February 29, 2020 is marked as one of the most important dates in the recent history of Afghanistan. After two decades of turmoil that claimed the lives of approximately 157,000 people (of more than 43,000 are civilians and 4,000 are coalition soldiers (nearly 2,500 of them is American) and cost $ 975 bn only to the U.S., one and a half year of painful negotiations and a week of reduction in violence that demonstrated the Taliban willingness for peace, the United States and the Taliban finally agreed for ‘bringing peace to Afghanistan.’ It is not a comprehensive peace agreement, but it is a huge step towards peace. For this reason, parties (particularly the United States, Taliban, and the Afghan Government) deserve credit for their work.
Simultaneously a joint declaration between Afghanistan and the United States was announced, which complements the Taliban – U.S. peace deal and keeps the Afghan Government as part of the overall peace process. U.S. Secretary of State Mark Esper and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited Afghanistan on the very same day of the signing ceremony ‘as country takes historic first step towards peace.’ NATO also issued a statement, congratulating the progress made so far while reminding the conditions-based nature of the Resolute Support Mission, implying that any reduction in NATO military force in Afghanistan will be decided taking into account the progress made in peace process. NATO also expressed its support to Afghan National Defence and Security Forces.
However, this agreement is just the initial step. As U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo put it, the path forward in Afghanistan remains ‘rocky and bumpy.’ Mr.Pompeo’s prudent remarks at the signing ceremony of the U.S. Taliban Peace Deal show the quite fragile nature of the peace process.
According to the agreement, a comprehensive peace agreement has four parts;
- Preventing the use of Afghan soil against the security of the U.S. and its partners,
- Timeline for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan,
- Intra – Afghan negotiations,
- A permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.
The current agreement deals with the first two steps and paves the way for the last two.
Preventing the Use of Afghan Soil Against the Security of the U.S. and its Partners
The Taliban is asked to prevent terrorist groups such as Al – Qa’ida (AQ) and ISIS – K from using Afghan soil to threaten the security of the United States and its allies. In the past, the Taliban actively engaged in ISIS – K targets operating in Afghanistan; however, it might be difficult for the Taliban to distance itself from AQ given their shared history.
In the joint declaration, the U.S. reaffirms its readiness to continue to conduct military operations in Afghanistan, consistent with its commitments under existing security agreements between two governments. The U.S. also reaffirms its commitment to seek funds that support ANDSF. Let’s hope this carrot and stick formula works.
Timeline for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan
In the following 14 months, all military forces of the United States, its allies, and Coalition partners, including all non-diplomatic civilian personnel, private security contractors, trainers, advisors, and supporting services personnel will leave Afghanistan. In the first 4,5 months (135 days) the U.S. will reduce the number of its military personnel to 8,600, and the Coalition will do the same proportionally. Currently, NATO has 16,000 boots on the ground, including some 8,000 US soldiers. Conditions – based nature of the process is important and parties may feel unassured at any time if the situation on the ground changes unexpectedly.
Intra – Afghan Negotiations
Negotiations are expected to begin on March 10, 2020. Five nations (Germany, Norway, Uzbekistan, Qatar, and Indonesia) have expressed their willingness to facilitate intra – Afghan dialogue so far.
To facilitate intra–Afghan dialogue and to build confidence among parties, the U.S. is going to work on a prisoner swap plan; up to 5,000 prisoners of Taliban and 1,000 prisoners of the other side will be released by March 10, 2020, the first day of intra-Afghan negotiations. The remaining prisoners are to be released within three months. However, Afghanistan has made no commitment to free Taliban prisoners, President Ashraf Ghani said. Same issue is touched upon in joint declaration between Afghanistan and the United States, and neither figures nor binding obligations are mentioned. It will not be easy to initiate intra-Afghan talks provided that the Afghan Government and the Taliban have different understandings over prisoner swap. Zalmay Khalilzad has to find common ground between the Taliban and the Government before the intra-Afghan dialogue begins.
Another obstacle to initiating intra–Afghan negotiations is the fractured nature of the Afghan Government. Abdullah Abdullah’s team did not recognize official results of the presidential elections, and both Ghani and Abdullah were to hold an oath-taking ceremony for the presidency last week. U.S. pressure led the postponement of the inauguration, but political crisis stemming from the dispute over the outcome of the presidential election remains and needs to be solved before intra–Afghan talks begin.
Forming a negotiating team will also be a challenging task for the Afghan Government. All sides will ask to be represented in the intra–Afghan talks, which will shape the country’s future. But, as President Ghani said, too many delegates will create ‘teams within teams.’ He is envisaging a negotiating team of eight persons, to be selected by a council. Nevertheless, he has to meet the demands of his political rivals to a certain extend. If the fragmented picture in the Afghan political sphere is reflected in the negotiating team and they fail to negotiate as one voice for Afghanistan, that will cause additional problems.
A Permanent and Comprehensive Ceasefire
There is still a long, ‘rocky and bumpy’ path to reach a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire. But hope exists. During Reduction in Violence period, casualty figures dropped considerably, which shows that parties, particularly the Taliban has control over its forces on the ground and can opt for a ceasefire if political dialogue succeeds.
To streamline the peace process, the United States will review U.S. sanctions against the Taliban (until March 10, 2020) and engage to United Nations Security Council and Afghanistan to remove the Taliban from the sanction list (until May 29, 2020). It would be unrealistic to expect all these sanctions to be removed within the given timeframe, but lifting some as ‘confidence building’ measures is highly likely. It would also be hard to put Russia and China on track.
* Samet Coban is analyst at Beyond the Horizon Int’l Strategic Studies Group.