The picture is dismal. Attacks on government forces are assuming ominous proportions. Violence has peaked across the country. Kabul, the capital, has seen a series of deadly attacks causing huge casualties, of mostly civilians — the attacks being largely attributed to Daesh. Fearing an unstoppable escalation in violence, many people are considering or trying to leave the country. By all accounts, Ghani’s government has failed to deliver peace to the war-weary population. There is no light at the end of the tunnel.
The Doha peace talks have been stalled. A member of the Afghan government delegation warned the other day that his group would depart from Doha if substantial or “meaningful” talks do not get underway soon.
In this bleak scenario all eyes are on Washington where the new administration is currently reappraising its policy. The Biden administration has signaled its intention to review the Doha peace agreement in the context of “whether the Taliban have fulfilled the commitments they made” in the deal that was struck in Qatar in February 2020. This American intent to review the deal has caused understandable concern in the ranks of the Taliban leadership. There is a belief in certain quarters in the State Department and Pentagon that the Taliban have not reduced violence and have not severed links with militant groups like Al Qaeda. This powerful anti-Doha peace deal is now out to create an environment to rewrite the deal in a way that would put more pressure on the Taliban.
On their part, the Taliban claim they have abided by the provisions of the deal. The group maintains that the exchange of prisoners has taken place as laid down in the deal; that they have not launched any attack on international forces since the signing of the agreement; and that they have no contacts with Al Qaeda at all. Al Qaeda, the group claims, has no place in Afghanistan. On the other hand they argue that some remnants of Al Qaeda, just a few, are being supported by Daesh because of an ideological convergence.
In a statement the Taliban have warned that any repudiation of the agreement would have potentially devastating consequences for the country. The group has reiterated that the deal which took months of painstaking negotiations to finalise is the best hope for a durable peace in the country.
But there is anxiety amongst Taliban leaders that the new administration may choose to review the deal unilaterally and thus practically make the agreement futile. The Taliban also believe the United States government would pressure Islamabad to use its leverage to make the Taliban agree to accepting the presence of foreign forces on Afghan soil for the forseeable future and also to agree to a ceasefire. The argument that is advanced is that in a climate that is free of violence, purposeful negotiations can be held by the government with the Taliban on ways to ending the conflict.
The Taliban have realised the gravity of the situation. The Biden administration is apparently not happy with the current approach to the conflict and wants to bring the Taliban under more pressure to secure a deal that is more acceptable. Having sensed this new initiative in Washington, the Taliban have embarked upon a diplomatic offensive. The idea is to seek support of regional countries and take them into confidence on their stance on vital issues linked to the peace talks.
A Taliban delegation recently visited Iran and Moscow. The delegation explained their role in peacemaking in the context of the ongoing Doha negotiations. The delegation also visited Pakistan some time ago and is presumably in contact with China, Saudi Arabia and other relevant countries.
The motive behind these contacts is not only to explain the Taliban position and their role but also to try to counter US pressure. By aligning themselves with such regional countries the Taliban want to convey a message to Washington that they are not alone politically and that they would pursue their mission in the framework of the Doha agreement. Such contacts would also be meant to convey a message to Islamabad so that Pakistan does not yield to US pressure just as it has done on many occasions in the past.
The Biden administration should pause and consider the awful implications of any unilateral review of the agreement. If Washington reviews the deal and the Taliban walk away from the agreement as a consequence, the stage would be set for a civil war that would engulf Afghanistan. Such a civil war would be very difficult to stop. The result would be wholescale destruction with no winners.
The Doha agreement, if executed with sincerity and determination, can create conditions for reconciliation and peace. Washington must also consider who has been obstructing the progress of talks in Doha. The government in Kabul would try to prolong the status quo, being its biggest beneficiaries. They, i.e. the Kabul government, would lose their positions of authority if a multi-ethnic, broad-based government that includes the Taliban is created. And that seems to be the only viable option for ending the long conflict.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 9th, 2021.