After nearly two decades of fighting, the United States and the Taliban could reach a peace agreement, potentially as early as next week, according to a Wall Street Journal report. A deal between the two sides has been difficult to solidify with negotiators holding nine rounds of discussions since talks began over a year ago. Even as peace is within sight, the group carried out a well-planned attack on Kunduz, Afghanistan on Saturday.
Attack on Kunduz
The attack began with the Taliban encircling the city on three sides as its fighters attempted to seize government targets. Kunduz is strategically located along a major highway and taking control of it would make northern regions of the country more accessible. In the end, the group failed to takeover the city, but not before a suicide bomber blew up himself and ten other Afghans while journalists were interviewing the police chief, Manzoor Stanekzai.
Three civilians were killed and another 41 were wounded during the battle. The Taliban lost at least 36 fighters according to the interior ministry and among them were two commanders. For civilians, the attempted siege of the city was particularly troubling because electricity and communication lines were cut. Most of them hid in their homes seeking refuge from the violence outside, but electricity problems threatened even the water supplies as many households rely on well pumps.
Saturday’s attack was only the most recent in what turned out to be a deadly summer for Afghan civilians; a United Nations report estimated there were over 1,500 casualties in July alone. The unrelenting nature of the struggle against the Taliban has put pressure on the Afghanistan government and the United States to find some sort of solution which would bring peace to the war-torn nation. Pakistan too has been stressed with helping forge a peace between the Taliban, which it has strong ties too, and Afghan government due to the spillover of violence across the border.
The attack did not go unnoticed amid diplomatic discussions with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar.
“I raised the Kunduz attack in talks today, telling the Taliban that violence like this must stop,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, the chief American negotiator.
The two-sided nature of the terrorist group not only raises questions about the possibility of a peace deal, but also the likelihood that such an agreement would actually last. Any deal negotiated between the parties could simply lead to more of the same – a framework which calls for peace on paper, but in reality sees a continuation of Taliban attacks.
Still, it is a risk that Washington is willing to take in an effort to fulfill U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign pledge of limiting American involvement in the region. Currently, the terms of the deal call for a withdrawal of 14,500 American troops which make up an overwhelming majority of the foreign military force in Afghanistan which totals 20,000. According to Trump, the pull-out will begin with 5,000 soldiers if a deal is reached.
“Who knows if it’s going to happen,” Trump said during a radio interview.
For the Taliban, such a small initial withdrawal is not enough. Anything less than a full removal of all American and allied forces could threaten the possibility of the group agreeing to a deal. If the Taliban agree to the deal, however, they will begin serving as a militant police force in the regions under its control to prevent terrorist attacks outside the country. Furthermore, they will begin to engage the Afghan government in peace negotiations in Norway which could lead to a power-sharing arrangement. Such talks would be a significant development for the group which until recently has refused to recognize the legitimacy of the democratically-elected government.
“If and when we are able to announce an agreement, the process will pivot to intra-Afghan negotiations, where the Taliban will sit with other Afghans and together they will commit to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire,” a U.S. State Department spokesman said.
The attack on Kunduz was a reminder of the strength that the Taliban continues to wield and the inadequacy of the Afghan military. In the Kunduz province alone, the group holds a third of the district and is working to topple another five. The city of Kunduz itself was captured by Taliban fighters in 2015. It was a milestone accomplishment as the first city to fall since the war began 14 years prior.
As the possibility for a peace deal between the U.S. and the Taliban approaches, the question arises of how the group will factor into future threat considerations. At least one U.S. senator and a retired general have voiced concerns about the Taliban using the nation as an incubator for future terror attacks. They also raised the question of how the Afghan forces will feel with America cutting a deal with a longtime adversary, proposing that it could lead to a civil war if they perceive it as a betrayal.
U.S. troops in Afghanistan at one time numbered 100,000 strong and the mission seemed endless. Even once Osama bin Laden was killed, the war against the Taliban continued resolutely with incremental troop withdrawals over the decade that followed. It’s certainly reasonable to declare that peace in the nation at one time seemed highly elusive and perhaps even impossible. The longest war in American history appeared destined to continue forever. Yet now as it might be on the horizon, it is perfectly rational to question whether or not it will last.