by Matin Baraki*
After more than a decade of secret and official negotiations, the United States and the Taliban agreed on an “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” in Doha on 29 February 2020. In this context, the US and Afghan governments issued a joint declaration on the same day. However, this was not yet a comprehensive peace agreement, but only a kind of “door opener” to enter into intra-Afghan negotiations. This was a first step towards a possible peace in Afghanistan. But the road to it will be long and rocky. When Barack Obama was elected president of the United States in 2008, the Taliban signalled their willingness to seek a political solution to the conflict at the Hindu Kush. But his announcement that the CIA’s Guantánamo concentration camp in Cuba would be closed down and for that reason no more prisoners would be taken as of now, meant that the moderate Taliban officials who were willing to negotiate were now physically eliminated by drone strikes. In 2013 alone, US forces killed more than 8,000 of them.1
Now the direct intra-Afghan peace talks have also begun in Doha. But only free, democratic and strictly controlled, bottom–up elections for a constituent assembly (Loya Jirga) would save the defiled Afghan people.
If one wants to classify the significance of the agreement between the US administration and the Taliban of 29 February 2020 in Doha, the capital of the Gulf Emirate of Qatar2, one will recall the saying attributed to the Roman poet Horace: “The mountain laboured and brought forth a mouse”. The document was signed by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, head of the Taliban delegation, and US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, a native Afghan. US President Donald Trump, who called the Taliban “great fighters”3, sent his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the signing ceremony. Taliban negotiator Abbas Stanikzai proudly emphasised: “There is no doubt we have won the war”.4 The Taliban Islamist fighters see themselves as the only jihadist movement that has defied the superpower and forced it to withdraw.
Pakistan is considered the Taliban’s main supporter. Therefore, the success of the agreement also depends on the relations between the Pakistani and Afghan administrations. In the run-up to the last round of negotiations, US Secretary of State Pompeo had “put a lot of effort into winning over the Pakistani leadership to the agreement. But their support remains questionable”.5
US-Taliban agreement of February 2020
After 19 years of war, the death of 1968 US soldiers6 and two trillion US dollars that Washington squandered in the war against Afghanistan7, the Americans “committed themselves to withdraw their troops from the state [Afghanistan] after years of failure. In view of their full-bodied announcements in 2001, this amounts to an escape. The USA experienced a mini-Vietnam in Afghanistan”.8
The ink on the paper was not yet dry when Afghan President Ashraf Ghani promptly spoke out on 1 March, rejecting one of the key elements of the agreement. According to the agreement, 5,000 captured Taliban fighters were to be released by 10 March. Ghani stressed that there was “no commitment”. “The United States mediated. Mediation does not mean making decisions.”9 The Taliban prisoners are an important strategic asset for the Kabul administration, which saw them as part of the intra-Afghan negotiations and did not accept them as a precondition for the negotiations. The decision to release the Taliban fighters was not up to the US, but to his government, Ghani stressed. In return, 1,000 captured government fighters must be released. In response to Ghani’s statement, a Taliban spokesman, Sabihullah Mujahid, announced that fighting would continue until an intra-Afghan settlement will be reached.
The war continues to kill people in Afghanistan every day
Two Taliban attacks in northern Afghanistan killed at least 20 security forces and 16 members of the national security forces were killed in an attack on the military base in the city of Kunduz. In another, four police officers were killed and one injured.10 “Once again, the Taliban want to demonstrate military strength”11, stated the German Commander for northern Afghanistan, Brigadier General Jürgen Brötz. They wanted to bring the Kabul administration to its knees. According to the national security authority in Kabul, the Taliban conducted a total of 2,804 operations until 26 April 2020. Ashraf Ghani then gave in and offered to release 1,500 Taliban fighters. But this was immediately rejected by the Taliban, with their political spokesman Suhail Shaheen emphasising that “5,000 prisoners should be released as a confidence-building measure, and this should be before intra-Afghan talks”.12 The Taliban thus insisted that, according to the agreement with the USA, the prisoners must be released before the start of intra-Afghan negotiations. They demanded the release of 15 of their named officials. Otherwise there would be no negotiations with the Kabul administration.13 By mid-April, the Taliban had released a total of 60 prisoners14, and the government for its part had released 850 prisoners by early May.15
The US Army took the Taliban attacks as an opportunity to launch an air strike against Taliban fighters immediately on 4 March. In the Nahr-e-Saraj district in the southern Afghan province of Helmand, a Taliban stronghold, the US Air Force bombed its fighters, according to US military spokesman Sonny Leggett on Twitter.16
One is inclined to ask whether everything is going down the drain?17 The US representative and the Taliban have held twelve years of secret talks and two years of official talks in Qatar to negotiate conditions for a political solution to the longest war in US history. Trump wanted to kill two birds with one stone: first, he wanted to realise his election promise to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan and win the upcoming elections on 3 November 2020. The second was to integrate the Taliban into the colonial-like structures at the Hindu Kush and neutralise them by awarding them a few posts.
