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The Faltering US-Taliban Peace Deal: Need to Engage Regional Actors

By Sayed Maqsood Sadat

The US-Taliban peace agreement signed in February 2020, aimed to enforce the “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” reconciliation process within 10 days. However, enough has transpired since then, to prove the peace agreement has failed until now to move the peace efforts forward substantially. It is desirable that a comprehensive peace deal contains a definite agreement on ceasefire, which the current one clearly lacks. The Taliban issue in Afghanistan is largely viewed as not merely domestic but also foreign one. In fact, the perpetual Afghan conflict is dominantly due to regional competition than being a domestic one. Thus, without a comprehensive engagement of regional actors, resolving Afghanistan’s long lasting war will be difficult. Unfortunately, the Trump administration, in a hurry to exit from Afghanistan, seems to ignore the role of regional actors; his administration has relied excessively on Qatar and on Pakistan on issues related to reconciliation with Taliban. However, there are also other potential actors like Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India and even China, which should be more actively engaged.

US and Taliban signed a conditional peace agreement in Doha, Qatar, on 29/February/2020.[1] Though Afghan government was not engaged in the US-Taliban peace deal,  a joint statement was released in support of it by Afghan, US and UN high level officials in Kabul simultaneously while the deal was getting signed by Zalmay Khalilzad (American Envoy) and Mullah Beradar (Chief Representative of Taliban) in Doha. Meanwhile, due to the concerns over transparency of the 2019 Afghan Presidential election,  a potential political crisis was already getting underway in Kabul, with  Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah both taking oath of offices in rival inauguration ceremonies on 9 March 2020.[2] In this vulnerable political situation of Kabul, the Afghan government and Taliban both are entitled to fulfil the prescribed condition in order to reach the “intra-Afghan dialogue”. As per the agreement, the Afghan government is supposed to release 5000 Taliban prisoners, and the Taliban to release 1000 Afghan military personnel. However, President Ghani signed a decree to release only 1500 Taliban prisoners as part of trust building measures ahead of intra-Afghan talks, on 14 March 2020.[3] Though some minor contact between the Taliban and Afghan government has been created,  the latter  has never compromised over its militancy. Following the announcement of the decree, the technical teams of Taliban and the government of Afghanistan met each other in Kabul and shared lists of prisoners to be released at the first stage. However, the Taliban has repeatedly rejected Afghan government calls on ceasefire. In part of his formal wishes for Muslim fasting month, President Ghani requested Taliban to conclude a ceasefire during the Islamic holy month of Ramadhan. However, Taliban rejected it. Later, when the Coronavirus infected cases crossed 1000 in Afghanistan, President Ghani urged Taliban on a comprehensive ceasefire. However, the Taliban rejected him once again on the ground that the Afghan government had not fulfilled its part according to the US-Taliban peace deal.

Moreover, under the next issued decree on 27 April 2020, the Afghan government announced to free over 12000 criminal prisoners (it may indirectly include Taliban as well) as part of fighting Covid-19 Pandemic.[4] The number is considerably large which has created concerns among Afghan elites on the ground that it may result in strengthening of the Taliban group in battlefields. In fact, violence continues in Afghanistan despite the peace deal; the Taliban has reportedly carried out 50 attacks per day on average since the deal was inked. A total of 789 civilians have died and been wounded in Taliban attacks since 29 February, according to the National Security Council of Afghanistan.[5]

The continuing violence amid peace efforts and the fragile political situation in the country has created concerns among not only Afghan people but also regional and international actors. The UN and EU expressly called on Ghani and Abdullah to form an inclusive government acceptable for all. Since Iran is getting ignored in the ongoing reconciliation process of Afghanistan, though it was previously blamed for having contact with Taliban, Iranians are using the minimal available chance to show their positive potential. As of now, they are looking forward to resolve the existing political tension of Afghanistan through their influences. In April 2020, Mohammad Ibrahim Tahirian, the Iranian high-level official, had individual meetings with Ashraf Ghani and his political rival Abdullah Abdullah to mediate between them. He has also met many Afghan political elites notably with Hamid Karzai (Ex-President of Afghanistan) and Rasoul Sayyaf (Political leader) who are currently mediating between Ghani and Abdullah.[6] Following his travel to bring understanding between Ghani and Abdullah and the failure to do so, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared the US decision to cut off one billion aid to Afghanistan, which  would be followed by another one billion cut off if Afghan leaders [Abdullah and Ghani] fail to make an inclusive government acceptable for all. On other hand, Russia directly blames US for Afghanistan’s recent political dispute, “We note the #US attempts to prevent the disruption of the direct intra-#Afghan dialogue. However, the US played a part in the current aggravation of the political standoff in #Kabul by de facto recognising one of the presidential election candidates as the winner.”, the Foreign Ministry of Russia said in a tweet post.[7] In fact, Russia was doing relatively better than the Americans in arranging “intra-Afghan dialogue”. A year back, in September 2019, Russia hosted meetings among Taliban, Afghan political leaders and Afghan civil society representatives. It happened when President Trump declared his decision to calls off the peace process.[8]

Like Russia, Saudi Arabia also has all the potential to have an active role in the Afghan peace process. As Qatar has been more involved than Saudi Arabia especially in issues related to Afghanistan, the latter is skeptical about the whole process. Though Saudi Arabia and the US have long experience of partnership in Afghanistan during the Cold War era, the Trump administration has constantly ignored the possible role of Saudi in regards to Afghanistan’s peace process. 

India, being one of the largest investors in Afghanistan in recent years, is working very closely with Afghan political elites. In fact, India by helping build the Chahbahar port and Salma Dam has shown its keen interest in the development of Afghanistan. Triangle of Afghanistan-Iran-India partnership has become a matter of example in the region and abroad. The US can also consider this triangle particularly in issues related to the Taliban, as far as regional security is concerned.

Overall, as the US has learned that solely relying on Pakistan doesn’t work; the same way relying on Qatar and Pakistan collectively is failing so far to complete Afghanistan’s reconciliation process. As decades of wars in Afghanistan have shown, involvement of many actors directly or indirectly; same way these actors could have better share in its peace and prosperity as well. Now that all regional and international actors reached a consensus that a peaceful Afghanistan is beneficial for security of the region at most and for global security as whole, it is of great chance for the country to use. Thus, Afghanistan is at a crucial juncture and it may augur well for the US to encourage all regional actors in order to complete the peace process successfully.

To conclude, for a comprehensive peace deal in Afghanistan, an “intra-regional dialogue” is required ahead of the “intra-Afghan dialogue”. For this purpose, Qatar can initiate in arranging a regional forum aiming to speed up Afghanistan peace talks. To this end, the US should encourage Qatar and be very supportive. Regional understanding or engagement is what is lacking in the US-Taliban peace deal, which needs to be resolved.

Sayed Maqsood Sadat is PhD (International Relations) Research Scholar in Gujarat University, India. He can be reached through E-mail address ([email protected]) and Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/S.Maqsood.S).

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