Afghanistan: Relief for now

The agreement signed between the U.S. and the Taliban on February 29, which will see the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, may finally bring some relief to the long-suffering Afghan people.

Published : Mar 17, 2020 07:00 IST

The Taliban  delegation arrives to sign the peace agreement with U.S. officials in Doha on February 29.

The Taliban delegation arrives to sign the peace agreement with U.S. officials in Doha on February 29.

Finally, there seems to be some lightat the end of the long, dark tunnel in Afghanistan. The United States and the Taliban signed a pact on February 29, called “the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan”, after nearly two decades of continuous fighting and bloodshed.

The agreement, in which the U.S. made most of the concessions and the Taliban hardly any, is being interpreted by experts as the prelude to a military defeat on the scale suffered by the U.S. in Vietnam. Most observers of the region say it is only a matter of time before regime change happens in Kabul.

The Taliban has already started celebrating. Its media spokesman said the agreement was a historic landmark symbolising the “defeat of the arrogance of the White House”. The signing ceremony in Doha, Qatar, was attended by representatives from Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Qatar, Turkey, India, Indonesia and Tajikistan.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama, while raising troop strength in Afghanistan to over 100,000, had described the war there as the “good war” that his country could not afford to lose. The U.S. spent $2 trillion in Afghanistan in the pursuit of the “good war”, in which some 3,550 soldiers of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) died, 2,400 of them from the U.S. More than 50,000 Afghan soldiers and 100,000 civilians also perished after the U.S. invasion two decades ago. Meanwhile, most Afghans continue to live in poverty. Pakistan played an important role in bringing all the factions of the Taliban to the negotiating table. Its role has been publicly acknowledged by the U.S. and the Taliban. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi was present in Doha for the signing ceremony.

India, which was represented at the signing ceremony by its ambassador to Qatar, has not formally welcomed the agreement but has said it will extend all support “to the government and people” of Afghanistan. India has no official contact with the Taliban.

Terms of agreement

Just before the deal was signed, the Taliban ordered its fighters to “refrain from attacks” against U.S. forces. Under the terms of the agreement, the U.S. will withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan within 14 months.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S.’ special envoy to Afghanistan, signed the agreement on behalf of his government. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a senior Taliban leader, signed on behalf of the group. The Afghan government was not a formal party to the agreement.

Among those who witnessed the signing of the agreement was U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He welcomed the agreement but also issued a warning that the U.S. would not hesitate to send its military back into Afghanistan if the situation demanded it.

U.S. Secretary of Defence Mark Esper and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg were in Kabul to pacify the Afghan leadership, which was largely kept out of the loop during the negotiations in Doha and Islamabad. Esper and Stoltenberg reiterated their commitment to continue arming and training the Afghan forces.

Esper said that the U.S. would not “hesitate to nullify the agreement” if the Taliban reneged on its commitments. The agreement includes a Taliban pledge to keep all terrorist groupings out of the country, the launch of intra-Afghan negotiations and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire. India’s Foreign Secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, was also in Kabul to signal India’s solidarity with the Afghan government.

There is no love lost between the Taliban and the Islamic State (the Daesh), which has emerged as a competitor for influence in Afghanistan. The Taliban distanced itself from Al Qaeda but refused to endorse the Washington’s characterisation of the group as a terrorist organisation.

It was the Al Qaeda attack on U.S. targets on September 11, 2001, that prompted the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. At the time of the attack, Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was a guest of the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

Experts view the latest pact as a preliminary agreement to temporarily halt the bloodshed that has been tormenting the country for decades. A week prior to inking the pact, the U.S. and the Taliban signed a “reduction in violence” agreement. Both sides generally adhered to a ceasefire during the seven-day period, in which the death toll was the lowest in a long time.

Under the agreement, both sides have pledged to not attack each other. However, the Taliban is unlikely to hold its fire against the Afghan government forces as long as it seeks to expand the territory under its influence.

Trump’s promise

U.S. President Donald Trump seems to be in a hurry to fulfil at least one of his campaign promises before the end of his first term in office. He had promised an end to the “long-running war” in Afghanistan and the withdrawal of the bulk of the troops from the region.

Speaking to mediapersons immediately after the Doha agreement, Trump expressed confidence about the Taliban, saying the group “wants to do something to show that we’re not all wasting time”.

He even talked about the distinct possibility of the Taliban being a partner in the fight against other terror groups. He said he would be meeting with the Taliban leaders “in the not too distant future”.

