It’s almost been a year; the U.S. and Taliban signed an agreement in Doha to pave a way for a peaceful settlement in war-torn Afghanistan. The U.S.-Taliban agreement included a number of provisions; yet an important one was the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021. Likewise, the Taliban agreed to cut their ties with Al-Qaeda and do not allow the Afghan soil to be used against the U.S. or its allies. The May 1 deadline has about two months to reach nevertheless, the U.S. complete withdrawal does not seem possible albeit the troops’ level is at its lowest: twenty-five hundred, since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
The light of the ongoing deadlock between the U.S. and the Taliban on one hand and the Taliban and the Afghan government on the other has made the environment grim for meaningful dialogue or inching towards the solution of the Afghan quagmire. Barnett Rubin, a well-known expert on South Asia and Afghanistan recently wrote an open letter to the Taliban advocating for the best possible solution to the current stalemate. Barnett Rubin discusses what steps the Taliban needed and what options the Biden administration has to cope with the situation.
On January 28 U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani to tell him “that the United States is reviewing the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement” and examining “whether the Taliban are living up to their 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.” Such intentions led to suspicion among the Taliban that the Biden administration can scrap the deal or at least try to make it in their favor.
Rubin considers the six-month delay in the intra-Afghan talks a cause provided for a situation where the commitments made in the Doha deal were not easy to fulfill. The Afghan government wanted to delay the intra-Afghan talks hoping that the Biden administration might pull back from the Doha deal. However, that seems impossible due to the challenging circumstances on hand and the no available viable option on the other hand.
Prof. Rubin has advised the Taliban to reduce violence and realize the need for a ceasefire. He put, if the Taliban want to be more certain that the Biden administration would keep its commitments to withdraw troops, it should place a proposal for a political roadmap and a ceasefire on the table.” However, the Taliban while closely monitoring the new Biden administration have warned if the U.S. troops do not withdraw by the deadline, they would start attacking them and in that case, the US would be responsible for breaking the Doha deal. Since the delay of the intra-Afghan talks, the Taliban have increased their operations against the Afghan security forces. Critics are blaming the Taliban for increasing violence nonetheless; there is no reduction in violence in the deal with the Afghan government. If the Afghan government wants to reduce the violence, it should reach an agreement with the Taliban.
Furthermore, he states to the Taliban, “I hope you would keep an open mind about renegotiating the timeline to assure that the agreement is implemented as intended.” The priority of the Taliban would likely be to go with the Doha deal without any changes. Nevertheless, neither the implementation nor the troops’ withdrawal seems possible on the specified deadline then changes are mandatory to make. Thus, neither the U.S. can go completely back from the Doha deal nor the Taliban would be in a position to reject the re-negotiation of the Doha deal.
In such a situation, where there is a stalemate not only between the Afghan government and the Taliban but also between the U.S. and the Taliban, Pakistan’s role would be crucial. Earlier during the Doha talks, Zalmay Khalilzad was on an off to Islamabad to consult with the Pakistani political and military leadership to pave a way for the settlement in Afghanistan. It seems like that the Taliban would push the Biden administration to go with the deal. At the same time would try to strike a good deal with the Afghan government as they did with the U.S. last year. The Afghan government would likely push the Biden administration to alter the Doha deal at any cost where the Taliban are in a strong position although on paper. In the same vein, the Biden administration would pressurize the Taliban to renegotiate the deal and ask Pakistan to push the Taliban for the same. The Afghan government also seeks Islamabad’s support to have a better bargain with the Taliban. In such a situation, Barnett Rubin’s open letter can be a guide for the Taliban as well as the Biden administration ─ if they want to reach a peaceful settlement. Otherwise, the prospects of peaceful settlement of the Afghanistan issue might become even more difficult with disastrous consequences for the whole region.
*The author is Senior Research Associate at Strategic Vision Institute, Islamabad. He tweets @yousafzaiZafar5