The US and Taliban have announced that they will sign a seven day “reduction in violence” deal on February 29, during which the two antagonists would refrain from attacks or military operations to facilitate the peacemaking process.
This is indeed a giant step forward for the antagonists who did not trust each other and when several previous attempts had failed.
If peace holds under this agreement thousands of American troops will withdraw, Taliban will pledge not to allow Afghanistan be used for harbouring militants. This is likely to be followed by prisoner exchange and Taliban negotiations with the Kabul representatives.
Kabul however, has said previously that the prisoner exchange will only be discussed during the intra-Afghan dialogue. The seven day violence reduction period was perhaps meant to test the authority of the Taliban representatives in talks over the field commanders and also to create an enabling environment for the intra-Afghan dialogue.
The Taliban have time on their hand. Trump wants to show sufficient troops have come home before elections. For now it’s only a muffled sound of peace drums
The impending agreement is not a peace deal. It is only a platform to negotiate one through the intra-Afghan dialogue.
Based on the leaks thus far the agreement meets the core demands of the antagonists: the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and the Taliban guarantees against harbouring militants. The agreement also provides steps to achieve ceasefire and a process for political settlement.
A big worry would be those on either side who still aspire their maximalist positions and seeking absolute power. Disparate Afghan groups looking for spoils may trigger military conflict. They are not bound by the “reduction in violence” deal. And if the deal does not hold the peace process will fall apart or at best will be delayed indefinitely.
The US and the Kabul regime fear that the Taliban may exploit the troops withdrawal to seek military victory. The Taliban know that the Kabul regime survives only with US military presence.
On the other hand, they fear that concessions to the US may demoralise its fighters allowing the US to postpone its withdrawal. The proposed agreement thus sequences and makes all clauses interdependent upon the other.
The important milestone following the “reduction in violence” deal would be the beginning of intra-Afghan dialogue and how much traction it can gain.
The Taliban refuse to talk to Kabul regime whom they call ‘puppets’ of the Americans. The Taliban know that the regime will not survive without the US military which Trump needs to show withdrawing in the election year.
The Taliban will make a key concession if they agree to meet the Kabul representatives in their official capacity. They have henceforth met them only in their individual capacity.
The question of what is the shape and size of phased US withdrawal is yet to be fully determined. News leaks suggest that the US will reduce its troops level to 8,600 within 135 days of the signing of the agreement.
Further troops reductions is tied to Taliban meeting certain conditions and in a country divided under so many warlords that is sure to create problems. There is a serious suspicion among the informed circles that US wants an extended stay in Afghanistan and will continue to dig its heels once the Taliban are somewhat neutralised.
Unified national military force
Many issues will need to be resolved when the dialogue does indeed take place between the Taliban and Kabul regime. The two sides will have to quickly tackle the question of heavily armed militias and Taliban fighters and how to integrate them into a unified national military force.
Immunity from prosecution for the residual US troops, which the Ghani regime signed will be hard for the Taliban to accept. Taliban also want to amend the constitution according to their interpretation of Islamic injunctions, which will be resisted by the Kabul government.
The presidential election result five months after the elections declaring Ashraf Ghani winner with only 50.64 votes, two days after the announcement of agreement allows the US to pitch a former US citizen Ashraf Ghani as the main interlocutor with the Taliban.
With only 1.8 million votes included in the final count — a tiny number given Afghanistan’s estimated population of 35 million and its total of 9.6 million registered voters, election results could hardly be called credible.
His bitter rival Abdullah Abdullah who has mysteriously lost presidential elections three times in a row, has already rejected the election results and has announced setting up a parallel government.
Former Vice President Rashid Dostum supports him. The Taliban, which earlier rejected the elections, said that declaring Ghani winner two days after the possible deal announcement jeopardises peace chances. Potential for violence therefore, looms large.
A government based on such a limited mandate and amid such conflict can hardly be credible and effective. It will necessarily be weak and at the mercy of warlords.
Road to peace still appears long and bumpy. The Taliban have time on their hand. Trump wants to show sufficient troops have come home before elections. For now it’s only a muffled sound of peace drums.
—Sajjad Ashraf served as an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore 2009-2017. He was a member of Pakistan’s Foreign Service 1973-2008 and served as Consul General of Pakistan to Dubai during the mid 1990s.