Afghan Peace Accord: A Minefield of Contradictions

Afghanistan Peace Talks: A Minefield of Contradictions

Published in Mainstream, VOL LIX No 14, March 20, 2021
http://mainstreamweekly.net/article10556.html

In the backdrop of the May 1 deadline for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, two documents being referred to as ‘moonshot’(unrealistic) have been ‘leaked’ by Afghanistan’s Tolo news channel. [1]

What has added to the complexity created by these developments is US President Biden’s interview, aired by ABC news on 17 March [2]. In the interview Biden says it will be ‘tough’ to meet the 1 May deadline, but the complete drawdown will not take much longer.

Getting back to the ‘leaked’ documents, the first is a letter written by the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to the Afghan president Ashraf Ghani. Related to that is a second draft proposal called the Afghan Peace Agreement dated 28th Feb 2021, or a road map for peace in Afghanistan. The proposal is addressed to the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Zalmay Khalilzad, Special US Envoy to Afghanistan, is the diplomat who is negotiating with the Afghan government and the Taliban. The tone of the letter is harsh. It states “The United States has not ruled out any option,” But it adds, “I am making this clear to you so that you understand the urgency of my tone.” The Biden administration is clearly telling Ghani to get ready for a US withdrawal and be prepared to face the consequences of a Taliban assault for a takeover.

The second document is in the form of a proposal. It is a more detailed document comprising three sections. The first section states the guiding principles for reforming Afghanistan’s constitution. The second addresses issues related to the transition period: governance and security matters. The third section is on managing the ceasefire during the transition.

Until these undated documents were leaked, it was widely accepted that the new Biden administration had three options in Afghanistan.

First, it could adhere to the peace agreement arrived at in February 2020, between the previous Trump administration and the Taliban, under which the remaining 2500 US troops stationed in Afghanistan would be withdrawn. However now the New York Times has revealed, contrary to the US claim, that there are 3500 US troops in Afghanistan. This has created doubts about the extent of US infrastructure presently in Afghanistan. [3]

Second, it could extend the stay of these remaining troops until the US was able to convince the Taliban to give up violence and come to some kind of agreement that could address the security concerns of the US.

And third, it could completely scrap the agreement, which would have meant that the US did not withdraw its troops, while at the same time keeping its option of increasing their numbers as and when needed. And until democracy stabilised, it would continue to provide political, logistical and military support to Ashraf Ghani and any other democratically elected governments in the future. 

The documents indicate that the US administration has run out of ideas to find an honourable exit from Afghanistan. The US is getting impatient because talks that the US initiated between the Taliban and Afghan government are at a standstill.  One of the key elements of the agreement between the Taliban and the US government was that the Taliban will eschew violence [4]. That clearly hasn’t happened. In fact, a number of judges, journalists and civil society members, many of whom are women, have been killed in targeted attacks in the last couple of months [5].

Both the Afghan government and the Taliban have been direct in condemning the documents. This indicates that very little ground work was done by the Biden administration in preparing these proposals. Amrulah Saleh, vice president of Afghanistan, has been quoted by the BBC saying Afghanistan would “never accept a bossy and imposed peace. They can make decisions on their troops, not the people of Afghanistan”. In an interview to the AFP, the Afghanistan’s Interior Minister Masoud Andarabi also warned against the US troop withdrawal [6]. He claimed that Taliban’s ties to al-Qaeda remain intact and any pullout would worsen global counterterrorism efforts.

On their part the Taliban have not made any formal comment on the proposal but have clearly indicated that they expect the US to stick to its commitment of leaving Afghanistan on 1 May. The same BBC news quotes a Taliban spokesperson, Zabiullah Mujahid, saying they are `still studying’ the draft agreement. Another Taliban representative, Mohammad Naeem, who is in Doha, Qatar, for peace talks, was quoted in The Washington Post. “Pressure from the United States never works,” said Naeem. He added, “there will be problems, and they will be responsible for that’’, clearly indicating if the US walks away from 2020 peace deal the ensuing chaos will be of their making. Once again, this indicates that the Taliban expects the US to withdraw its troops by 1 May [7].

Given these strong reactions, it is unlikely that the peace proposal will be accepted by the two sides. In fact, let alone the chance of acceptance, the ‘leak’ itself has ignited deeply ideological fault lines lying dormant since the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001.

These rifts are a mix of ethnicity, tribal loyalties and rivalries, religion and sub-nationalism, the cold war and regional military and strategic manipulations. These fissures get even murkier because they are, more often than not, dictated by narrow interests and the nexus between criminals and members of the political and security establishment. Warlords, drug trafficking, the truck mafia and extortion of different types are deeply entrenched in the everyday social and political architecture of Afghanistan.

