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Wednesday, December 08, 2021

Explained: Afghan deal all but done. Now?

Drafted last week, the agreement sets out a timeline for withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. It is not a peace deal, the onus for which lies with the Afghan government. What are the challenges it faces?

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Mumbai |
Updated: September 5, 2019 8:53:24 am
Explained: Afghan deal all but done. Now? US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad (left) with Afghanistan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah in Kabul on Monday. (Source: Afghanistan Chief Executive office via Reuters)

The United States and Taliban have reached a deal for American troops to withdraw from Afghanistan. Last weekend, US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was in Kabul to present details of the deal to Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani.

What have they agreed on?

No details of the draft agreement have been made officially public but Khalilzad told the Afghan media organisation TOLO that the two sides have reached an agreement “in principle” that the United States would withdraw some 5,000 troops within 135 days or five months starting from the signing of the agreement. The top US diplomat, an Afghan American, who has led the talks which began in January this year, said US President Donald Trump had to sign off on the agreement.

The draft agreement, which was reached after nine rounds of talks between Khalilzad and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, is for the US troops to withdraw from five bases in this period. There appears to be no timeline yet for the withdrawal of the remaining 14,000 troops but a period of 14 months has been mentioned in the past. Trump said at one time that some 8,000 troops would remain.

In return for the withdrawal agreed upon, the Taliban are said to have committed to not allow “enemies of the US” — namely Daesh/ISIS and Al Qaeda — to set up base in Afghanistan. Khalilzad said in the TOLO interview that it will be the Taliban who will now fight against the “enemies of America” in Afghanistan. According to one version, the Taliban have agreed not to attack withdrawing troops.

Is this expected to usher in peace?

Earlier, it was expected that the US would get the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire. But that is not on the cards. Instead, the only expectation now is for a “reduction in violence” in some areas. In the interview to TOLO, Afghanistan’s biggest media house, Khalilzad identified those areas as Parwan province, north of Kabul, where the Bagram air base is located, and Kabul province. Afghanistan has 34 provinces in all.

The deal is, therefore, not a peace agreement. That was driven home by the August 31 Taliban attack on Kunduz, an important north Afghanistan city, which came as Khalilzad was briefing Afghan leaders in Kabul about the agreement. Afghan special forces pushed them back with the help of US airpower, but were not able to prevent the Taliban from attacking a second northern city, Pul I Kumri, where India has undertaken to build power transmission lines to Kabul as part of project to bring electricity from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan.

On Monday night, towards the end of Khalilzad’s live interview on TOLO channel, Kabul was rocked by a car bombing and gunfire, an attack that killed at last 16 people and was claimed by the Taliban. Through the talks, which began in January this year, there has been a spike in attacks as Taliban leveraged violence to buttress their bargaining position at the talks, and tried to take control of as much territory as they could before the agreement with the US was finalised.

How then can a peace deal be struck with the Taliban?

It is now for the Afghan government to negotiate a peace agreement with the Taliban in what are referred to as “intra-Afghan talks”. President Ashraf Ghani’s government was not included in the US-Taliban talks. This was the Taliban precondition for the talks. The Taliban consider the elected Afghan government a “puppet” or “proxy” of the US. The irony is that for many in Afghanistan, the Taliban are a proxy of Pakistan’s military establishment, and are seen as a creation of the ISI.

Even at this stage, the Afghan government remains sidelined. It has became something of an issue in Afghanistan that President Ghani was given a copy of the draft agreement to read at his meeting with Khalilzad, but it was taken away from him at the close of the meeting.

In his interview to TOLO, Khalilzad said the intra-Afghan talks would begin soon after the US-Taliban agreement. But it is unclear if the Taliban have committed to participate in these talks as part of their agreement with Khalilzad. The Norwegian capital of Oslo may be the venue for these talks if they are held. Recalling the Bonn process of 2001, the intra-Afghan talks are expected to take up the question of a ceasefire and an “interim” set-up as a way of bringing the Taliban into a power sharing agreement.

What does it mean for the Afghan government politically?

The idea of an “interim” set-up almost certainly means that the September 28 presidential elections will not be held. An interim dispensation would do away with the need for elections. In any case, the Taliban have made it clear they do not believe in the electoral process and have said they would want to make changes to the Constitution. This could become the main challenge for the interim dispensation, apart from ensuring that the Taliban commit to a ceasefire and stick to it. The interim set-up has to be headed by an Afghan acceptable to the US, Taliban, Pakistan and the present Afghan government. Names are already doing the rounds.

The Afghan government, meanwhile, is apprehensive that the US may have made commitments to the Taliban that will undermine even the modest achievements made by the country towards democracy and human rights over the last two decades. The references in the agreement to “IEA” or Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the preferred name of the Taliban for itself, and the name by which Afghanistan was known when the Taliban ruled the country from 1996 to 2001, has increased the concern.

That concern was expressed by Amrullah Saleh, a former head of the Afghan intelligence agency, a candidate in the election and who like the rest of his compatriots, but more so, is a strong anti-Taliban, anti-Pakistan voice in Afghanistan: “Clarification: The US talks with Taliban in Doha is about the fate of the Quetta Shura [the Pakistan headquarters of the Taliban], de-linking them with global terror networks, ISI, terror ideologies and prospects of re-integration in future. Doha isn’t on fate of Afg.

That will be decided in Kabul & through direct negotiations”. India has played no role in the US-Taliban talks, but hopes it may be able to influence some outcomes of the the intra-Afghan talks through its many friends in the Afghan polity who will participate in the talks.

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