He criticised that the war, which has been going on since the end of 2001, has resulted in high costs for US troops, the American taxpayer and the Afghan people. According to official figures, this war cost $1.5 billion a week during its peak phases (2002 to 2014). During the election campaign, he promised the American people “that I would start by bringing our troops back home and try to end this war”18. Can we believe the capricious US President? Would US strategists allow the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, especially since NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, at the meeting of defence ministers on 14 February 2020, classified the People’s Republic of China as an enemy – diplomatically dressed up as a challenge to the West in the communiqué? Afghanistan shares a border with China in the far north. Exactly there a NATO base is located. The country at the Hindu Kush is an unsinkable aircraft carrier for the USA and NATO. Barack Obama had also promised the withdrawal of the US army. But he only reduced the combat troops and thus afghanised the war. Since then, mainly Afghans, under whatever name, have been fighting Afghans.
A deal of promises
The agreement was thus merely “a deal of promises”19, as a basis for negotiating further measures are. “We are just at the beginning”20, said Mike Pompeo. The proposed intra-Afghan peace negotiations would require “hard work and sacrifice from all sides”21, he noted. Once the agreement is implemented, foreign troops would be completely withdrawn by the end of April 2021. “If bad things happen, we will return to Afghanistan”22, the US President threatened. The US could win the war in Afghanistan, but to do so it would have to “kill ten million people”.23
The Taliban’s core demand would be met if the withdrawal of the foreign “invaders” were actually to take place. Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada called the agreement a “great victory” for his movement. He said that the agreement would lead “to the end of the occupation”24 of Afghanistan. Among other things, the Taliban pledged that Afghanistan would no longer pose a terrorist threat to the US and its allies. This is nothing more than an alibi argument, because Afghanistan has never posed a terrorist threat to the US and its allies.
Another element of the agreement is the stipulation that the Taliban should conduct negotiations with the Kabul administration. Those would be the actual peace talks. So far, they had refused to negotiate directly with the Kabul leadership because they consider the government a puppet of the USA. According to the agreement, the talks should lead to a lasting ceasefire and a political roadmap for Afghanistan’s future. There is a real possibility that the Taliban’s movement could split again. The faction would then join the Da’esh “Islamic State” (IS) operating in Afghanistan and contribute to its strengthening. The country at the Hindu Kush would then have gone out of the frying pan into the fire.
How many US troops will actually be withdrawn?
The US has pledged to reduce the number of its soldiers from around 13,000 to 8,600 within 135 days. The strength of international troops will be reduced proportionally. Only five out of 16 major US military bases and 12 smaller ones would have to be closed in this period. If the agreement is honoured, all foreign troops would be withdrawn within 14 months – by the end of April 2021. The joint declaration by Washington and Kabul of 28 February 2020 restrictively states: “Consistent with the joint assessment and determination between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” and “subject to the Taliban’s fulfilment of its commitments under the US-Taliban agreement”.25 In a commentary by the US State Department on the Doha agreement it is emphasised that the withdrawal of US troops is “conditions–based” and “will depend on how well the Taliban meet their commitments”.26 The statements have not yet been assessed by any international body, but only by the US administration in consultation with the Kabul leadership. It would be a miracle if Trump really did have the intention of pulling his troops out of the longest war in the history of the United States. But it is more likely that he will act according to the motto of the former German chancellor Konrad Adenauer: “What do I care about my babbling of yesterday?” If he is re-elected for a second term on 3 November, he could decide quite differently about a US military withdrawal. He could also invoke the “Strategic Partnership Agreement” concluded in 2012, which allows the US to station troops in Afghanistan until 2024. In addition, there is a secret agreement of 2002 between the Kabul administration under Hamid Karzai and the US, which allows US units to remain in Afghanistan for 99 years. So there are a lot of imponderables, which could make the whole story absurd.
