Naveed Aman Khan
WE need to know the pros and cons of the recent US-Taliban peace deal, and the overall outlook for Afghanistan. The Taliban and US are trustworthy or not, it is a multi-million question. Their doctrine is irreconcilable with modernity and the rights in practice, they’re incapable of summoning the necessary internal controls and organizational discipline needed to implement a far-flung agreement like this. The so-called agreement for bringing peace to Afghanistan will not only be honoured by the Taliban, it will also not bring peace. This time quite seriously the US committed to a significant number of measurable commitments. The Taliban did not. From a specific departure deadline to a series of diplomatic and legal obligations, US negotiators have provided in detail exactly what they intend to do in order to fulfil their end of the bargain. All of this was done seemingly to create an environment in which the Taliban felt the US was operating clearly and in good faith.
Yet, the Taliban in turn have been obligated to very little that can be measured in any meaningful sense. Vagaries about ongoing negotiations with the Afghan Government or the broad intent to keep Afghanistan safe from those who would collude with the Taliban against the US and allied interests these are not measurable, nor are they enforceable. Why would we ever believe that Taliban would now break with Al-Qaeda when under the hammer blows of 150,000 coalition troops and hundreds of thousands of Afghan security personnel, they wouldn’t. It’s what Taliban leaders are saying informally outside the negotiating halls. Without a specific verification and enforcement mechanism, aspirational Taliban commitments will be impossible to address, and local incidents of violence will be chalked-up to rogue elements of the group. It’s also worth remembering that the number two in the Taliban Sirajuddin Haqqani, orchestrated the introduction of the lead elements of Al-Qaeda into the war against the Soviet Union. These connections run deep and are not likely to be given up at precisely the moment the US is leaving Afghanistan.
The US and Taliban committed to intra-Afghan talks. Ongoing violence prevents these from occurring. The US-Taliban deal details a number of talks that would continue well into the future between the US, Taliban and the government of Afghanistan. Yet, ongoing violence, especially against innocent civilian communities, largely negates the value in these discussions. Just on schedule, the Taliban are attacking the Afghan Government while supposedly not attacking the US and our allies. Why would the US commit to an agreement where the Taliban could conclude that the US and its coalition partners would be immune from attack, but the US would be sanguine about the Taliban attacking our principal ally in this war, the Afghan government? On its face alone, the Afghan Government would be hard-pressed to find a good, logical reason to meet amidst ongoing attacks. These activities by the Taliban are the very definition of bad-faith behaviour, and with the US departing, the government of Afghanistan will have significantly less power and authority to hold the Taliban accountable, and to enter into talks on an even remotely equal footing.
In such an environment, the entire premise of intra-Afghan peace talks is called into question and is potentially rendered useless. We’ve seen this before in Afghanistan and elsewhere. In the time between commitments to limit or cease violence and the final implementation of agreements, violence may spike as one side or the other seeks to change the facts on the ground to achieve relative advantage ahead of formal compliance. No one should be surprised the Taliban is attacking Afghan Government forces. The US-Taliban agreement left them no incentive not to, so of course we’re already bombing the Taliban in Helmand Province. The Taliban are too decentralized and too diverse a group to meaningfully control themselves. Over and over during Eid ceasefires, while the Taliban crowed about its capacity to demonstrate control over violence, innocent Afghan civilian were killed and injured by the hundreds. One could be negotiating directly with the Quetta Shura or Peshawar Shura Taliban, and still you would have field commanders making independent decisions absent any ongoing agreements. Too often we treat this group as one homogeneous entity when in fact it is a loose conglomeration of local tribal leadership, independent warlords and disconnected or siloed cells. Any argument that the Taliban can control violence in the long-term is a fantasy. The current deal obligates the Afghan Government to release 5,000 Taliban fighters. Yet, in almost every instance, a mass release is immediately followed by an uptick in violence. To be clear, if the United States was not willing to take a stance on behalf of Afghan women’s rights, it had no business negotiating away the Afghan government’s prerogatives on releasing 5,000 hardened Taliban fighters. These 5,000 are in Afghan Government hands because they’re killers. Killers of Afghan security forces, but much worse, killers of innocent Afghan civilians.
It should follow, then, that this aspect of the agreement has gone down hard with the Ashraf Ghani Government, which should instead have been supported by the US government in making the decision themselves, especially given the likelihood that these individuals will be found on the frontlines within days of their release. This is a critical flaw in the deal, and I was unsurprised to learn that President Ashraf Ghani announced his refusal to release these prisoners within 24 hours of the deal’s signing. If these prisoners are to be released, it should come at the satisfactory conclusion of the intra-Afghan talks, not as a precondition by the Taliban to their talking with the Afghan government, and certainly not at the beginning of the talks. The most importantly, the US failed to establish an internationally acceptable minimum standard for the rights. America dismissed being an American role in guaranteeing the rights of Afghan women, suggesting this should be left to the Afghans to sort out. The position of women in Afghanistan is today, such as it is, precisely the result of the US and coalition involvement, and never could have emerged to this degree without courageous stands by Afghan women activists, as well as our remaining steadfastly committed over the last two decades to women’s rights.
—The writer is book ambassador, columnist, political analyst and author of several books based in United Kingdom.