Image credit: Afghanistan by i postcross/Flickr; Licence: CC BY 2.0.

Written by Raghav Sharma.

My darling, you are just like America!
You are guilty, I apologise

A dead crow fell from the power line. Falling, the blackbird struck a woman’s arm. In the street, whispers began that the crow had bitten her bloody. The rumour spread of crows gone mad. Headlines read that citizens far from the city have locked themselves up in their rooms fearing mad crows. It is the army’s duty to perform a rescue*

Lovers and nations are both capable of betrayal. As liars, they are frequently interchanged in the traditional Afghan poetic form of the ‘landay’. The sardonic and apposite landay reproduced above, and all of Mustafa Saalik’s poetry, make for a stinging commentary which offers lucid insights into the changing contours of the current socio-political landscape in Afghanistan as perceived by ordinary citizens.

The pensive mood across Afghanistan has only been accentuated in light of the recently concluded peace deal between Washington and the Taliban in Doha. Throughout the negotiations, not only was the Afghan government totally excluded from the process, but the undermining of its legitimacy was buttressed by the peace agreement. Notably, in outlining details for the exchange of combat and political prisoners, the agreement conspicuously refers to the government as ‘the other side’.

A flawed peace deal

The contours for the trajectory of events at Doha were already etched out prior. Telling in this regard was the Afghan National Security Adviser Hamidullah Mohib’s scathing public castigation of the US special envoy to his country, Zalmay Khalilzad, at a Washington news conference in March 2019. He accused Khalilzad of ‘delegitimising’ the Kabul government by excluding it from peace negotiations with the Taliban and acting like a ‘viceroy’.

Successfully navigating the road to peace from Doha to Kabul will require careful manoeuvring through a challenging external geopolitical terrain and a greatly changed internal socio-political landscape

Nearly nineteen years after the US-led military intervention in October 2001 toppled the Taliban, Washington has been compelled to sign a ‘peace deal’ with its nemesis in which the United States gains no significant concessions in return. The fact that the negotiations were conducted against a backdrop of spectacular attacks – such as the August 2019 military offensive against the cities of Kunduz and Pul-i-Khumri, and the September 2019 attack on the ‘green village’ in Kabul; both mounted and justified by the Taliban – amplified the position of strength from which the latter sought to bargain.

 Victory for the Taliban?

The Taliban’s repeated insinuations, describing the Afghan government as a ‘puppet of the West’ and the republican system as being characteristic of an ‘imported democracy’, have gone virtually unchallenged by the US administration. Lucidly articulating their disdain for the electoral process, the Taliban argue that ‘since elections, electoral commissions, consultative jirgas and other such topics do nothing towards ending the ongoing miseries, they should not be given any worth’. Notably, the Afghan government, the country’s constitution, human rights and women’s rights are all conspicuous by their absence from the text of the Doha agreement.

This diverges sharply from Washington’s long-held three pre-conditions for any dialogue with the Taliban to fructify into a meaningful political settlement, namely: respect for the Afghan constitution, renouncing arms, and denouncing al-Qa’eda. The so-called ‘peace deal’ has already obliterated the first two conditions, while the Taliban’s supposed commitment to the third may be spurious.

Consider, for instance, the public acknowledgement in May 2019 by General Austin Miller, Commander of NATO’s Resolute Support mission, that al-Qa’eda was operating across different parts of Afghanistan. It is hard to envisage that such operations would be possible without the blessing of the Taliban, especially in light of the fact that both the Taliban and al-Qa’eda have been at loggerheads with the so-called Islamic State of Kohrasan (IS-K) since 2015, whilst competing for the same ideological turf.

Moreover, in his testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in July 2016, Khalilzad described the Taliban as an ‘extremist organisation’ with enduring ties to al-Qa’eda, and said the two would not part ways. There is little credible evidence to sustain the idea that Khalilzad has altered his views on the Taliban, except for the changing balance of military power on the ground in Afghanistan and political exigencies in Washington.

