THE new US Administration under President JoeBiden has already indicated it intends to “review” the February 2020 US-Taliban Agreement that put the withdrawal timetable in place in exchange for a Taliban commitment that anti-US terror outfits like Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (ISIS) would not be allowed to use Afghanistan as a base for future attacks. The agreement has seemingly flowed out of a broad consensus that had developed in the US defence establishment that the best way to end the conflict is through some sort of political settlement with the Taliban.
This was evident in a recent meeting between the US Joint Chiefs Chairman and the Taliban in Doha, marking the first time a high-ranked US military official sat with the Taliban to discuss peace. Military measures to pressure the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire or even into a credible commitment to democracy and equal rights had failed to obtain the desired results, turning in the process, the conflict into what has come to be called the so-called forever war. A good number of participants in the 2019 Asia Foundation Survey on Afghanistan supported Taliban’s inclusion into the government. A similar pragmatism can be observed amid critical regional players. Moscow, Beijing and Teheran have publicly opened their ears and doors to the Taliban.
Meanwhile, the US is also consulting NATO, which is among those advocating for a “responsible withdrawal” to ensure that post-withdrawal Afghanistan does not become a free-for-all battleground among the Taliban, Afghan military forces and various other militant and terror groups including Islamic State (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda. It is assumed, therefore, that out of the “review” would emerge a Biden Plan to delay America’s troop drawdown – currently scheduled for a complete withdrawal of 2,500 remaining troops by May, as per a February 2020 agreement with the Taliban – for what some are calling a slower, “more responsible” departure. Advocates of a delay say the Biden Administration should seek to leave a “residual” counterterrorism force in Afghanistan beyond this May and until a transitional government is in place. But then no ‘tweaking’ of the February 2020 agreement, it is further hoped, would blow up the agreement as well as talks between President Ashraf Ghani’s government and the Taliban on a war-ending political settlement now ongoing in Doha, Qatar. The Afghanistan conflict to date has already cost the US $800 billion and 2,400 lives, according to official data.
The “review” it is hoped would also take into account the mounting criticism that the Taliban has leveraged the February accord to ramp up violence and win tactical and geographical advantages vis-à-vis Ghani’s state forces. Indeed, the Taliban has actively leveraged progress in peace talks to their advantage, arguably tipping the balance of battlefield power in its favour through ramped up violence and territorial advances. As their own statements show, the Taliban do not feel bound to stop or slow the attacks while peace talks are ongoing.
True, since the February agreement was struck, the US military has largely eschewed active combat, which has opened the ground for the Taliban to mount more potent attacks on state forces. Ghani’s good faith release of some 5,000 Taliban fighters from state prisons has arguably added to that rising threat. In the first four weeks after talks began, the Taliban carried out attacks in 24 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces on both security forces and civilians. In October, the United Nations counted more incidents in a month than at any time since 2007.
The increasingly confusing conflict situation is also afflicting Kabul, the capital city, as brutal and complex attacks, including those claimed by the self-proclaimed Islamic State, have occurred regularly in recent months. Civilian targets included a Sikh shrine, a maternity clinic, Kabul University and other educational institutions. In 2020, at least 10 Afghan journalists lost their lives and reports of attacks and assassination attempts on officials, representatives of civil society, clerics, and opposition figures, many of them by unknown gunmen and assailants, surface almost daily.
Meanwhile, the deafening silence around the attack on the well-known American base, Camp Chapman has intrigued many Afghan watchers in Pakistan. More intriguing is the fact that Washington is increasingly turning a blind eye to a surge in terrorist attacks in recent months, including attacks against bases long associated with US forces. Camp Chapman was one of several US military bases where the CIA placed operatives and special forces as part of its mission to dismantle Al-Qaeda and capture or kill Osama bin Laden—ideally situated near the porous border with Pakistan that allowed insurgents to move between the two countries with ease.
The attack on Chapman is not the first apparent violation of the US–Taliban agreement. Rocket attacks hit several bases housing American troops, including Camp Bastion—a former British base in Helmand province— in late July, and Camp Dwyer, a large US military base about 50 miles south of Bastion, in late August. American military officials stated that the Taliban were the suspected perpetrators of the July and August attacks. And in December, Bagram Airfield—the largest American base in Afghanistan— was targeted; while no group claimed responsibility, both the Taliban and the Islamic State have attacked it in the past.
The February deal had stipulated that the Taliban would refrain from striking American or NATO forces as they gradually withdrew from the country. And the US military would attack the Taliban only to defend Afghan forces. Also, while the agreement stipulates a full US troop withdrawal by May, there are no unambiguous clauses that prevent the Taliban from attacking Afghan forces.
Indeed, the US-Taliban Agreement contains no provisions for what will happen if the Taliban break their promises, beyond the US pausing its troop withdrawal—but even that has not happened. The Trump administration had continued to press ahead with the withdrawal ignoring real terrorist attacks in Afghanistan in favour of demonizing Iran over its nebulous ties to Al-Qaeda. US forces had kept withdrawing amid heavy violence and an ever-strengthening insurgency and the US government was not leveling with the American people about what was going on.
On the face of it, it appears as if President Trump had decided to help return power in Kabul back to the hard-line Taliban whose ultimate goal is to make Afghanistan into an Islamic emirate so as to create an irritating but dynamic drag on the borders of China, (embroiled in its own escalating problem of militant Muslim Uyghurs) to effectively keep the rising world leader from challenging the US’ global hegemony. Therefore, the reason why Taliban were being allowed by Trump administration to actively leverage progress in peace talks to their advantage, tipping the balance of battlefield power in its favour through ramped up violence and territorial advances. Hopefully, in the interest of Afghanistan and the region Biden Administration would forthwith discontinue this Trumpist disruptive policy.
— The writer is veteran journalist and a former editor based in Islamabad.