Afghanistan’s southern Helmand Province has been a flashpoint of conflict since Americans first walked in in 1951. The province became known as “Little America” and since 2001 the US government poured in millions of dollars and deployed thousands of soldiers to fight the Taliban. American forces withdrew once in 2014 but were then sent back to the province in 2017.
The United States recently withdrew troops from Helmand province’s Bost airfield as part of the recent peace deal, aiming to make peace with the Taliban who they have been fighting for 18 years. The troop draw down is part of a complicated and ambiguous deal between the U.S. and the Taliban. Critics say that the deal will inevitably lead to a bloody war in Afghanistan, while advocates claim the deal is the best chance for peace.
In front of a long poster reading “Agreement Bringing Peace to Afghanistan,” Afghan-born American veteran diplomat, Zalmay Khalilzad signed a four-part deal with Abdul Ghani Baradar, deputy of the Taliban in Doha, Qatar on February 29. The deal includes U.S. troop withdrawal, Taliban’s ties with Al-Qaeda and other groups, the release of prisoners, intra-Afghan talks, and eventually a ceasefire.
Gradual U.S. Troop Withdrawal
In Afghanistan, 12,000 U.S. troops are on duty to assist and train along with thousands of NATO forces. The United States had 100,000 troops in Afghanistan and withdrew the majority of them in 2014, but others have remained under the NATO-Resolute Support mission for Afghan forces.
The U.S. and the Taliban have agreed over gradual U.S. troop withdrawal over 14 months. Within 135 days, the United States will cut down 5,000 troops and if conditions are met the rest of them will leave by 14 months. During the gradual U.S. troop withdrawal, the Taliban talks with the government and U.S. to protect the Afghan government against Taliban attacks.
The U.S.-Taliban deal includes secret portions that define precisely when and how the U.S. troop will withdraw from Afghanistan. The United States will share information with the Taliban about U.S. troops’ locations in the country and how they would withdraw.
“All of this was done—seemingly—to create an environment in which the Taliban felt the U.S. was operating clearly and in good faith,” said John. R. Allen, President of the Brookings Institution. “Yet, the Taliban, in turn, have been obligated to very little that can be measured in any meaningful sense.”
The Taliban vows to adhere to the agreement. Suhail Shaheen, a political spokesperson for the Taliban, said in a tweet that the Taliban will implement all parts of the agreement one after another to prevent the suffering of war and urged the other side to do the same.
The Taliban’s Pledges to Oppose Terrorist Groups
In return for the U.S. troop withdrawal from the country, the Taliban pledges to block groups that threaten U.S. interests and its allies from entering Afghanistan. The U.S.-Taliban states that the Taliban will not allow “any group or individual, including al-Qaeda,” to use the country for launching attacks on U.S. interests or its allies.
In 2001, Al-Qaeda orchestrated attacks on New York’s World Trade Towers and killed 2,600 people, an attack that pushed the U.S. to demand from the Taliban to hand over Al-Qa’eda leader Bin Laden. The Taliban refused the hand over and the U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban-led government in November 2001.
Bin Laden was killed in 2011 in a U.S. forces raid in Peshawar, Pakistan, but supporters of the group have remained in the country. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed, “For the first time, [the Taliban] have announced that they’re prepared to break with their historical ally al-Qaeda.”
According to the U.S.-Taliban deal text, the Taliban are not required to denounce Al-Qaeda, but only ban groups that threaten U.S. interests and allies. For their part, the senior leaders of Al-Qaeda issued a statement on U.S.-Taliban deal, praising the Taliban’s “great victory” over the U.S. and its allies.
“The Taliban could not assure its followers’ abandonment of their terrorist guests even if they wanted,” said former CIA official Doug London, who studies the Taliban. “Many of these groups are inextricably tied through marriage, tribal ties, and military interdependence.”
For the Taliban, these groups are overstated and spoilers of peace. Sirajuddin Haqqani, deputy of the leader of the Taliban, claimed that “Reports about foreign groups in Afghanistan are politically motivated exaggerations by the warmongering players on all sides of the war.” The Taliban has also vowed to eliminate the Islamic State from Afghanistan.
In addition to this ambiguity of who is a threat to the U.S. and its allies, Sirajuddin Haqqani’s network, known as the Haqqani Network, is the U.S. designated terrorist group that has conducted some of the most bloody suicide bombings in Afghan cities, especially in Kabul. However, the U.S.-Taliban deal text does not mention the Haqqani Network, which is a military branch of the Taliban group.
Release of Taliban fighters from Afghan Prisons
The U.S.-Taliban deal draws a timetable for the start of intra-Afghans that included that the Afghan government and the Taliban. The Taliban promised to open talks with the Afghan government, and the militants say the agreement requires the release of 5,000 their fighters before the talks begin.