First you bring the war, then you retire?
In connection with the IS attack in the Afghan capital Kabul on 6 March 2020, more than 30 people were killed, Trump was asked how the US intends to ensure the security of Afghanistan in the future, since the Afghan government can no longer rely on US military support to defend itself against the Taliban or the IS after the withdrawal of US troops. “At some point, countries will have to take care of themselves”, Trump said in the White House on 6 March when asked by a reporter whether he feared the Taliban would take power after the planned withdrawal. “At some point, they will have to protect themselves, he said”,27 US soldiers have been deployed in Afghanistan for almost two decades. Two thousand US soldiers have been killed28 and more than 20,000 injured. “We cannot be there for the next 20 years.”29 Zalmay Khalilzad added in early March that the US had not asked anyone for permission when they invaded Afghanistan. Nor will they do so if they want to leave.
Presidential farce in Afghanistan
After a long wait, political rivals Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah declared themselves president of Afghanistan in separate ceremonies on 9 March 2020 on the grounds of the presidential palace in Kabul. The US Special Envoy Khalilzad had only attended the swearing-in of Ghani, signalling that the US administration would support him in the power struggle against Abdullah.
During the swearing-in ceremonies with hundreds of guests, two explosions could be heard in the Afghan capital. Several guests fled. Ghani used this as a declaration of war. To the howling of alarm sirens he told the remaining guests that he was not wearing a bulletproof vest. „I will stay, even if I have to sacrifice my head for it”.30 In Mid February, five months after the presidential election, which was overshadowed by accusations of fraud, Ghani was declared the election winner. His defeated opponent, Prime Minister Abdullah, did not recognise the election results and called for a counter-government. The rivalry is fuelling fears of a renewed political crisis in Afghanistan and is also overshadowing the agreement signed at the end of February between the United States and the Taliban. Both Ghani and Abdullah had already declared themselves winners in the previous presidential election five years ago. It was only through the mediation of then US Secretary of State John Kerry, who had imprisoned the opponents in the Kabul US Embassy, that the two agreed on a compromise: Ghani became head of state and Abdullah head of government,31 although the post of head of government is not provided for in the Afghan constitution.
By March, the dispute had reached a new stage. Two days after taking office, on 11 March, President Ghani deposed his rival and leader Abdullah Abdullah. The office of the Chief Executive no longer exists within the structure of the Afghan government, said Ghani’s spokesman Sediq Sediqi during a press conference on 11 March.32 Abdullah then declared on his official Facebook page that Ghani was no longer president and his decrees were no longer valid. “We call on civilian and military personnel of the former government to continue their daily tasks and responsibilities as before”, Abdullah wrote.
Settlement in Afghan
Nevertheless, Ghani and Abdullah had agreed on 17 May to jointly govern the country in the future.33 However, this had only come about due to massive pressure from the United States. For the Taliban, it did not change the fact that they could gain a strategic advantage from the dispute between the two adversaries for the intended intra-Afghan talks aimed at achieving a political solution to the conflict. They can only be pleased to see such a divided group. The Taliban could look forward to negotiations with this Kabul administration in a highly relaxed manner.34 The United States sees Ghani’s and Abdullah’s inability to cooperate as a “direct threat”35 to US interests at the Hindu Kush. On 23 March 2020, Mike Pompeo travelled to Kabul. There he met two “presidents”, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. After his talks with the two “presidents”, the US Secretary of State was so annoyed that the USA threatened to slash their financial aid by one billion US dollars. The US administration was also prepared to make further cuts, said Pompeo. Ghani and his opponent Abdullah should “get a grip on themselves”36, then the cuts might not be necessary, Pompeo threatened before his departure. The US administration feared that the peace process initiated at the Hindu Kush might result in a failure.
