Before dawn India time on Sunday, Donald Trump posted a remarkable message on Twitter, announcing that (a) he had been scheduled, within hours, to meet on United States soil the leadership of the Afghan Taliban, and (b) he had “cancelled the meeting and called off peace negotiations” because the Taliban had, “in order to build false leverage”, admitted to a terrorist attack in Kabul in the middle of the “very important peace talks”.
The announcement plunged into crisis what had appeared until earlier this week a done deal, and appeared to acknowledge that the planned full withdrawal from America’s 18-year-old, now seemingly aimless, war in Afghanistan wasn’t happening in the foreseeable future.
What was this deal, and how had it been negotiated?
The planned peace deal
While no details of the draft agreement had been made public, the US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad had told the Afghan media organisation TOLO that the two sides had 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 led the talks which began in January this year, had said, however, that President Trump would still have 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, was for the US troops to withdraw from five bases in Afghanistan in this period. No timeline was finalised for the US to pull out its 14,000 troops now in Afghanistan, but a period of 14 months had been mentioned in the past. Trump himself had said at one point that some 8,000 troops would remain.
In return, the Taliban were said to have committed to not allow “enemies of the US” — namely Daesh/ISIS and Al Qaeda — to set up base in Afghanistan. Khalilzad had said in the TOLO interview that the Taliban themselves would fight the “enemies of America” in Afghanistan. The Taliban were also said by some to have agreed to not attack the withdrawing American troops.
Hope and disappointment
It had been expected at one point that the US would get the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire. But that did not work out. Finally, the only real expectation was for a “reduction in violence” in some parts of Afghanistan. In the interview to TOLO, Khalilzad identified those areas as Parwan province, north of Kabul, where the Bagram air base is located, and Kabul province. (Afghanistan has a total 34 provinces.)
The deal was, therefore, not really a peace agreement. And that was driven home by the August 31 Taliban attack on Kunduz, which took place as Khalilzad was briefing Afghan leaders in Kabul about the agreement. Afghan and US forces pushed them back, but the Taliban then attacked Pul-i-Kumri, where India will build power transmission lines to bring electricity from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan.
And then came the Kabul car bombing, which President Trump has cited.
What happens now?
Since January, there has been a steady spike in attacks as the Taliban have leveraged violence to buttress their bargaining position, and tried to take control of as much territory as they could before the agreement with the US was finalised.
Trump expressed his anger at the Taliban action directly in his tweets on Sunday: “What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position? They didn’t, they only made it worse! If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway. How many more decades are they willing to fight?”
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.
In his interview to TOLO, Khalilzad said “intra-Afghan talks”, i.e., talks between the Taliban and Ghani’s government, would begin soon after the US-Taliban agreement.
But even at that time, it was unclear if the Taliban had committed to participate in those talks as part of their agreement with Khalilzad. Now, with even the deal with the US having seemingly collapsed, all bets are off.
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