Work in progress
US-Taliban Treaty has many strategic considerations that strain the already fragile pact
The agreement signed between the USA and the Taliban in Doha on February 29 in the presence of representatives from India, Pakistan, Qatar, Turkey, Indonesia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan — signalling a cessation to two decades of bloody war and withdrawal of the US troops — faces a lemma of uncertainties pertaining to its implementation. As per the deal, in 14 and a half months, the number of US forces will be reduced from about 13,000 to 8,600. In exchange, the Taliban agreed to renounce al-Qaeda and prevent al-Qaeda and other groups from using Afghanistan as a base for terrorism against the USA. They agreed to negotiate a permanent ceasefire also with other Afghan militants and the Afghan government.
However, Marvin Weinbaum, director of Afghanistan and Pakistan studies at Washington's Middle East Institute think tank, considers disagreements between Afghan elites, the Taliban's unwillingness to follow through on vague counterterrorism and power-sharing promises, as well as the possibility of Washington walking away from its longest war as some of the major obstacles to lasting peace in Afghanistan. Terming the agreement an "instrument of surrender", he stated in a recent interview: "Taliban's major objective in these negotiations has always been the exit of American forces together with allied forces from the international community. The United States has given them what they wanted. Their secondary objective is that they want legitimacy; they have gotten that in spades. They also wanted the release of prisoners. In effect, they have gotten everything they wanted."
But to end the war is imperative for both Afghanistan and the USA. According to the Afghan government, since 2014-15, at least 4,500 members of security forces were eliminated. This apart, about 3,500 members of the international coalition forces died since the 2001 invasion and more than 2,300 of them were Americans. The loss of life of Afghan civilians is difficult to estimate. A UN report, released in February 2019, estimates death of civilians at 32,000-plus. The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University estimated that at 42,000 opposition fighters and that conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan have cost the US $5.9 trillion since 2001.
The US authorities assure that their stand on determination of sustained peace in the Afghan region is genuine and unequivocal. Which is why they are worried over signs of breach within a week after the deal. "The current high level of violence by the Taliban is unacceptable. We acknowledge the Taliban have taken steps to stop attacks against the Coalition and in cities. But they are killing too many Afghans in the countryside. This must change. Violence at these levels risks drawing both sides into a vicious cycle, serves no one, and undermines peace", said a statement on March 10, while admitting that "the Taliban have taken steps to stop attacks against the (NATO) coalition and in cities". Even after inking the deal, the Taliban launched 43 attacks on a single day. In retaliation, the US Air Force conducted an airstrike on March 4 in Nahr-e-Saraj against Taliban fighters.
Washington faces the wrath of the International Criminal Court whose judges ruled that investigation into alleged war crimes committed by the US forces in Afghanistan, along with those committed by the Afghan army be allowed. ICC's chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda is keen on launching a full investigation. He asked the court in 2017 to probe the atrocities by the US troops, claiming that he had evidence to prove torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, rape and sexual violence were committed in Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004. But his request was turned down.
An additional irritant to the Taliban is the stubborn insistence by the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that the 5,000-plus Taliban prisoners would be released if each of them furnished "a written guarantee to not return to the battlefield", in a two-page decree, a copy of which was shared by the Afghan authorities with the Reuters. As a first step towards implementing this, arrangement for release of 1,500 out of 5,000 Taliban prisoners has been made. They are mostly lodged at the Bagram Prison, north of the Afghan capital Kabul. Ghani's decision to release prisoners in a phased manner has enraged the Taliban armed group. Sympathising with the gunmen, the Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen threatened to reject Ghani's "phased release of prisoners", which he said would destabilise the peace process. "We will also make sure at the time of the prisoners release that they are releasing the list of prisoners we have provided them with. Once this is done, we will proceed with the intra-Afghan talks", he said.
However, the February 29 agreement is regarded by the Taliban brass as advantageous. They want to cash in on the new political crisis between Ghani and former Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who runs a parallel government claiming to have won the presidential contest, although to date is keeping mum on the matter. The Taliban appears to be set for embarking on a strategic peace. Their deputy leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, regarded as the most effective military commander aside from seniority in rank, recently wrote in the New York Times: "Perhaps our biggest challenge is to ensure that various Afghan groups work hard and sincerely toward defining our common future. I am confident that it is possible. If we can reach an agreement with a foreign enemy, we must be able to resolve intra-Afghan disagreements through talks." Haqqani's column was widely read despite him deliberately keeping vague about the "foreign enemy".
Views expressed are strictly personal