It is in this background that the key elements of the proposal need to be analysed and dissected. These will have a long lasting impact on the future of not just Afghanistan but South Asia as a whole.

First, the central premise of the proposal is that an interim government will be formed on the principle of power sharing between different groups. The interim government will make the present Afghan constitution, adopted in 2004, the basis for drafting a new constitution. In other words, it means that the government will comprise of both the Taliban and representatives of the present Afghan regime. Such an arrangement is bound to include individuals who have indulged in brutal violence and massacres in the past [8] [9]. Both Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord and former Afghan president Gulbuddin Hekmatyar have always staked claim to rule Afghanistan. They will certainly be included in the interim government, to make it look legitimate and representative of Afghanistan’s ethnic and regional diversity.

Such an initiative is destined to be a non-starter. The Taliban have always considered Ashraf Ghani an illegitimate authority and have refused to talk to him. Ghani’s hostility to the Taliban has also been well-known. He has been seen as someone who has obstructed the peace process and talks with the Taliban. His own vice president, Amrullah Saleh, has consistently accused the Taliban of the recent assassinations of judges and journalists. [10]

Ashraf Ghani, on the other hand, will himself lose authority if such an interim government is formed. He, too, has deep challenges from within his own administration. He became president in 2019 after defeating Abdullah Abdullah in an election that many believe was rigged.  Abdullah Abdullah was made the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR), a body mandated to lead intra-Afghan peace talk with the Taliban. Abdullah Abdullah [11] was a close confidant of Ahamd Shah Massoud, who was assassinated by the Al Qaaeda and Taliban, just days before the bombing of the WTC. These individuals and their pasts represent deep contradictions and thus any attempt to form an interim government with these individuals is destined to fail.

It is proposed that the interim government will prepare the ground for free and fair elections for a democratically elected government. There is no time-line mentioned for such an election. But more importantly, the Taliban have always maintained that democracy is a `western’ concept. They have always maintained that they will only implement Islamic law as enshrined in the Sharia.

Second, any equally contentious proposal is related to Islam, governance and jurisprudence. According to the peace plan, ‘Afghanistan’s official religion will be the holy religion of Islam. A new High Council for Islamic Jurisprudence shall be established to provide Islamic guidance and advice to all national and local government structures’.

In the next paragraph it states that ‘the protection of their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights – including the rights to free speech and to choose their political leaders – will be respected and enshrined in the future Afghan Constitution’. And it goes on to state that ‘the future Afghan state will respect and uphold the will of the people, Islamic values’.

Afghan’s multi-ethnic tribal society has several sects and beliefs. There are multiple interpretations of Islam. They are not limited to the Shia-Sunni version of Islam, but within these larger religious paradigms, there is great diversity of sub-ethnic, tribal and regional diversities.  There are Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and different sects of Pasthuns. Many of these communities have been in conflict with each other, and their leaders, many of them warlords, have indulged in mass killings of the other communities. These massacres conducted by Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Lion of Panjshir, the late Ahmad Masoud, the Taliban and others are still fresh in the memory of the Afghan people.

The Taliban, born and trained in vast networks of Madarsas in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation, believe in what is called the Deobandi-Wahabi version of Islam and its jurisprudence. They are intolerant and violent to any version that propagates a liberal interpretation of Islam.  Concepts such as civil rights, women’s rights, freedom of expression and other such matters will be alien to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam. The Taliban, in any form of government, elected or nominated, transitional or permanent, will be hostile to these values.

 The protection of women’s rights has been emphasised in the proposal. In the past few months, as I mentioned earlier, several women public figures, judges, journalists, members of the civil society have been killed in bomb attacks. In most cases, the Taliban have not claimed responsibility for the attacks.  It is, however, widely believed that these attacks were orchestrated by the Taliban, or by other radical groups inspired by a Taliban-like ideology. Whoever is responsible for these attacks, the message is clear. Whether the US withdraws its troops or decides to stay, it will be the Taliban-like worldview that will guide everyday life and governance matters in Afghanistan.

According to the New York Times, which has been closely following the peace talks, `Taliban negotiators have said they support women’s rights within the strictures of Islamic law — the same strictures the militants cited to ban women from schools and workplaces.’

Another somewhat intriguing clause in the proposal states that `The Taliban agrees to remove their military structures and offices from neighbouring countries, and they agree to end military relations with foreign countries. Also, the Taliban commit that they will not expand their force configurations nor recruit new fighters.’  Without taking any names, the reference to the neighbouring country is obviously Pakistan.

It is no secret, and no one knows this better than the US, that Pakistan has provided political, financial and military support to the Taliban since its inception. In fact, the Taliban were created and nurtured by the Pakistani deep-state and its ISI to fight the Soviet occupation.  They were financed by the CIA and Saudis. The Taliban finally took over Kabul and established their brutal role in 1996, until the 9/11 bombings.

