The stalled intra-Afghan talks resumed in Doha last week following a flurry of activity when US Central Command head General Kenneth McKenzie and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Special Representative on Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov followed by Qatar’s Special Envoy Dr. Mutlaq Bin Majed Al Qahtani all visited Pakistan during the latter half of February.
Every one hopes that Pakistan will be able to nudge the Taliban into making critical compromises that may lead to the end of America’s “never ending war.” Pakistan does not have sufficient influence on the Taliban forcing them to sign a deal that is sustainable. The onus for success of the process rests more on the ability of the Afghan stakeholders to resolve their disagreements than on Pakistan.
The US had under the February 2020 Accords agreed to removing all its troops including defence contractors from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021. Currently, this number is down to 2,500, supplemented by a nearly 7,500 Nato force.
A year on since the US-Taliban Accords were signed, violence has increased and the intra-Afghan dialogue has made only a little progress.
Trump administration apparently hoped that intra-Afghan dialogue would yield results by the time all foreign forces withdraw by May 1. This has not happened.
Kabul dithered on the first condition, taking more than three months for the release of Taliban prisoners — something that should have taken 10 days under the agreement for the start of the intra-Afghan dialogue. Germinating mistrust at the outset several more deadlines have been missed — not one from the Taliban side.
Responding to Biden administration’s calls for an extension in the deadline for pullout in order to allow more time for the intra-Afghan talks, lead Taliban negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar reiterated that “implementation of the Doha agreement is the most effective way of ending” the war in Afghanistan. This leaves the other stakeholders wondering if America’s word can be trusted.
While adhering to their verbal commitment of letting American troops depart in peace, the Taliban have pushed their battlefield advantage and have increased attacks on the symbols of the regime. Afghanistan has never had this level of violence since the beginning of American intervention in 2001.
US deferring its decision
As expected, in an ostensibly calibrated move Nato (read the US) in a defence ministers meeting — the first for the Biden team — taking a que from the American stance, deferred its decision on whether to withdraw troops by the agreed date of May 1, 2021 under the US-Taliban agreement.
While the US media and now the Biden administration continue to accuse Taliban of the acceleration in violence there is not a word in the February 29 Accords where the Taliban have committed to reduction of violence.
The ceasefire according to the Accords was to be “an item on the agenda of the intra-Afghan dialogue” and was meant to be announced “along with the completion and agreement over the future political road map of Afghanistan.”
In fact, the US-Taliban talks extended for several months on this American demand, which the Taliban refused to concede like of any other fundamental issue.
Therefore, Nato’s current stance on deferring the decision on troops withdrawal is clearly meant to shore up the tottering Kabul regime. The Taliban, on the contrary claim that it is the US that has not lived up to its commitments given to the Taliban on lifting of the American as well as the UN sanctions against Taliban by August 27 2020.
In Doha, both sides are tight-lipped over how the talks are progressing. From the wish lists either side presented, Kabul wants ceasefire first, and the Taliban want to start with setting up an interim administration immediately in which they will have a significant presence.
Orderly and responsible withdrawal
Signalling a vague support for possible shift in withdrawal date, Pakistan desires orderly and responsible withdrawal of the US and other international forces, “so that mistakes of the past are not repeated”.
Pakistan, the country most affected by the developments in Afghanistan, bore the brunt of previous US disengagement from Afghanistan triggering a civil war that ended when Taliban took control of Kabul in September 1996.
It is not unusual for the warring parties to continue secure advantage on the battlefield while negotiations for peace continue. There was no ceasefire in Vietnam while the negotiations for peace continued for over 4 years. Similarly, fighters continued to battle the Soviet forces while Geneva talks were in session.
All status quo powers seek ceasefire first so as to maintain their ground advantage. Ceasing fire before any political settlement can be a recipe for stalemate like in case of Jammu and Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan that has prolonged for over 70 years, with no resolution is sight.
Biden administration’s rethink on the issue poses a fundamental question — who will trust the American government when they do not honour sovereign agreements?
Sajjad Ashraf served as an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. He was a member of the Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973 to 2008 and also served as Pakistan’s consul general to Dubai during the mid 1990s