The February 29 Afghan peace agreement, signed at Doha, in the presence of observers from around 29 countries, is unique in the sense that the United States negotiated and signed an agreement with the Taliban, an entity “which is not recognised by the US”. And the binding agreement did not include the Afghan government. Cause to this effect has been the fact that the US, under Trump, would leave with or without an agreement. Today the American position is more tenuous due to the ravages of the coronavirus domestically and its undetermined economic mayhem worldwide. But before identifying other causes to the supposed failure of the peace deal, it seems instructive to examine the deal itself, as most analysts seem to be oblivious to the commitments made by either side.
The three-part agreement has a preamble and confidential annexes supposedly containing US troops’ deployment details; kept secret due to security considerations vis-à-vis the ISIS. The preamble consists of four interrelated points, namely; a) guarantees and enforcement mechanisms to prevent the use of Afghan soil by any individual or group against the US and its allies; b) Guarantees, enforcement mechanism and the announcement of the timeline for withdrawal of “all foreign forces”; c) sequel to announcing withdrawal timeline in the presence of international witnesses, Taliban to start an intra-Afghan dialogue on March 10; d) a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire to be “an item” on the agenda of such intra-Afghan negotiations including its date, modalities and joint implementation mechanisms, in addition to Afghanistan’s future political roadmap (power-sharing). Points a and b were to pave the way for the last two parts. The Taliban agreed to implement the agreement in areas under their control until the formation of post-settlement Afghan government. The subsequent text of the agreement in three parts dilates the above points.
Part One contains an explicit commitment by America to withdraw all military forces of the US, its allies, and coalition partners. This includes “all non-diplomatic civilian personnel, private security contractors, trainers, advisors, and supporting services personnel within 14 months” after the agreement was “announced”. The US side undertook — within the first 135 days — to reduce US forces to 8,600, proportionately reducing allies’ and coalition forces, and complete withdrawal of all forces from five military bases. Within the remaining 9.5 months, US/allies were to complete the withdrawal of “all” remaining forces from all remaining bases.
The US also undertook to immediately start working towards the expeditious release of combat and political prisoners — as a confidence-building measure — including 5,000 Taliban and 1,000 Afghan government prisoners. The release date was fixed as March 10, the first day of intra-Afghan negotiations. Both sides agreed to release all the remaining prisoners during the subsequent three months. The US emphatically undertook “to completing this goal”. The Taliban agreed that the released prisoners will not pose any threat to the security of the US and its allies.
With the commencement of the intra-Afghan dialogue, the US agreed to review and remove “US sanctions and other restrictions” against the Taliban by August 27. The US also committed to start diplomatic engagement with other UNSC members and Afghanistan to remove the Taliban from sanctions list by May 29.
America and its allies also committed to refrain from threats or use of force against the “territorial integrity or political independence of Afghanistan” or interference in its domestic affairs.
In Part Two, the Taliban committed to preventing any group or individual, including al Qaeda, from using Afghan soil to threaten the US and its allies; sending a clear message to this effect, not to cooperate with or host such groups or individuals, and prevent them from recruitment, training, and fundraising.
The Taliban also undertook to deal with “those seeking asylum or residence in Afghanistan according to international migration law” ensuring such persons are not a threat to the US and its allies; and not to provide them visas, passports, travel documents or other legal papers to enter Afghanistan.
In Part Three, America committed to requesting UNSC’s recognition and endorsement of the agreement. Both parties undertook to seek positive relations with each other even after the intra-Afghan dialogue. The US committed to seeking economic assistance for Afghanistan’s reconstruction, as determined by the intra-Afghan dialogue, and not to interfere in Afghanistan’s internal affairs.
The agreement is clear in its intention and commitment. First is prisoner release. Considered a prelude to direct talks, it is pivotal to resolve other vital issues like ceasefire and power-sharing. However, President Ghani has dithered on prisoner release on one pretext or the other. Pressured by the US commitment to Taliban, he issued a decree on March 10, authorising a phased release of only 1,500 Taliban prisoners in batches of 100 a day; with the rest to be released in groups of 500, every two weeks, commensurate to a reduction in violence by the Taliban and other caveats. After the Taliban threatened to walk out of talks with Kabul, and Afghan officials acknowledged concerns regarding the coronavirus outbreak in the country’s prisons, a little over 100, mostly sick, aged and ranking Taliban were freed against the demand of releasing 15 senior commanders.
Second is the intra-Afghan dialogue. It was only after Secretary of State Pompeo threatened to cut $1 billion in aid during his visit to Kabul on March 23, that a recalcitrant Ghani, with Chief Executive Abdullah’s endorsement, announced — three days later — an Afghan government delegation for intra-Afghan talks.
Meanwhile, the Taliban have remained steadfast to their commitment, abiding by the initial seven-day ceasefire. It was much later that they returned to an all-out offensive on the battlefield, accusing the US of not upholding its part of the deal. For the past two weeks, the Taliban have launched around 50-70 daily attacks across Afghanistan, killing 25-40 Afghan troops daily. However, the Taliban resist bombing major cities and no longer publicise their attacks online. They question Ghani’s sincerity for peace and are reluctant to let go of violence as their main leverage. On April 23, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen made a ceasefire conditional to full implementation of the agreement, and on April 24, the Taliban rejected an Afghan government offer for a ceasefire during Ramazan.
The US also seems to be backtracking from the agreement by considering the retention and relocation of CIA personnel to the embassy in Kabul to retain some level of American advisory role for Orbaki militias and other groups operating under the Afghan National Directorate of Security. One such CIA-advised militia is the Khost Protection Force (KPF), operating in eastern Afghanistan. KPF stands accused of grave human rights abuses. The agreement stipulates the withdrawal of all US/allied personnel.
Although detractors of the agreement include the Ghani administration, Indian lobby, US deep-state, and Washington Beltway Community; the blame lies squarely with the US government for failing to insulate the agreement. Whole-hearted compliance, particularly by the US and its protégé Afghan government, rather than the peace yearnings of Afghan experts would bring peace to Afghanistan, as the alternative is the future of the past.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 30th, 2020.
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