The US-Taliban agreement, signed on 29 February, though intended to end the war and lead to withdrawal of all foreign forces from the country was anything but a peace agreement. The deal ignored the Afghan government, which remains a major stakeholder and deciding factor in any peace process. It made commitments on behalf of the Afghan government, which it rightfully refused as it had been kept in the dark.
Pakistan claimed credit for the deal, whereas it backed the Taliban rather than the Afghan government and its people. It only sought the return of the Taliban. It has since then begun putting its weight behind the Taliban seeking to force the Afghan government to adhere to the deal. This has enhanced Afghanistan-Pakistan tensions. The agreement was to lead to the commencement of intra-Afghan talks from 10 March in Norway.
Under the terms of the agreement, foreign forces would quit Afghanistan within 14 months, subject to Taliban security guarantees and a pledge by them to hold talks with Kabul. The agreement stated that the Afghan government would release 5,000 Taliban militants in exchange for 1,000 prisoners held by the Taliban. Simultaneous to the signing of the US-Taliban peace agreement was a release of a US-Afghan declaration on ongoing peace efforts. This declaration was released in Kabul by the Afghan President, US Defence Secretary and the NATO Secretary General.
It stated, “The US commits to facilitate discussions between Afghanistan and Pakistan to work out arrangements to ensure that neither country’s security is threatened by actions from the territory of the other side.” Pakistan was not a party to this agreement and hence balked. SM Qureshi, Pakistan’s foreign minister quipped, “They (Afghanistan) should talk directly with Pakistan. The US is planning to withdraw, and we will always remain neighbours.”
He added, “If I have an issue with Afghanistan, I will not ask Washington to play a role.” This is in direct contrast to Pakistan’s actual actions. Pakistan has on multiple occasions asked the US to mediate between it and India, despite both nations having signed multiple bilateral agreements on various issues as also being neighbours. Further, on Afghanistan, it has dealt directly with the US, ignoring Afghanistan and backed Taliban’s demands to the hilt.
Clearly, there is immense trust deficit between the two which cannot easily be bridged. Within Afghanistan too there is internal turmoil. The recent presidential election result has been rejected by both main contenders. This has added to internal instability within the country. This will be exploited by both Pakistan and the Taliban, who would seek to play one contender against the other and claim this to be an excuse for delay in talks.
The sticking point of disagreement between the Taliban and Afghan government stems from different clauses in the peace deal and the Kabul declaration. The US-Taliban deal committed to the release of prisoners while the Kabul document only required both sides to determine ‘the feasibility of releasing’ captives. Hence, the agreement broke within days of Ashraf Ghani refusing to release prisoners.
The Taliban announced resumption of hostilities against the Afghan government and within a span of two days launched 33 attacks in 16 provinces leading to 20 dead with the US resorting to ‘defensive’ airstrikes on the Taliban to protect Afghan soldiers. The US defended the Afghan government. The US forces spokesperson tweeted, “Afghans and US have complied with our agreements however the Taliban appears intent on squandering this opportunity and ignoring the will of the people for peace.”
The first country to jump up and criticize the Afghan government was expectedly Pakistan. Qureshi commented, “President Ghani should show magnanimity in the larger national interest and Taliban should show flexibility.” He added, “The responsibility rests with the Afghan leadership to create a conducive environment for dialogue to move forward.”
On the inclusion of swapping of prisoners in the US-Taliban deal, he stated that the Afghan government should ask Amer ica for an explanation. The Afghan government reacted strongly to Pakistan’s comments. It responded stating that it “strongly condemns recent remarks made by Pakistan’s foreign minister on the domestic affairs of Afghanistan.”
It added, “such statements only lead to creating an environment of distrust and cannot be effective in enhancing the relationship between the two countries.” There are multiple players now active in the region. The US, which signed the deal, is committed to ensuring the commencement of intra- Afghan talks to enable its pull-out to commence. Pakistan wants the Taliban to come out the winner and is willing to dump the Afghan people and government in favour of the Taliban, hoping for favours in return.
India, which has backed the Afghan government is equally a player on account of its investments and goodwill and wants discussions to lead to power sharing while ensuring protection of its investments. Pakistan wants India out of Afghanistan, while Afghanistan wants Pakistan to stay away. Evidently, the two teams negotiating the different deals, with the Taliban and the Afghan government, had not coordinated their efforts and evolved a common agreement.
This mismatch led to the Afghan government refusing to bend. Ashraf Ghani is aware that release of prisoners is amongst the few levers he holds over the Taliban. If he releases prisoners and the Taliban refuse to move forward, he would be the loser. Further, if violence reigns, with Taliban taking the lead, pressure will mount on them to give the Afghan government a stronger position on the bargaining table.
All future actions are now in the court of the Taliban. Pakistan has openly advocated its support to the Taliban, while placing all blame on the Afghan government. The US is presently seeking to reconcile internal differences within Afghanistan to push talks forward. The world would back the democratic government in the country rather than a terrorist organisation and its backer, Pakistan, in case violence resumes. Presently the deal appears to be breaking even before the first hurdle appears on the horizon, intra- Afghan talks. Peace will continue to elude Afghanistan, unless the Taliban is reined in.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)