Afghan peace process: Breakdown is not an option
Dr Huma Baqai

THE complete troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is under review by the Biden Administration. This may result in what many see as course correction and a pre-requisite to a sustainable peace. The Taliban have shown serious reservations on any deviation from the original plan. Some fear an actual breakdown of the process, it is already stalled and the violence on the ground in Afghanistan has increased many folds. President Joe Biden has signalled a tougher line with the Taliban than Trump Administration. A flurry of statements and comments from the White House, State Department and Pentagon confirm Biden Administration’s skeptical view of a shaky peace process. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s National Security Advisor, categorically said, we are “taking a hard look at the extent to which the Taliban are in fact complying” with provision of the US-Taliban deal.

The February 2020 agreement called for the withdrawal of US-led troops by May 2021 in return for Taliban breaking with terrorist groups, reducing violence and entering into peace negotiations with the Afghan Government. The Biden Administration’s commitment to the deal is there, however, they find it very hard to see a specific way forward unless Taliban keep their end of the deal. Moreover, Biden’s team also underscores the importance of human rights and women rights in Afghanistan. All of this is music to the ears of the Afghan Government that had earlier said that the US government under Trump had conceded a lot the Taliban.

Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, in his conversation with President Ashraf Ghani said, any peace settlement needed to preserve the progress made over the last twenty years with regard to human rights, civil liberties and the role of women in Afghanistan. Biden Administration has for now retained Zalmay Khalilzad who has strained relations with the Ghani Government, although Ghani and Afghan-born Khalilzad are classmates, both of them studied at the American University in Beirut, and also crossed paths later in the United States.

Persuading the Taliban to remain a part of the deal, if troop withdrawal is put off beyond May 2021, will be an uphill task for Americans. The Taliban emphasized recently that February 2020 agreement with the US is meant to give American invading troops a “safe passage” out of Afghanistan, insisting they expect the new American Administration “review” will not cause disruption. In a veiled threat he added onto say, “in the history of Afghanistan, no one ever gave a safe passage to foreign troops. So, this is a good change for the Americans that we (Taliban) are giving them safe passage to go out, according to this treaty. We hope that if they are reviewing it, they will come to the same positive conclusion.”

US officials have acknowledged that the Taliban have not attacked American troops since the signing of the treaty. The conscious avoidance of targeting foreign troops may not last if the terms of agreement change. The violence in Afghanistan has gone up. The country saw one of the most violent years, according to the New York Times, in terms of assassinations in 2020. Many of the killings are unclaimed. However, people blame Taliban. Others say government factions or militants from the “Islamic State” armed group could be responsible. The unclaimed attacks have been terrorizing journalists, civil servants and human rights workers as well as rank-and-file security forces. As per the SIGAR report, Taliban had unleashed a wave of attacks in Afghanistan in December 2020, including strikes in northern Baghlan and southern Uruzgan provinces that killed at least 19 members of the Afghan security forces. There were at least 2,586 civilian casualties from Oct 1 to Dec 31, 2020, including 810 killed and 1,776 wounded.

The Taliban representative in Moscow in January 2021 categorically said, “if they remain in Afghanistan after this (the agreed deadline), we will also kill them.” What has further complicated the conflict matrix is Taliban calling President Ashraf Ghani’s government being the “only hurdle” in the way to finding a political settlement to the country’s long conflict and linking peace in Afghanistan to Ghani relinquishing power. What Ghani and the Afghan Government welcome, Taliban reject and threat with consequences. Taliban are convinced of their ability to prevail through violence and seem to have dug heels.

Pakistan is skeptical of the security vacuum that may result because of a hurried withdrawal, but is at the same time more worried about the deal collapse. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has urged the Biden Administration to “preserve” with Afghan peace deal and negotiations, and “not reverse things”. Currently, there are 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan, fewest since 2001. Altogether, there are 10,000 foreign troops. The Taliban are indulging in some proactive diplomatic footwork where Taliban delegation visited Iran and Russia, and their leader said, they were contacting China. Informal meetings have been taking place between negotiators in Doha, however, the peace process is stalled. No NATO ally wants to stay in Afghanistan longer than necessary.

A failed peace process is not an option for any of the stakeholders. The forever war in Afghanistan must end. What was being called as an opportunity and a window of hope, not so long ago, should not be shut down. The negotiations were never supposed to be easy neither the peace process is a smooth sailing to begin with. The list of missed opportunities for peace in Afghanistan is long and painful. The peace talk initiatives of the past are littered with deadlocks, leaks and assassinations. It is time a way forward is found. Battle fatigue has turned into battle exhaustion. Let’s hope the Biden Administration is able to sustain and nudge the peace process forward, and not be remembered for a breakdown. Pakistan, China and the American military commanders, time and again, have insisted that Afghan war could only end in a negotiated settlement with the Taliban and not through force.
—The author is an Associate Professor of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) Karachi.