The ink on the paper used to sign the agreement between the US and Taliban representatives was signed was not dry yet when the Taliban continued their attacks on the Afghan security forces in increased numbers. There were “within a week, in 32 of the 34 provinces, a total of 422 attacks by the militant-Islamic Taliban. In the process, 291 soldiers and other security forces were killed and 550 injured”37, the German Press Agency (dpa) reported. The Taliban intended to demonstrate their undisputed strength to enter negotiations with the Kabul administration from this position. In addition, they wanted to enforce the complete release of their still imprisoned members. Initially, the Afghan administration refused to release the 400 prisoners considered particularly dangerous. This included 156 Taliban, who were “actually sentenced to death for their crimes, another 105 were in prison on a murder charge, and 51 on drug smuggling,”38 according to Sediq Sediqqi, the spokesman for the Afghan president. The governments of France, Australia and the United States have also spoken out against the release of those Taliban who participated in killing of their soldiers.39 Now Afghan President Ashraf Ghani found himself in a quandary. With a skilful move, Ghani transferred responsibility to the representatives of the Afghan peoples. On 7 August 2020, he convened the traditional council meeting, the Loya Jirga, which was to decide on the release of the Taliban considered dangerous. As expected, almost all the 3,400 delegates spoke out in favour of the release of the Taliban fighters still in detention.40 The member of parliament Belqis Roshan regarded the approval as “national treason”. For this she was thrown to the ground by representative Shekeba Safi. The Loya Jirga’s approval of the release of Taliban prisoners cleared the way for the eagerly awaited inner-Afghan peace negotiations. Within a week, we are ready for a dialogue, announced Suhail Shahin, spokesman for the Taliban’s political office.41 On 12 August, delegations of the Taliban and the Afghan administration arrived in Qatar’s capital Doha. Wrongly, the media are speaking of a Taliban negotiation with the Afghan government. Since the Taliban do not recognise the government in Kabul and see it as a US puppet, the delegation from Kabul does not consist of members of the government but of parliamentarians, the entourage of the warlords, the so-called civil society, etc. President Ghani has given the chairmanship to his rival Abdullah. If the Taliban, who are considered dangerous, return to jihad, the Loya Jirga will be held responsible. If negotiations with the Taliban fail, Abdullah will be discredited as a failed politician.
The Taliban immediately rejected “the Loya Jirga’s call for a ceasefire”42. Since the agreement between the Taliban and the United States on 29 February 2020, “more than 10,000 members of the Afghan security forces have been killed or injured”.43 In July 2020, the insurgents even attacked the office of Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh, and, on 9 September, his motorcade. The former killed 24 people and the latter 10.44 Since Saleh was head of the secret service during the reign of Hamed Karzai and was considered one of the merciless torturers also of the Taliban, he is the target of the insurgents’ attacks.
The Taliban reaffirmed their demands to first discuss the real reasons for the war against Afghanistan. After that, a ceasefire could be considered. The spokesman for their delegation, Mohammad Naeem Wardag, named as the most important goal “the end of the ‘occupation’ of Afghanistan and the establishment of a ‘true Islamic system’”45 at the Hindu Kush. In addition, the Taliban want to control the key ministries in the event of participation in government.
Since the negotiations between the Taliban and the United States took more than a decade, it can be assumed that the intra-Afghan talks resemble a job that Sisyphus had to do.
Withdrawal or voting tactics?
While US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper spoke on 8 August 2020 on the US channel Fox News of a reduction of the US army from currently 8,600 to 5,000 by the end of November,46 US President Donald Trump announced on 7 October 2020 that he would withdraw the “brave men and women who still serve in Afghanistan”,47 from the Hindu Kush by Christmas. The February 2020 agreement between the US and the Taliban spoke of a complete withdrawal only in the year 2021. Whether this is another one of his 20,000 lies, so “fake news”, having been counted by the “New York Times”48 and the “Washington Post”49, or whether it is more his electoral tactic, remains to be seen. Before now, he had promised his voters to withdraw the US army from Afghanistan. Since his poll results do not look good, he is trying with new drastic announcements.
