By Kabir Taneja
Nearly 75 days after the Taliban seized full control of Afghanistan, the economic and political situation in the country is already pulling Western states back into dealing with the new regime. Reports state that the European Union may reopen its mission in Kabul within weeks, and the United States (US) is close to a deal with Pakistan to operate “over the horizon”military capacity in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, the February 2020 deal struck by the US with the Taliban in Doha to effectively withdraw from the war today has a tendency of being marketed as a model for engagement with insurgencies and extremist groups to find middle-path solutions to long-running conflicts. The fact is that there should be no space to romanticise the US-Taliban agreement, which gave significant room for political and militaristic manoeuvre to the Taliban while restricting the US to concentrate on its withdrawal from a two-decade long conflict, with the Taliban agreeing to not conduct attacks against US troops in that period.
Ultimately, it was a recipe to hand the Afghan geography to the insurgency itself, with the Afghan government abandoning its people and the country’s armed forces dissolving within months of this agreement.
The architects of the deal, from President Donald J Trump and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who later joined President Joe Biden in doubling down on implementing it and seeing it to its catastrophic end, successfully managed to reorient the narrative around the US presence in the conflict as one that was led by counterterror narratives against Al Qaeda, and not nation-building, or institutional strengthening of the State, despite doing exactly that for two decades.
This view piggybacked on the fact that Afghanistan did not feature anywhere near the top of American public opinion concerns, and that a diminished al Qaeda threat did not affect US homeland anymore due to it being 12,000 km away. While this helped exonerate the US from any further direct responsibility in Afghanistan, the impact on regional geopolitics ranging from South Asia and stretching into Central Asia has been significant from a security perspective.
While there have been many instances of dialogue leading to negotiated peace deals between State and non-State militant actors in the past, including more institutionalised efforts where peaceful surrender of violent means has been at the core, both in the counter-terror and counter-insurgency spaces, the US-Taliban deal upended those already precarious and delicate mechanisms.
It allowed the Taliban to retake what the insurgency had lost in 2001, post the US military operations in the aftermath of 9/11. To make matters worse, the US-Taliban deal, a four-page long text, had next to no mechanisms to hold the Taliban accountable on the agreement’s far and few dos and don’ts, including on terrorism.
The fragility of the deal and the eventual full withdrawal of the US was celebrated by the Taliban as a victory. Beyond Afghanistan, others saw the deal as a potential way forward in dealing with Washington DC.
In February 2021, as the US inched closer to ending its Afghanistan chapter, leader of Syrian jihadist group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, who had previously aligned with both al Qaeda and the Islamic State, exchanged his usual military fatigues for a crisp suit to give an expansive interview to America’s PBS network in an apparent attempt for an image makeover, and hopes for a dialogue-led approach with the West and others.
It is not unreasonable to think that the long diplomacy leading to a deal for the Taliban is inspiring others to explore similar paths of engagement. In Somalia, where a much more covert US war on terror against al Qaeda affiliate, Al Shabaab, has been underway for years, many similarities between Shabaab and Taliban exist, such as control over territory, parallel economic (mostly taxes) and Islamic judicial systems imposed on a population that more than often agrees to these new norms for their own security and lack of other options. Recently, scholar Mohammed Ibrahim Shire suggested that this was the correct time for a larger design of engagement with Al Shabaab by the Somali government (which is tactically backed by Western forces) on an ideological level to prepare the ground for peace talks. In other words, once again, we are witnessing a very questionable reading of trade-off between peace and political patronage for extremist groups that have larger agendas in mind beyond power-sharing.
The US-Taliban deal has somewhat drowned into the background due to on-ground events in Afghanistan, but the document must be subjected to consistent academic scrutiny as an agreement that was designed for a safe exit passage from a theatre of war for the US, not stability for Afghanistan or the Afghan people. It is not a model to be replicated or to be inspired by.
This article originally appeared in The Hindustan Times