Recent statements from the incoming Biden administration and from the Taliban indicate that the progress on the steps envisaged in US — Taliban agreement in February 2020 has halted.
Some wait for the new American administration — before any serious negotiations could begin — is understandable but the two sides have hardly met after they broke off in December.
While the US and Kabul have accused the Taliban of stepping up violence, the Taliban has accused the Americans of bombing civilians, which they claim is not only in violation of agreements but also a violation of human rights.
The Biden administration announced that the February accords are under “review” even before substantive negotiations have begun. The sputtering process is in trouble.
The Kabul government was never comfortable with the US negotiating with the Taliban directly but had no choice. And following the agreement they did everything to scuttle the settlement process.
Ashraf Ghani took six months to release 5,000 Taliban what the US had agreed to do in ten days and that too under American pressure. His posturing contributed to the six-month delay in start of intra-Afghan dialogue.
Members of the Kabul delegation to Doha have also reportedly complained that the US team under Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, whom the Biden administration has decided to retain as the Special Representative on Afghanistan, has conceded too much to the Taliban.
While the negotiators plodded in Doha, state functionaries and symbols increasingly came under attack from the militants for, which the US and Kabul blame the Taliban.
No formal deal
Taliban have stubbornly maintained that militancy will continue till a formal deal is agreed upon and a ceasefire will not be precondition for the beginning of substantive negotiations.
Reduction of violence, the Taliban say, is incumbent on further release of prisoners, which was to be completed within three months of the release of the first 5,000.
Kabul has dragged its feet demonstrating its unhappiness with the Accords. The administrative review of sanctions against the Taliban leadership, which was due to start simultaneously with the launch of intra-Afghan dialogue with the lifting of all sanctions by August 27, 2020 is yet to be initiated.
With deadlines missed, the resurgence of violence from either side leading to US led air strikes has contributed to build-up of mistrust on both sides. December was a particular bad month. Hopes of relative peace are fading. Kabul’s top officials privately warn of a civil war if the Taliban get a major share of power in a peace deal.
In addition to Kabul’s faltering grip on security, lessening international financial support, there is a building dissent from the opposition politicians and the warlords who also seem to be sourcing funds and equipment in order to be ready to preserve their area in the likely breakdown of civil order.
The incoming Biden administration has talked of the “review” of the February 2020 agreements that has been welcomed by Kabul and opposed by the Taliban. The immediate question which the Biden team faces is how to reconcile various demands or hiccups with the May 2021 deadline for total US military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Since deadlines on the February agreements — like release of prisoners, lifting of sanctions — have passed, and violence has increased, there are reports that some in the US military and Congress are opposed to full withdrawal by the agreed timelines.
Given the Taliban stubborn insistence on withdrawal of foreign forces as the basis of any peace deal, it is hard to expect that they will acquiesce to the idea without an adequate quid pro quo and that too for a short time. They will not accept any renegotiation of the deal.
Some reports suggest that the new administration may ask for stationing counter-terrorism forces in Afghanistan, which is President Biden’s preferred option. Such a suggestion, if made, is a likely deal breaker and may compel the Taliban to return to military struggle with all its attendant implications.
This would mean that America is changing goalposts and is not serious in vacating Afghanistan. That will also result in adverse reactions from the neighbouring states and will further erode American credibility.
Amid this uncertainty Pakistan has called for “commitment and responsibility”, suggesting that the country is not in favour of review of US-Taliban deal. Pakistan, which has invested a considerable goodwill in getting the Taliban on the negotiating table, will be affected by the breakdown of talks. Any review, Pakistani officials believe, will complicate the struggling peace process.
The Taliban have not budged from basic positions, like withdrawal of foreign forces. Before the breakthrough talks, one Taliban leader told the press “my father was a fighter, I fought against the Soviets and then the US occupation.
If the occupiers fail to see that they must leave, my children will fight them as well.” And one of them said years back, referring to the Americans, on the nature of this forever war — they have the watches and we have the time.
Sajjad Ashraf served as an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore from 2009 to 2017. He was a member of Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973 to 2008 and also served as Pakistan’s consul general in Dubai during the mid 1990s