By Ajit Kumar Singh*
In an interview on March 16, 2021, United States (US) President Joe Biden asserted that it would be “tough” to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021: “I’m in the process of making that decision now as to when they’ll leave. The fact is that, that was not a very solidly negotiated deal that the president – the former president – worked out. And so, we’re in consultation with our allies as well as the government, and that decision’s going to be – it’s in process now.”
He added that “it [complete withdrawal] could happen, but it is tough.”
According to the February 29, 2020, Doha deal between the US and the Taliban, US and allied Forces were to be completely withdrawn from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021.
The Taliban has expectedly warned of a “reaction” against any such delay in withdrawal of Forces. Suhail Shaheen, one of the members of the Taliban Negotiation Team in Doha, on March 19, 2021, stated,
We had 18 months of negotiations with Americans, and they agreed that they will withdraw in 14 months. They should leave and if they don’t leave by the end of April that means they continue the violation of the agreement. That violation will not be from our side, but it will be from their side. In that case, if there is an action of course there will be a reaction. The violation will have a reaction.
It is not for the first time that the US has voiced its intent to delay complete withdrawal, in recent past. There have been several such statements and the Taliban has issued warnings immediately almost after each such reiteration by the US. Significantly, the complete withdrawal of foreign troops by April 30, 2021, is one of the primary conditions of the Doha deal, and it seems that it is not going to happen any time soon.
The other major condition is the conduct of successful talks between Afghanistan authorities and the Taliban. However, the talks which began on September 12, 2020, amidst much fanfare, have met a deadlock with no signs of any positive breakthrough, with each of the two sides blaming the other. Nader Nadery, a senior adviser to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, declared,
The Afghan government delegation has been there in full faith and all readiness. If we are real and genuine about ending this war, we should start talking about everything that both sides have put forward. We need to get into the business of talking instead of the blame-game and discuss issues that matter, issues which could prevent the daily loss of lives of our people.
Haji Nazir Ahmadzai, a senior adviser to the Afghan President on the Reconciliation of Political Parties and Tribes, declared “Until the ceasefire is reached, the talks don’t work, it’s just a waste of time.” He added, further,
You see, the Taliban did not implement their promise of a ceasefire, the Taliban escalated the violence, blew up the cities, and escalated the fighting, which is unacceptable [both] to the international community and to the Afghan nation.
Commenting on why the second round of talks was delayed, he asserted that Kabul’s delegation had been in Doha, “but unfortunately the Taliban have been on foreign trips and have delayed talks.”
The Taliban, meanwhile, argues that “the release of remaining prisoners and end of blacklists are part of the [Doha] agreement that have yet to be implemented,” and that is the reason for the delay. Though the Afghanistan Government has released over 5,000 Taliban prisoners, the Taliban is insisting on the release of another 7,000.
During the first round of talks between September 12, 2020, and December 14, 2020, the two sides agreed (on December 2) to a 21-point code of conduct for the talks and a Joint Working Committee was constituted to prepare the draft agenda for the Intra-Afghan Negotiations. However, the agenda of the talks has still not been decided. While the Taliban is insisting on implementation of an Islamic system and Sharia as the foremost condition, apart from the demand of the release of the remaining prisoners, the Government has asked for a ceasefire and preservation of the Republican structure, democracy and human rights.
Meanwhile, as expected, there has been no respite from violence since the signing of the Doha deal. In one year since the deal, between March 1, 2020, and February 28, 2021, at least 26,953 persons, including 2,815 civilians; 8,414 Security Force (SF) personnel and 15,724 terrorists have been killed in terrorist incidents across Afghanistan. At least 488 fatalities (51 civilians, 44 SF personnel and 393 terrorists) have recorded in March 2021 (data till March 20).
More worryingly, as per the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA)’s annual report released on February 23, 2021, civilian fatalities increased in every quarter through 2020. While the fatalities stood at 564 in first quarter (January-March, 236 fatalities in March alone), they increased to 740 in second, further to 840 in the third, and reached a high of 891 in the last quarter.