The Taliban has been engaged in talks with Washington for some years now. The two sides have been meeting regularly in Doha to negotiate a peace deal. A pact seemed to be in the offing last year itself, but Trump abruptly called off talks in September after suicide bombings and armed attacks by the group targeted U.S. soldiers and military bases. He declared the peace talks “dead” at the time, only to officially revive them within a week.

Zalmay Khalilzad then visited Pakistan regularly to hold talks with the government and members of the Quetta Shura, a group headed by Taliban leaders. In the last quarter of 2019, the Taliban escalated its attacks on U.S. troops and Afghan forces.

It was an exchange of prisoners in November last year that paved the way for the peace agreement. In exchange for two U.S. prisoners, the Afghan government released three prominent Taliban commanders. One of them was Anas Haqqani, the son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, the founder of the Haqqani group, a key component of the Taliban. Sirajuddin, the current head of the group, is the older brother of Anas.

The Haqqani group continues to be classified as a terrorist organisation by Washington. But now, the Haqqanis seem to be on the way to being rehabilitated by the U.S. Sirajuddin Haqqani even wrote an article in The New York Times recently, in which he said: “We did not choose our war with the foreign coalition led by the United States. We were forced to defend ourselves. The withdrawal of foreign forces was our first and foremost demand.”

The U.S. has committed itself to the release of more than 5,000 Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government by March 10. As a reciprocal gesture, the Taliban will release around 1,000 members of the Afghan security forces.

Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, however, was quick to state that his government was not consulted on the issue. “It is not the authority of the U.S. to decide. They are only facilitators,” he said.

Pakistan’s views

The Pakistani government is also not happy with another commitment made by the U.S., this time on behalf of the Afghan government in a joint declaration issued in Kabul. “The United States commits to facilitate discussion between Afghanistan and Pakistan to work out arrangements to ensure neither country’s security is threatened by actions from the territory of the other side,” states a clause in the declaration.

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister said the two neighbours could resolve any issues that arise bilaterally and that there was no need “for Washington to play a role”. Qureshi pointed out that the U.S. was planning to withdraw from Afghanistan, while Pakistan would continue to remain a neighbour.

The Taliban has assured the international community that it has agreed to a system of government in Afghanistan that will be “based on consensus of the people” and adhere to human rights based on Islamic laws. However, it did not clarify whether it would allow free multiparty elections and equal rights to women. The Taliban spokesmen, however, insisted that women would not be denied the right to education and employment as was done in the past.

At the time of the first exchange of prisoners late last year, Ghani had expressed the hope that the move would help facilitate “face-to-face” negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Afghan government unhappy

The spokesman for the Afghan President, Sediq Sediqqi, said that a comprehensive peace pact could be achieved only with the involvement of the Afghan government. In a speech last year, Ghani noted that the “victims of the war were Afghans”, and therefore, “the initiative for peace should be in the hands of Afghans”.

The Afghan government is very unhappy with the Trump administration for keeping it out of the negotiations with the Taliban. The Afghan government had offered “unconditional talks” with the Taliban two years ago, only to be spurned by the group. Ghani reminded the international community about the fate of former Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah, who was abducted by the Taliban from a United Nations compound and hanged from a lamp post.

The Taliban went all out to disrupt the presidential elections held last year. Less than 20 per cent of more than nine million registered voters bothered to cast their votes. The law and order situation coupled with general political apathy and disillusionment contributed to the low turnout. Widespread fraud and rigging further dented the credibility of the exercise. And then the election commission took more than four months to formally announce the re-election of President Ghani. After an audit, it determined that more than a million votes were cast fraudulently. Ultimately, only 1.8 million votes were taken into account, and Ghani had received 51 per cent of these votes.

His main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, who served as the de facto Prime Minister under Ghani, flatly refused to acknowledge the results. He did the same thing five years ago. The Obama administration had then forced President Ghani to create the post of Chief Executive Officer to accommodate his perennial rival.

Ghani was supposed to have been sworn in for a second term on February 29, and Abdullah Abdullah had threatened to hold a parallel oath-taking ceremony the same day.

The U.S. pressured the Afghan President to postpone his swearing-in ceremony, fearing that such a move at this juncture would send the wrong signal to the Taliban. The group has been demanding a say in the running of the government in Kabul.

According to military analysts and observers of the region, the group controls 40 per cent of the country’s territory. The U.S. Air Force dropped more than 7,400 bombs and missiles in the last four months of 2019, the highest since the Air Force started releasing statistics. Afghanistan and its long-suffering people are desperately in need of a breather.

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