In any case, the Taliban have taken note of them with satisfaction and as welcome. On 8 October 2020, Taliban spokesman Sabihullah Mujahid welcomed Trump’s statement “as a positive step towards the implementation of the US-Taliban peace agreement. The Taliban were committed to the agreement and hoped for relations with all states, including the US.”50 Abdullah, acting as chairman of the High Council for Reconciliation and head of delegation to the Doha negotiations, said soberly: “It will take a while to digest this”.51
If the US units were indeed to withdraw, the Taliban might be motivated by their military strength to overthrow the government in Kabul. That would then be the next round of an intra-Afghan war. After all, the warlords will not let the butter be taken out of their mouth. •
1 cf. Ettmayer, Wendelin. “Weltweite Übermacht der USA?” (Worldwide superiority of the USA?), International, Vienna, I/2020, p. 7
2 cf. Misteli, Samuel. “Die Taliban haben die besten Karten” (The Taliban have the best cards), Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 29 February 2020, p. 11
3 Meier, Christian/Sattar, Majid. “Die Taliban sind grosse Kämpfer” (The Taliban are great fighters), Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of 2 March 2020, p. 5
4 Meier, Christian/Sattar, Majid. “Streit über Afghanistan-Vereinbarung” (Dispute over Afghanistan agreement), Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of 2 March 2020, p. 1
5 Glatz, Rainer L./Kaim, Markus. “Mandat verlängern – Abzug vorbereiten” [Extending the mandate – preparing for withdrawal], SWP-Aktuell, Berlin, No. 18 of March 2020, p. 21
6 cf. https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/2006/umfrage/gefallene-oder-verunglueckte-soldaten-der-westlichen-koalition-in-afghanistan/. 2,400 US soldiers were killed in Operation Enduring Freedom (2001 to 2020), cf. https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/72801/umfrage/kriege-der-usa-nach-anzahl-der-soldaten-und-toten/. Between 2001 and 22 January 2020, a total of 3,587 Western Alliance soldiers died in Afghanistan, cf. https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/2006/umfrage/gefallene-oder-verunglueckte-soldaten-der-westlichen-koalition-in-afghanistan/
7 The Federal Republic of Germany has suffered a total of 58 deaths and more than 100 injuries. Some 90,000 soldiers of the German Armed Forces have been deployed to the Hindu Kush since January 2002. In 2014 there were almost 5000 soldiers there, and to date 1234 have remained there. The mission has so far cost German taxpayers over six billion euros. Cf. Carstens, Peter. “Verteidigung am Hindukusch” [Defence in the Hindu Kush], Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of 12 March 2020, p. 10.
