Five months after the United States signed an historic accord with the Taliban – the Islamic militant group that sheltered al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks – Afghanistan’s peace process is faltering.
Peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban were a condition of the U.S.-Taliban deal, which ended America’s deadly and costly 19-year war there but did not resolve the Taliban’s organized military campaign to unseat the Afghan government and rule the country under strict Islamic law. The two sides are supposed to debate a comprehensive ceasefire and discuss what the Taliban’s role in governing Afghanistan should be, among other topics.
Talks were originally expected to begin in Doha, Qatar, in March. But the Taliban’s continued attacks on Afghan forces made that impossible. After a brief ceasefire and the release of 5,000 Taliban detainees from Afghan prisons, talks were rescheduled for Aug. 17. But then the Afghan government refused to release its last 320 Taliban prisoners unless the Taliban released more Afghan soldiers from its prisons.
The delayed talks are the latest hurdle in the effort to bring peace to Afghanistan after decades of war. I’ve been tracking the progress of the U.S.-Taliban accord, in my capacity as director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. My analysis finds that implementation of the Trump administration’s agreement has largely stalled.
What’s in the US-Taliban accord?
The four-part agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban committed the U.S. to withdraw most of its soldiers from Afghanistan, which it is doing. In exchange, the Taliban provided assurances that Afghanistan would no longer be used as a base from which to wage attacks against the U.S. and its allies. It also agreed to engage with the Afghan government.
But the promises made by the Taliban to meet those goals were vague and very difficult to verify.
Based on publicly available information, I find the Taliban has met only one of the seven conditions stipulated in its peace accord with the U.S.: releasing 1,000 Afghan prisoners. Of those, only 261 were Afghan soldiers; the government is now saying the Taliban must release more soldiers before it will enter talks.
The remaining six conditions in the U.S.-Taliban deal essentially demand, in various ways, that the Taliban sever all ties with militant organizations, especially al-Qaida. Al-Qaida has long provided funds for the Taliban’s insurgency in Afghanistan. In September 2001, just before the 9/11 attacks, it helped the Taliban assassinate a strong Afghan resistance leader, Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud.
So far, international and domestic observers of the Afghan peace process have not been able to confirm that the Taliban has severed its relationship with al-Qaida. Nor has the Taliban provided any proof of doing so.
According to a May 2020 United Nations report, the Taliban met with al-Qaida repeatedly in 2019 and early 2020 to coordinate “operational planning, training and the provision by the Taliban of safe havens for al-Qaida members inside Afghanistan.”
Since the U.S.-Taliban accord, violence levels in Afghanistan have actually increased. Some Taliban fighters have insisted they will continue their jihad “until an Islamic system is established,” leading to concerns that the organization is not actually committed to peace.
Peace deals generally have enforcement mechanisms that hold each side accountable for their pledges. That is not the case with the U.S.-Taliban deal.
No enforcement mechanisms are outlined in the deal. It contains no provisions for what will happen if the Taliban breaks their promises, beyond the U.S. pausing its troop withdrawal. The Qataris, who hosted the U.S.-Taliban talks and are now hosting the Afghanistan peace negotiations, have no official power to pressure the Taliban into compliance.
Mutual distrust means the delayed talks could collapse entirely.
However, stabilizing Afghanistan is important to the United States, where President Donald Trump promised to “bring our troops home.” Russia and neighboring countries like China, India and Taliban’s long-time and strongest supporter Pakistan, too, support the peace process.
As such, the Taliban and Afghan government will likely meet – eventually.
Hope and doubt
The Taliban does not accept Afghanistan’s internationally recognized government, which took power after the Taliban’s regime was toppled by the 2001 U.S. invasion and has since stood for three elections. That’s why the Afghan government was not a party to the U.S.-Taliban agreement. Instead, the February 2020 deal merely committed the Taliban to engaging in direct negotiations with the Afghans.
Some U.S. government officials and former diplomats sharply criticized the concession to exclude Afghanistan’s government from talks with the U.S. and the Taliban about the future of the country.
“This deal is a surrender,” wrote the longtime U.S. diplomat and ambassador to Afghanistan under President Obama, Ryan Crocker, in The Washington Post.
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Polling shows the Afghan people were willing to make some compromises for peace. But many question whether the Taliban can be held accountable for what they’ve promised. They also fear losing the meaningful achievements that came out of international engagement in Afghanistan, such as women’s empowerment, increased freedom of speech and a more vibrant press.
Those rights – hard-won with American and Afghan blood – will be among the issues negotiated if and when the Taliban and Afghan government meet. Since 2001, 2,219 U.S. troops and exponentially more Afghan civilians and soldiers lost their lives battling the Taliban. For Afghans, the fight continues to this day.
The stakes of Afghanistan’s delayed peace talks are extremely high. Failure, said President Ashraf Ghani recently, is “not an option.”