“The United States is committed to starting immediately to work with all relevant sides on a plan to expeditiously release combat and political prisoners,” read the U.S.-Taliban deal. “Up to five thousand (5,000) prisoners of …the Taliban and up to one thousand (1,000) prisoners of the other side will be released by March 10, 2020, the first day of intra-Afghan negotiations.”
The release of Taliban fighters has derailed the next step in intra-Afghan peace talks. The Taliban have conditioned the release of 5,000 of their fighters for the beginning of talks with the government, while the Afghan government demands guarantee that the released fighters will not join the battlefield to wage war against the government forces.
After taking the oath of the presidency, President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan issued a decree to release 1,500 Taliban fighters as gesture of goodwill. If the fighters do not join the battlefield, and violence is reduced, the government would release the rest within five months.
The Taliban rejected the conditional release of their fighters and demanded the immediate release of them. On the other hand, the Afghan government said that due to many protests over the release of fighters and lack of guarantee release of the fighters would be postponed.
“The United States… is left trying to manage expectations and compel compliance by both sides,” said Elizabeth Threlkeld, a fellow at Stimson Center’s South Asia Program and former U.S. Foreign Service officer in Islamabad, Pakistan.
Complicated Talks between Afghans
The release of prisoners is just one part of the complicated talks between the Afghans. Four-decades of the Afghan conflict, ethnic belongings, weak central government, and tribal differences complicate the peace process that aims at ending the longest war in US history.
Afghanistan’s 2019 presidential election was marred by many problems: 1.8 million Afghans out of 9 million voted, the election body was accused of favoring one candidate, and results were delayed for five months. When Ashraf Ghani named as the winner, his rival Abdullah Abdullah, disputed the results in February 2020.
The afternoon of March 09 in Kabul of Afghanistan witnessed what became a historical moment: Ghani and Abdullah appeared among two gatherings just a thin wall away from each and swore on the Qur’an that they would run Afghanistan. Ashraf Ghani claims the election is over and calls for inclusion, while Abdullah Abdullah calls for termination of election results and the formation of an inclusive government.
The March 10 scheduled talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban passed, and the Afghan government negotiates with politicians to form a negation team for talks with the Taliban. The negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban aimed at finding a solution for decades of conflict.
Some Afghan politicians including Abdullah fought the Taliban when first the group emerged. Other younger Afghans, including Hamdullah Mohib who is national security advisor to Ghani, are Western-educated technocrats and reject the Taliban ideology.
“An argument incessantly voiced in favor of a US-Taliban agreement is that it would provide for direct negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government,” said William Maley, Professor of Diplomacy at the Australian National Australia. “Although the agreement itself makes no mention of ‘the Afghan government’, merely of ‘Afghan sides.”
The talks focus on the constitutions, political system of the country, freedom of speech and women and minority rights. Some Afghans fear that they will lose freedom and other achievement made in the past two decades, while others argue in favor of a deal that could initially end the long war that have killed and wounded over 100,000 Afghan civilians in only the last two decades of insurgency.
Low Level of Violence across Afghanistan
A key topic of talks between Afghans would be a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire. Initially, the Afghan government, which was excluded from talks between the U.S. and the Taliban, pushed to make a ceasefire part of the U.S.-Taliban deal. The Taliban refused to announce ceasefire, but the U.S. and the Taliban agreed over the reduction in violence.
For seven days between 22 and 28 February, both sides, including the Afghan government, reduced violence to exhibit the ability for commanding the war-torn fighters. After the United State signed the deal with the Taliban, U.S. military officials were expected a low level of violence in Afghanistan. The level of violence, however, has remained publicly unannounced.
The Taliban group surged the level of violence against Afghan security forces. The Taliban announced their fighters would attack Afghan forces, not U.S. forces. The level of violence was so high that U.S. forces conduct airstrikes against Taliban positions in southern Helmand province on March 4, 2020.
The level of violence dropped, but not very much. Since the U.S.-Taliban deal, the Taliban group have conducted a daily basis of 10 to 20 attacks against Afghan forces, according to the Afghan government. The attacks have killed a daily of five to ten Afghan forces that included civilians.
Top U.S. commander for the Middle East Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie told the House Armed Services Committee of U.S. Congress that the level of Taliban hostilities was higher than allowed in the plan and he would recommend against the full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan if violence continues.
“The Taliban need to keep their part of the bargain, and they are continuing attacks,” said Gen. McKenzie on March 10 to the U.S. Congress. “They are not directed against coalition forces, they are not occurring in city centers, they are occurring at isolated checkpoints. But those attacks are occurring, and they’re not consistent with a movement toward a negotiated settlement, and they’re not consistent with the undertaking they made.”
In an attempt to build international consensus for the U.S-Taliban deal, which has been approved by the U.N., the U.S. and Russia released a joint statement on March 06. The statement urged all sides to decrease the level of violence in a bid to “create an environment conducive to intra-Afghan negotiations.”
For now, the war drags on in Afghanistan.