In addition to the United States’ clear desire to withdraw from Afghanistan, the Taliban have been further buoyed by the enthusiasm shown by Moscow, Beijing and Tashkent to court them in the name of finding a negotiated settlement and countering the rise of Daesh, which has sought to establish a safe sanctuary for itself (particularly in the southeastern province of Nangarhar and the northwestern province of Jowzjan). As far as the Taliban are concerned, this would help reduce their dependence on Rawalpindi and shore up their legitimacy, both at home and abroad.

The agreement to bring peace to Afghanistan signed in Doha exposes the hollow rhetoric of both the US and the Taliban when they talk of respecting and securing the progress made over the last two decades in the areas of human rights, press freedoms and women’s rights. The agreement validates the claims made by members of Afghan civil society who engaged with the Taliban as part of the intra-Afghan dialogue in July 2019 in Doha and were deeply disturbed by what they described as repeated use of the term ‘victory’ by the Taliban and their perceived reluctance to respect the ‘red lines’.

Successfully navigating the road to peace from Doha to Kabul will require careful manoeuvring through a challenging external geopolitical terrain and a greatly changed internal socio-political landscape. Some of the potential pitfalls along the way are outlined below. 

The rocky road ahead

To begin with, the United States’ sole focus on al-Qa’eda does not augur well for the interests of regional capitals such as New Delhi, whose concerns encompass other groups such as the Laskhar-e-Tiba, for instance, which have used Afghanistan as a safe haven for training and recruitment. Districts such as Barg-i-Matal in Nuristan province are known to serve as sanctuaries for groups operating against India.

Also, any deal which rests on the good faith of the generals in Rawalpindi is based on precarious foundations: in the run-up to the deal signed in Doha, the regional political landscape was punctuated by the assassination of the Taliban leader (the brother of Haibatullah Akhundzada) in a blast in a Quetta mosque he frequented, and the re-appearance of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan in Waziristan, leading many to wonder whether they really had been weeded out by the Pakistan military during its operations in Zarb-i-Azab.

All of this indicates Pakistan’s continued resolve to have a hand in moulding the contours of the political settlement in Kabul. Furthermore, Pakistan’s unabated rhetoric on Jammu and Kashmir has ratcheted up the tension in the region following the air strikes by the Indian Air Force on Balakot in February 2019 against the alleged militant training camps and the Indian government’s abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A.

Another obstacle is that although the deal was touted as paving the way for intra-Afghan negotiations, it has already hit an unexpected roadblock: the negotiations failed to commence due to the widely differing interpretations of the agreement reached in Doha.

The devil in the detail

For example, while the Taliban insist on the release of 5,000 prisoners as a pre-condition for dialogue, the Afghan government understandably refuses to commit itself to any such conditionalities, with prisoners being the only major bargaining chip in the hands of President Ashraf Ghani. Similarly, while the agreement stipulates a reduction in violence as a confidence-building measure in the run-up to dialogue with the government, the Taliban have continued to stage attacks on the Afghan security forces, arguing that the reduction in violence only applies to attacks on NATO forces, which in turn invites retaliation.

In addition, the continuing political impasse between Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah, following a flawed presidential election, has prevented the crafting of a political consensus or formation of a negotiating team for dialogue. Should such dialogue with the Taliban come to fruition, this will likely undermine the credibility of the negotiating team and give traction to potential dissenters.

While there is clearly a pronounced yearning for peace across the diverse socio-political mosaic of the country, there is little clarity in public about what enforcement mechanisms are in place to ensure that the Taliban will adhere to the terms of the agreement. Indeed, while the US has committed itself to a comprehensive troop withdrawal within 14 months, there is nothing in the text of the agreement about the withdrawal being contingent on a political settlement, and nor does it spell out the fate of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) signed between the US and the Afghan government in October 2014.

Past Afghan experience with peace accords is bound to produce a degree of scepticism, given that historically, peace accords have had a poor track record in bringing peace to Afghanistan. Amplifying the challenge is the fact that the Taliban have no track record at all of working with their former political and military adversaries.

