The muffled sound of peace drums in Afghanistan


Author: Sajjad Ashraf, Singapore

A seven-day ‘reduction in violence’ deal between the United States and the Afghan Taliban took effect on 21 February. During this time, the two antagonists will refrain from attacks and military operations to facilitate a peacemaking process that may — if successful — lead to the signing of an agreement on 29 February. But this would be just one of many steps that must be taken to bring peace to Afghanistan.

An Afghan National Army soldier inspects passengers at a checkpoint in Khogyani district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, 23 February (Photo: Reuters/Parwiz).

The agreement would not be a peace deal, but a platform to negotiate one through a process including intra-Afghan dialogue. The platform will reportedly aim to meet the core demands of both sides — the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and Taliban guarantees to stop harbouring militants. The agreement would also include steps to achieve a ceasefire and a process for political settlement.

An agreement would likely be followed by a prisoner exchange and negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government representatives. But Kabul previously said that a prisoner exchange would only be discussed during intra-Afghan dialogue. The seven-day violence reduction period tests the authority of the Taliban representatives to control their field commanders and create an environment conducive to intra-Afghan dialogue. Beginning such dialogue would be a major milestone — the Taliban has so far refused to talk to the Kabul regime, calling it a ‘puppet’ of Washington.

But still more obstacles litter the road to peace, and the success of the proposed agreement involves a sequence of interdependent issues.

Domestic politics impel US President Donald Trump to withdraw troops to demonstrate that he is serious about winding down the war during an election year, but he must do so without risking the survival of the government in Kabul. But both Washington and Kabul fear that the Taliban may exploit any US troop withdrawal as an opportunity for military victory — the Taliban knows that the Kabul regime survives only because of the US military presence.

But the Taliban also fears that concessions made to the United States may demoralise its own fighters, allowing the United States to postpone its withdrawal. The Taliban will be making a key concession if it agrees to meet representatives from Kabul in an official capacity, as they have only previously met in an individual capacity.

The exact process of any phased US military withdrawal is yet to be determined. Leaks suggest that the United States will reduce its troops from about 13,000 to 8600 within 135 days of signing the agreement. Further troop reductions are contingent on the Taliban meeting certain conditions. In a country divided among warlords, this will surely create problems. There is suspicion that the United States wants an extended stay in Afghanistan and will continue to dig its heels once Taliban influence is somewhat reduced.

There are many other issues between Kabul and the Taliban that need to be resolved once dialogue is formally opened. The two sides must quickly tackle the issue of heavily armed militias and Taliban fighters, and how to integrate them into a unified national military. Immunity from prosecution for the residual US troops — signed by the Kabul government — will be hard for the Taliban to accept. The Taliban will also want to amend the constitution according to their interpretation of Islamic injunctions, but the Kabul government will resist.

After a five-month dispute over the Afghan presidential election results, Ashraf Ghani was declared the winner two days after the ‘reduction in violence’ deal was announced. This allows the United States to pitch Ghani — a former US citizen — as the main interlocutor with the Taliban. But the election results can hardly be considered credible with only 1.8 million votes included in the final count out of Afghanistan’s 9.6 million registered voters.

Ghani’s bitter rival Abdullah Abdullah — who has lost three successive presidential elections — rejected the election results and announced that he will set up a parallel government with support from former vice president and current major warlord Rashid Dostum. The Taliban also rejected the election results, saying that declaring Ghani’s victory two days after the possible deal announcement jeopardises peace prospects and creates the potential for violence to erupt again. A government based on such a limited mandate amid such conflict can hardly be credible and effective. It will be weak and at the mercy of warlords.

Another potential obstacle is actors on both sides who still seek a maximalist position and absolute power. There is also a risk that disparate Afghan groups looking for spoils may trigger military conflict as they are not bound by the ‘reduction in violence’ deal. And if the deal does not hold, the peace process could quickly fall apart or at least be delayed indefinitely.

The road to peace still appears to be long and bumpy. Trump wants to send a sufficient number of troops home before the November elections so that he can claim credit for winding down the war, while leaving enough troops behind to susutain a surrogate regime in Kabul. Peace drums have sounded in Afghanistan, but their beat is still muffled.

Sajjad Ashraf served as adjunct professor between 2009–2017 at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. He was a member of Pakistan’s foreign service between 1973­–2008.

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