The preliminary agreement between the United States and the Taliban announced by Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan, may have raised hope among some, but has failed to impress most Afghans.
It’s no secret that Khalilzad was under pressure to negotiate the return of US troops after 18 years of war – a war that is a stalemate at its best. His diplomacy over the last few months represents the biggest shift in US policy on Afghanistan, as the US engaged the Taliban directly instead of forcing the group to talk to the Afghan government.
Although there is no stated deadline, the signals are clear that President Donald Trump would like to end US involvement in Afghanistan on his watch and check one more box off his campaign promises.
Direct Dialogue With Taliban
Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan was in Kabul on Monday, 11 February, to assess the risks and logistics of a potential drawdown of US forces although he denied any impending change in deployment for the time being. His visit came days after Khalilzad announced he had worked out the framework for a peace agreement.
The pace at which things are moving, no one should be surprised if the US begins pulling out before a full agreement is in place or even without one. The core of the nascent deal is a Taliban promise not to allow international terrorist groups to operate from Afghanistan in exchange for US troop withdrawal.
But the Taliban promise is not new – they have barred foreign terrorist groups in theory many times before. They have made the same promise since 2010, yet a variety of terrorists have operated from areas under Taliban control.
But, what’s new in all of this, is the US acceptance of Taliban’s words.
By Khalilzad’s own admission, these are preliminary steps in a “package deal” where “nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to,” including an understanding on the political, security and social issues dividing the various Afghan groups.
Will Trump Sit Through the Peace Deal?
Whether the US under Trump’s unpredictable leadership will remain committed until a comprehensive deal is worked out is an open question. The Afghan government is deeply concerned, not least because it has been kept out of the Doha process at Taliban’s insistence.
But Khalilzad hopes that an intra-Afghan dialogue, which should include the government, will be well underway by July before the Afghan presidential elections are held.
That’s a lot to hope for on a tight timetable. Afghan groups at war with each other for years are expected to reach an understanding with the Taliban on a range of issues, including what space the Taliban would occupy in a future dispensation, the future of women’s rights and the role of sharia.
Will Taliban Walk the Talk?
The speed with which the Trump Administration is moving has the Afghans and others, especially India, worried. It has already made dramatic concessions to the Taliban and adjusted its long-held positions, the most significant being the decision to negotiate troop withdrawal before the Taliban begin negotiations with other Afghans. All in exchange for a vague promise.
The mantra of an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” peace process seems to have disappeared from official US statements. As many have noted, the process thus far appears more about withdrawal – the biggest Taliban demand – and less about ensuring that the gains of the last 18 years are secured.
Khalilzad has been talking to the Taliban without preconditions – earlier US demands that the Taliban lay down their arms, accept the Afghan constitution, renounce violence and break ties with international terrorist entities are now “back-loaded” in the process.
It means the preconditions, which were already somewhat diluted by the Obama Administration in 2012 as “necessary outcomes” are no longer crucial determinants of a peace settlement but hoped-for by products.
Given Trump’s eagerness to exit, the Taliban have both psychological and military advantage. Despite Khalilzad’s demands, they are yet to commit publicly to breaking with al Qaeda or declaring a ceasefire so talks with the Afghan government can begin.
An Upper Hand for the Taliban?
Khalilzad would like the intra-Afghan dialogue to begin “as soon as possible” and a “permanent ceasefire” in place. “The Taliban say there is no military solution and the Afghan government supports the peace process unconditionally, then why should the killings go on,” he asked last week.
It’s a good question but the answer should be painfully clear from the Taliban’s recent actions. They have conducted more attacks rather than curtail and it’s highly unlikely the Taliban leaders will give up battlefield gains, talk disarmament and lose momentum.
Khalilzad admitted as much when he said a ceasefire would “take away the only instrument they (the Taliban) have to get concessions from the other side.” They told him if they declared a long ceasefire and failed to get what they want, it would be hard to get their troops back in the field.
Absent a ceasefire, moving the peace process along will become that much more difficult and an eventual agreement among warring groups more elusive.
The Taliban are equally intransigent on starting a dialogue with the government before the July elections because any dialogue would bestow upon President Ashraf Ghani the title of a “peace” candidate – not something the Taliban are willing to give.
They will likely begin an intra-Afghan dialogue after the US starts a drawdown not before to ensure maximum leverage for themselves and diminishing leverage for the Afghan government.
They reportedly also have preconditions for talking to the Afghan government – they want Kabul to cancel the bilateral security agreement with the US, apologise for its “crimes” and hand over people Taliban describes as “national traitors” and “criminals” for a trial by an “Islamic court.”
The dimensions of what the Taliban ultimately seek are unclear. Will they participate in elections or demand to be a part of an interim government? The Afghan government vehemently opposes setting up an interim government.
As for protecting Afghan civil society, women’s rights and freedom of the press, their message is mixed at best.
In a BBC interview last week, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, who led the peace negotiations with the US, said that women and girls would be allowed “all those rights, which are according to Islamic rule and also the Afghani culture – this will be granted to them. They can go to school, they can go to universities, they can work…”
Stanikzai’s idea of women’s rights being defined by “Islamic rule” and “Afghani culture” will give pause to Afghan women who have fought hard to secure their freedom to lead normal lives.
While it may be harder for the Taliban to force their vision on Afghan society this time around, it doesn’t mean they won’t try.
(The writer is a senior Washington-based journalist. She can be reached at @seemasirohi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)