Three Afghan teenagers laugh and play on the outskirts of Kabul, the Afghan capital, with rainy clouds in the sky. A 5-year old boy tries to fly a kite. They focus hard on the game, as their future is shaped by a U.S.-Taliban deal 1,000 miles away to the west in Doha, Qatar.
The US-Taliban Deal: Hope and Skepticism
The United States struck a deal with the Taliban group to end the longest war in American history. After 18-years of fighting the Taliban and pouring in millions of aid, the U.S. signed a deal with the Taliban to open the way for ending the 40-year long war in Afghanistan. The deal raised hope as much as it raised skepticism.
“When peace comes, we go to school without fear, and live a normal life,” said Nazer Hussain Mahdawai, 15-year 10th grader in Kabul. “But if peace doesn’t come, we go back to destruction and a decade of war.”
Under the deal, the United States withdraws troops on condition of the Taliban’s promises to cut ties with terrorist groups and not harbor anyone who poses a threat to the U.S. It is also the beginning of intra-Afghan dialogs whose top agenda is a permanent ceasefire.
‘Making Peace With the U.S. Shows a Big Ideological Shift of the Taliban’
“For an insurgent group that called their political rivals infields and shot at them,” said Hafiz Mansoor who witnessed the rise of the Taliban in 1994 from his office in Kabul as a junior reporter. “Making peace with the U.S. shows a big ideological shift of the Taliban group.”
The deal goes a hard way to find its place to both sides and eventually implementation. The U.S. attempted to sell the deal to the Afghan government, first by announcing a seven-day reduction in violence and then issuing a joint-declaration in support of the Afghan government. President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan, U.S. defense secretary Mark Esper, NATO-General Secretary John Stoltenberg appeared in a conference and released a statement to support the Afghan government.
The Taliban, however, is not clear how sold off the agreement to their fighters: a deal or a victory. The Taliban leadership might explain every part of the agreement, from the withdrawal of U.S. troops to future talks and making comparisons on issues such as women’s rights and power-sharing, to their hardline fighters and justify their 18-year long insurgency.
The first promise to their fighter of the release of the Taliban prisoners seems to be halt. According to the U.S.-Taliban deal, the Afghan government release 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1000 Afghan forces release by the Taliban before March 10. President Ashraf Ghani said that the government had no commitment to release the Taliban prisoners.
“I think we are going to fire fewer bullets,” said Hafiz Mansoor, a former member of Afghanistan’s parliament. “The issue is that there will be long and big ideological conversations among the Taliban’s chains of command.”
During the Taliban’s rule from 1996 to 2001, a strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia law was implemented and women were banned from working and education. Some fear that a return of the Taliban to the power risks throwing away the gains of 18 years of U.S. and Afghan efforts to build a liberal democratic political system. The Taliban now vows to allow women to work and receive education under Islamic law.
The U.S.-Taliban deal is seen as a first step toward negotiating an agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban that could eventually end the insurgency as a whole. After signing the agreement, Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada issued a statement : “We are ready for a rational and just solution. Come, let us find a solution to our problems in light of the religious and national values of our people.”
“By signing a deal with America, the Taliban accepts the responsibility of the presence of American forces and accepts the destruction in the last 19-years,” said Mansoor. The United States toppled the Taliban regime in 2001 after the Al-Qaeda group attacked the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon, killing 2,977 people. The U.S. deployed nearly a million soldiers in Afghanistan over the course of the war.
Obama’s Planned Withdrawal and Trump’s Attempt at a Deal
Mansoor said that pro-government and the Afghan government always wanted to talk with the Taliban, but the group refused to talk. The U.S.-Taliban deal is a turning point in the last 18 years, Mansoor added. In 2011, President Barack Obama ordered operations inside Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden. After the operation, Obama announced a timeline for the U.S. troop withdrawal.
When President Donald Trump took office, he initially announced offensive operations to destroy the Taliban. After months, however, the results did not satisfy him. Trump had promised to end American’s forever wars on the campaign trail and he appointed Zalmay Khalilzad to enter direct talks with the Taliban in July 2018.
“U.S. negotiators have evidently been authorized to go further in what they could agree with [the] Taliban than in past,” Laurel Miller, ex-acting U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan said in a tweet. “Because of political unsustainability of what the US has been doing in Afghanistan, the choices predictably have become withdraw with a deal that creates an imperfect chance for peace or withdraw with no deal and no regard for the chaos that probably would follow.”
The U.S. reached on the verge of a deal in September 2019, but Trump called off talks only after a Taliban-car bomb killed one American and 11 others in Kabul. Amid a new push for peace, U.S. diplomats and Taliban representatives agreed on a seven-day reduction in violence to test both sides’ willingness to peace negotiations and to test the Taliban’s ability to command the long chain of their fighters. The week-long partial truce held.
Abdul Ghani Baradar, who signed the deal with the United States on behalf of the Taliban, pointed out the importance of future relationship of Afghanistan. Earlier, a Taliban deputy wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times where he said the group would welcome future support and aid, “The support of the international community will be crucial to stabilizing and developing Afghanistan.”
“There will be a discussion among Mullahs of the Taliban” around the ideology of the Taliban, said former MP Mansoor. “[Taliban] fighters brag with the commanders: you pushed us to fight against America, now you make peace?”
For 18-years, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda group operated shoulder-to-shoulder, just as the United States forces fought shoulder-to-shoulder with the Afghan security forces against the Taliban. Based on the deal, the Taliban are now supposed to abandon their mentors.
‘You Were Saying That We Will Not Be Friends With Infidels, Now You Sign a Deal?’
“The Taliban now must draw line between national interests and the [hardline] Islamic interests of Pakistan and Palestine,” said Mansoor. “The soldiers now ask from their commanders: you were talking about Jihad until doomsday, but why did you stop? You were saying that we will not be friends with infidels, now you sign a deal?”
For the Taliban, the deal might be seen as a victory. In the residential area of Doha, a small group of Taliban leaders walked out of their residential places carrying small flags of their regime. Abas Stanktizka, the chief negotiator of the Taliban, congratulated his team on the deal and called it a “victory with the help of Allah.”
“The deal creates hope,” said Mansoor. “But we have to wait and see what happens among the Taliban over the deal.”