A new social order

Consequently, speculation is rife among ordinary Afghan citizens as to the precise character of the new socio-political order in Afghanistan, should the Taliban be rehabilitated with the blessing of Washington, Rawalpindi and Beijing. The question on the lips of many is not simply about who will rule Afghanistan, but how that rule will be exercised.

This is important for two reasons. To begin with, there is great uncertainty as to whether the Taliban and the Afghan government will decide to negotiate a new constitution or simply make substantial amendments to the existing one. And this comes against the backdrop of cataclysmic changes having swept through Afghan society over the last two decades. For example, the country has experienced unprecedented levels of political and military mobilisation from the 1980s onwards which has widened the arena for political mobilisation and participation. Consequently, the ideas of political legitimacy have been redefined.

Afghans have also had unprecedented levels of access to education, exposure to the outside world (through education abroad as well as through the internet and the influx of foreigners in the form of NGO workers, military personnel and civilian advisers), and exposure to other parts of the country. Hitherto marginalised groups such as the Hazaras have sought to capitalise on access to education, especially for women, and to move up the socio-political order. These developments indicate the need for a great deal of sensitivity when engaging with the changed social and political realities of the country.

The rushed nature of the peace deal has not only undermined the Afghan government; it is expected that it will have an adverse impact on the morale of the Afghan security forces, who have been losing men in large numbers even while doubts increase as to what they are actually fighting for. Hence any withdrawal by the US should ideally follow a peace agreement rather than come in advance of one.

Forcing the Taliban’s hand

It should not be forgotten that nine former US envoys who served under Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump cautioned against a hasty US withdrawal, and while some may say this was just a concealed way to keep the United States and its allies engaged in a major war, this is not the case. In fact, the Afghans are already doing almost all of the fighting and the dying. As the Afghan air force improves, the cost to the US in terms of arms and personnel will continue to fall. These are costs which the US can and should sustain in order for negotiations to result in a sustainable peace,  something which will only happen if the Taliban believe that they too must make compromises.

Questions also abound over the ability of the Taliban leadership to legitimise and enforce the peace agreement among its own field commanders, some of whom have indicated their reluctance to give up when they appear to be on the cusp of a military and ideological victory. Moreover, what will happen to the Taliban fighters? Will they undergo a demobilisation and disarmament process or could they be integrated into the Afghan National Army, the army they have been fighting against all along? If so, what would be the mechanism for doing this? Currently, there are proposals to create a joint military command and control structure until the forces are integrated into a single entity, with each side being responsible for security in the areas that they control in the meantime.

Rentier state

Finally, there is the economic dimension to the peace agreement and its implications. This is crucial for a country like Afghanistan, where 71 per cent of the budget is financed through foreign aid – a phenomenon that led Barnett R. Rubin to characterise Afghanistan as a classic ‘rentier state’. The country has been one of the largest recipients of US aid, which had reached around USD 14 billion by 2012 but has since fallen significantly to less than USD 2 billion annually.

Most of all, with Washington’s political commitment towards Kabul wavering, people want to know what effect this will have on the flow of aid. The US has already announced a cut of USD 1 billion in annual aid flows in 2020, and possibly another USD 1 billion in 2021 because of delays in moving ahead with the peace deal. This is likely to have significant repercussions across all sectors, from security to health and education. Next year will be pivotal in this respect, as international aid pledges to Afghanistan come to an end in 2020.

To conclude, the road to peace from Doha is dotted with a great number of difficult obstacles that will have to be surmounted along the way. Safely negotiating these roadblocks, however, appears an increasingly tall order in light of the rather fuzzy roadmap produced in Doha.

Raghav Sharma is an Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Afghanistan Studies at the School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. He tweets @raghavsharma83

*Mustafa Saalik’s poem, translated by Gulistan Shinwari and Elisa Griswald. In: I am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan, ed. E. Griswald (2014). New York: Farar, Straus and Giroux, pp.109–110.

**Articles published by The Asia Dialogue represent the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of The Asia Dialogue or affiliated institutions.

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