8 Moskowskij Komsomolets of 2 March 2020
9 Meier, Christian/Sattar, Majid. “Die Taliban sind grosse Kämpfer”, [The Taliban are great fighters] op. cit., p. 5
10 Cf. “Anschlag in Nordafghanistan: Taliban töten trotz Abkommen weiter” [Attack in northern Afghanistan: Taliban continue killing despite agreement], dpa of 4 March 2020
11 Käppner, Joachim. “Die Kämpfe sind intensiver geworden” [The fighting has become more intense] (Interview), Süddeutsche Zeitung of 16 April 2020, p. 5
12 “Taliban weisen Angebot aus Kabul zurück” [Taliban reject offer from Kabul], AFP of 11 March 2020
13 cf. “Taliban widersprechen Ghani” [Taliban contradict Ghani], Süddeutsche Zeitung of 3 March 2020, p. 7
14 cf. “Taliban lassen weitere Gefangene frei” [Taliban release more prisoners], Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of 18 April 2020, p. 6
15 cf. “Afghanische Regierung liess weitere 300 Taliban frei” [Afghan government released a further 300 Taliban], Salzburger Nachrichten of 5 May 2020
16 cf. “USA fliegen Angriff auf Taliban” [USA launch attack on Taliban], dpa of 4 March 2020
17 cf. Matern, Tobias. “Friedensabkommen zwischen USA und Taliban wackelt” [Peace agreement between USA and Taliban is shaky], Süddeutsche Zeitung of 2 March 2020, p. 1
18 “Trump: USA und Taliban unterzeichnen Abkommen” [Trump: USA and Taliban sign agreement], dpa of 27 February 2020
19 Meier, Christian. “Ende eines endlosen Krieges?” [End of an endless war?], Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of 2 March 2020, p. 1
20 Meier, Christian/Sattar, Majid. “Die Taliban sind grosse Kämpfer” [The Taliban are great fighters], op.cit., p. 5
25 Mellenthin, Knut. “Bedingt bereit” [Conditionally ready], Junge Welt of 2 March 2020, p. 8
27 “Trump: Machtübernahme der Taliban in Afghanistan möglich”, AFP of 6 March 2020
28 vgl. “Bislang 2000 US-Soldaten in Afghanistan getötet”, dapd/AP of 30 September 2012
29 “Trump: Machtübernahme der Taliban in Afghanistan möglich”, dpa of 6 March 2020
30 “Zwei Vereidigungen in Kabul”, AFP of 9 March 2020
31 vgl. “Zwei Vereidigungen in Kabul”, AFP of 9 March 2020
32 cf. “Afghanistans Präsident setzt Wahlrivalen ab”, dpa of 11 March 2020
33 cf. “Rivalen in Afghanistan raufen sich zusammen”, AFP/dpa of 17 May 2020
34 cf. Matern, Tobias. “Alles läuft für die Taliban”, Tages-Anzeiger of 2 March 2020, p. 2
35 Matern, Tobias. “Vermittlungen gescheitert”, Süddeutsche Zeitung of 25 March 2020, p. 7
37 dpa of 22 June 2020; “Fast 300 Tote in einer Woche”, Süddeutsche Zeitung of 23 June 2020, p. 6
38 Matern, Tobias. “Taliban erzwingen Amnestie”, Süddeutsche Zeitung of 10 August 2020, p. 7
39 Meier, Christian. “Kabul stoppt Gefangenaustausch”, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of 19 August 2020, p. 6
40 cf. Meier, Christian. “Die schwierigen Fragen kommen noch”, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of 13 August 2020, p. 8
41 cf. Matern, Tobias. “Taliban bereit für Dialog”, Süddeutsche Zeitung of 12 August 2020, p. 7
42 Meier, Christian. “Die schwierigen Fragen kommen noch”, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of 13 August 2020, p. 8
44 cf. Meier, Christian. “Attentat in Kabul”, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of 10 September 2020, p. 5
45 Meier, Christian. “Noch keine Einigung auf Waffenruhe” (No agreement on ceasefire yet), Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of 18 September 2020, p. 5
46 cf. Matern, Tobias. “Taliban erzwingen Amnestie” (Taliban force amnesty), Süddeutsche Zeitung of 10 August 2020, p. 7
47 dpa of 8 October 2020; “Zufriedene Taliban” (Happy Taliban), Süddeutsche Zeitung of 9 October 2020, p. 6
48 cf. https://www.jetzt.de/netzteil/new-york-times-veroeffentlicht-liste-mit-allen-luegen-von-donald-trump (New York Times publishes list with all donald trump lies)
49 cf. “Trump lies on average twelve times a day”, The Washington Post; quoted after: https://www.t-online.de/nachrichten/ausland/usa/id_85665402/trump-luegt-im-schnitt-zwoelf-mal-am-tag-10-000-luegen-seit-amtsantritt-.html
* Matin Baraki, born in Afghanistan in 1947, worked as a teacher there before coming to Germany. Today, he is an expert on Afghanistan and a development policy consultant. He is a member of the Centre for Conflict Research and a lecturer on international politics at the Philipps University of Marburg.
If you want to prevent the setting of cookies (for example, Google Analytics), you can set this up by using this browser add-on.