As evident, the last quarter, during which the Taliban and the Afghan Government were engaged in direct talks, for the first time ever, witnessed highest civilian fatalities.
On year-on-year basis, as against 22,588 fatalities (3,403 civilians; 7,000 SF personnel and 12,185 terrorists) recorded in 2019, Afghanistan there were 25,065 fatalities (3,035 civilians; 7,810 SF personnel and 14,220 terrorists) in 2020.
Indeed, summing up the impact of the Doha deal, Rahmatullah Andar, spokesman of the National Security Council, observed, on February 28, 2021, that the “agreement has only ensured [Taliban’s] cease-fire with the US, while relations between the Taliban and Afghans remained limited to killings, terror and horror.”
Significantly, while the Taliban increased violence against Afghans, they have completely suspended operations against the US and Allied Forces after the signing of the deal. While this is the only achievement of the deal so far, it is highly unlikely that this will last long, given the surge in US air attacks against Taliban targets in the recent past. In a statement on February 27, the Taliban declared,
We strongly condemn these crimes and bombardments by the American invaders and view it as a clear violation of the Doha agreement that cannot be justified on any grounds. The Islamic Emirate once again calls on the American side that if such irresponsible and agreement violating airstrikes continue, then the Mujahideen of Islamic Emirate also reserve the right to protect their members and the public, and shall take similar actions against foreign forces. In such a case, the American invaders shall be held responsible for all unfortunate consequences.
It is abundantly clear that the February 29, 2020, Doha deal has more or less fallen flat and that the ongoing Doha talks are of little significance.
Not surprisingly, the US has started the process of reviewing of Doha deal. As early as on January 22, 2021, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan declared Washington’s intention to review the deal, including an assessemnt whether the Taliban was living up to its commitments to cut ties with terrorist groups, to reduce violence in Afghanistan, and to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government and other stakeholders. Several such statements have emerged thereafter.
The Taliban, expectedly, has vehemently opposed any such ‘review’. In a statement on February 28, 2021, the Taliban asserted,
The Doha agreement has created a practical framework for bringing peace and security to Afghanistan. If any other pathway is pursued as a replacement, then it is already doomed to failure.
Meanwhile, with the US more or less failing to achieve the desired goal through the Doha deal and the ongoing Doha talks, Russia is once again making efforts to take on the mantle of a peace broker and replace the US as the ‘pole player’. On March 18, 2021, Moscow hosted a regular meeting of the extended “Troika” comprising representatives of Russia, China and the US, with Pakistan also attending. Later, a joint statement declared, inter alia,
We call on all parties to the conflict in Afghanistan to reduce the level of violence in the country and on the Taliban not to pursue a Spring offensive, so as to avoid further casualties and to create an environment conducive to reaching a negotiated political settlement.
The ‘Troika’ meetings have earlier been held on March 22, April 25, July 11 and October 25, 2019. Online conferences were held on June 3 and November 30, 2020, as well.
While a lot of hope was raised during and after the Moscow meeting, as positive statements were made from both warring sides (the Afghan Government and the Taliban), the Taliban has refused to promise they would not launch a Spring Offensive. Khairullah Khairkhwa, a member of the Taliban negotiating team in Doha asserted, on March 18,
I started Jihad (holy war) to remove foreign forces from my country and establish an Islamic government and Jihad will continue until we reach that goal through a political agreement.
Again, on March 21, 2021, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid stated,
There is still a month to go before the formal announcement of our Spring (Offensive). We are waiting to see the progress in the political process. But if negotiations [with the Afghan government and others] do not progress, then we will decide in a month whether to launch the Offensive.
Afghanistan is still far away from achieving any sustainable respite from terror. The high but unrealistic hopes that were raised by some in the aftermath of the much-talked-about Doha deal have more or less yielded to an enveloping gloom.
*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management