The US invaded Afghanistan and Pakistan was forced to withdraw its support to Taliban, when the then US president George W Bush famously said, ‘you are either with us, or with the terrorists’.

After a short period of isolation, Pakistan not only helped Taliban to regroup, but it has also provided sanctuary to the top leadership of Taliban. These leaders, who include Mullah Baradar, a close associate of Taliban founder Mullah Omar, are negotiating the peace deal with the US in Doha.

 The Taliban are seen as a crucial strategic asset in the region by the Pakistani military establishment. The US itself considers Pakistan a crucial ally in establishing peace in Afghanistan. This demand that the Taliban and Pakistan break their long-standing alliance might sound morally correct, but to put it mildly, the advice is untenable and unrealistic.

Finally, the letter has opened a Pandora’s box of regional fault lines among the different neighbours of Afghanistan. It says that ‘we intend to ask the United Nations to convene Foreign Ministers and envoys from Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, United States and India to discuss a unified approach to supporting peace in Afghanistan’. 

It then separately identifies Turkey to host intra-Afghanistan talks between Afghanistan administration, the Taliban and other groups of Afghanistan. Within days of this letter, Russia has started a parallel process of negotiations which it calls ‘Troika’ plus one. That is Russia, China and the US (the Troika) and Pakistan. It will also invite Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah Abdullah and former Afghan president Hamid Karzai.

India has not been invited to the meeting and the US has not confirmed its participation. According to reports in the press, Iran was also invited but it refused to accept the invitation. [12]

All these neighbours have a stand-alone unresolved conflict on matters of strategic interests. By drawing them in formally in negotiating the peace process, the US is making Afghanistan a battlefield for these countries to settle their dispute.

Pakistan does not want India’s presence in Afghanistan. Pakistan has been propping up the Taliban, while India has had a long history of supporting groups opposed to the Taliban, like the Northern Alliance, once led by Ahmad Shah Masoud, and whose protégé Abdullah Abdullah is now heading HCNR.

Hostility between Iran and Pakistan is well-known. Iran has time and again accused Taliban of atrocities against the Shia’s of Afghanistan. Its population has also been the victims of drug trafficking and its economy has suffered from the smuggling of goods by the Taliban with aid from Pakistan. China and US hostilities are well known and both India and Pakistan are implicated . The Russians want their own control over Afghanistan and through it have access and control over gas in central Asia. They do not trust either the US, Pakistan or India.

 Afghanistan has time and again reinforced the saying, that ‘those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it’. Empires have come and gone trying to control and establish their power in Afghanistan. The Russians and the British fought the Great Game in Afghanistan and both the empires failed. The Russians again invaded in 1979 and had to leave Afghanistan after a decade, deeply humiliated. The US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, bombed it mercilessly to kill the terrorists and Taliban. Now they are negotiating with the same Taliban for a face saving exit.

This is not the place to discuss what lies ahead for Afghanistan. That we will do another time. However, one lesson that the great powers can learn from their meddling in Afghanistan is that democracy, socialism and women and human rights have to be made tangible.

These concepts will only become sustainable and meaningful if the people have a sense of ownership over them. They cannot be imposed by force and intimidation. That is what the Russian tried to do in the 20th century, and the US attempted in the 21st Century. 15000 Russian soldiers died and over 35000 were injured. Nearly 2500 US soldiers have died in Afghanistan since the invasion of 2001.

The Russians left and the American are now leaving Afghanistan, bruised and battered. Clearly more trouble, diplomatic and certainly  military, lies ahead.

Links

[1] The leaked U.S. plan to end the war in Afghanistan – The Washington Post

[2] Biden calls Afghanistan withdrawal deadline of May 1 ‘tough’ (apnews.com)

[3] U.S. Has 1,000 More Troops in Afghanistan Than It Disclosed – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

[4] US and Taliban sign deal to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan | Afghanistan | The Guardian

[5] Two female judges shot dead in Kabul as wave of killings continues | Afghanistan | The Guardian

[6] Afghanistan’s Interior Minister Masoud Andarabi warns U.S. against hasty retreat – The Hindu

[7] United States appears poised to postpone troop withdrawal from Afghanistan – The Washington Post

[8] Abdul Rashid Dostum (globalsecurity.org)

[9] A new warlord in town – The Hindu

[10] Saleh Blames Released Taliban for Violence, No More ‘Blind Trust’ | TOLOnews

[11] Who is Afghanistan’s Abdullah Abdullah? | Abdullah Abdullah News | Al Jazeera

[12] India not part of Russian meet on Afghanistan – The Hindu

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