S. and Afghan government. He held talks with Karzai, but was soon captured in a joint U.S. –Pakistani raid in the city of Karachi, in Pakistan. His arrest had made Karzai furious because he thought Pakistan’s ISI was opposing the Afghan peace talks. For the reason of Baradar’s arrest, Taliban did not attend Afghan Peace Jirga in June 2010. Later, in 2011, Karzai had confirmed that secret talks were talking place between United States and Taliban, but they soon collapsed without leaving any impact. In 2012, the former Afghan president accused Taliban of running a government in exile, after Taliban opened a political office in Qatar. Again in 2016, Pakistan hosted a round of four-way talks with Afghan, Chinese and American officials, but the Taliban did not attend. However, the Taliban did hold informal talks with the Afghan government, in 2016.

With Trump in office, his statements threw libel against Pakistani politics in handling the Afghan peace process. He accused Pakistan of harbouring the Taliban, because according to him, there was certain inaction from Pakistani state actors.

In 2018, following an increase in violence, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani proposed unconditional peace talks with the Taliban, offering them a status of a legal political party, and an offer to release its prisoners. He then called on America and reprimanded that military action was no solution to the Afghan problem. On March 27, 2018, a conference of twenty countries in Tashkent, Uzbeikistan backed the Afghan government’s peace offer to the Taliban. However, for some reason, the Taliban refused to attend. Following a peace march called Helmand Peace March, in 2018, which was a response to a car bomb that killed fourteen people, Ghani and Taliban agreed to a mutual ceasefire in June 2018, during the Eid celebrations. Although, these celebrations didn’t last long.

Trump also tried to further facilitate the peace process, by appointing Zalmay Khalidzad as special advisor on Afghanistan in the U.S, States Department. As a result, Khalidzad led further talks between Taliban and U.S. in October 2018. Before the appointment, several American officials had met secretly at Taliban’s political office in Qatar.

Russia also played its part in the resolution process, by organising a separate peace talk, in November 2018, between the Taliban, and officials from Afghanistan’s High Peace Council. The talks, in Qatar, resumed in December 2018, but the Taliban refused to allow the Afghan government, considering them as pawns of the U.S. government.

When Baradar was released, at the behest of U.S. in Pakistan, a further round of talks sustained in February 2019. Khalidzad had believed that this round of negotiations was more productive, as a draft version of the peace agreement was finalised. Following this important development, the Taliban, however, did not attend the four-day loya jirga, to discuss peace talks between April-May 2019.

According to Washington Post, it was in the eight round of talks between Taliban and U.S. that were held in August 2019, that made America agree to reduce around five thousand troops from Afghanistan. This development needed Trump’s approval in September, but as violence mired in Kabul, where an American soldier and eleven others were killed, Trump cancelled the peace talks. However, in the same month, Taliban announced that doors for peace talks were open, should Trump decide to re-engage. It was only in early 2020, after a brief ceasefire, when Taliban and U.S. decided to draft a peace agreement.

As of now, the U.S. – Taliban deal is on a road to nowhere. It also seems highly unlikely that Taliban would breakaway from the Al-Qaeda – when they didn’t break away in the presence of one hundred fifty thousand coalition troops, and hundreds of thousands of Afghan security personnel, why would they now? It was Sirajuddin Haqqani, the number two in Taliban, who orchestrated the introduction of the pivotal members of al-Qaida into the war against the Soviet Union. These connections run deep, and would most likely be not given up at once, precisely at the moment when the U.S. would be leaving Afghanistan.