US-Taliban Peace Deal: An Assessment

US-Taliban peace deal was the only development that could compete with the Corona outbreak in attracting the attention of the global community. The deal was signed on the 29th of February in Doha after months of negotiations initiated by the Trump administration to end the nearly two-decade-long war in Afghanistan. The primary substance of the deal, which is officially titled as “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America” are the two reciprocal commitments between the United States and Taliban. US committed to withdraw coalition troops within 14 months in return for the Taliban’s promise to start intra-Afghan talks and deny space for foreign terrorist groups in Afghanistan. The signing ceremony was attended by representatives from at least 50 countries including India and Pakistan.

Unlike the virus outbreak, the deal has found endorsers and welcomers, mostly in the form of beneficiaries, who lauded it as a defining step towards the stability in the region. Pakistan being one of the principle facilitators of the peace process celebrated the deal as a historic opportunity to bring about the political settlement in neighboring Afghanistan. Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said after attending the ceremony that the US-Taliban deal carried “immense importance in symbolism and substance” for Afghanistan. Apart from taking the credit of brokerage, Pakistan has many other reasons to endorse the deal. Having an unstable neighborhood has taught Pakistan a bitter lesson in the form of violence spillover, costing it tens of thousands in human lives and billions of dollars in infrastructure and finances. Moreover, Pakistan has been facing severe economic sluggishness primarily as a consequence of the continued incidence of armed violence. A stable Afghanistan is in the best interest of Pakistan and an imperative to achieving peace and security at home. That is not all. The deal has legitimized the Pakistan friendly Taliban as a party to negotiations in the eyes of the international community at the cost of the Afghan government in Kabul, which has largely remained hostile towards Islamabad. Undermining the Ghani administration, which has so far chosen to partner with its arch-rival India, could prove a geo-strategic reward for Pakistan. Most of the major players in the region including Russia, Iran, and China have joined the chorus of showering praises on the agreement.

However, the deal has offered yet another competition to the virus in the race of whipping up fears among the stakeholders, albeit the former lagging behind in this respect with huge proportions. Fearing its long term consequences, the US-Taliban agreement has been an alarm bell for many stakeholders; their main concern being the return of Taliban rule. The deal is looked at with skepticism by Afghans opposed to the Taliban. The planned withdrawal is seen a reminiscent of US abandonment of Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Soviet-Afghan War, which paved the way for the rise of the Taliban during the 1990s. Women and minority rights groups have criticized the deal for neglecting their concerns. The text of the agreement does not have any explicit mention of guarantees for safeguarding the interest of Afghan women and minorities living in Afghanistan.

The vehement in the critique is the security community, among them former and serving US government officials, who have decried the deal as surrender to a terrorist group. Some have even disputed the nomenclature ‘agreement’ and labeled it as managed defeat and a face-saving arrangement on the part of Trump administration. John Bolton, Trump’s former national security advisor called the agreement as “an unacceptable risk to America’s civilian population.” He further said in a tweet that this deal legitimizes the Taliban and sends the wrong signal to ISIS and al Qaeda terrorists and to America’s enemies generally. He was joined by many other officials in the barrage of criticism targeting the deal. Some critics view it in the win-lose binary, declaring the Taliban as the winner and US a looser, which I would like to disagree with. Such evaluation neglects the elements of compromise on the part of the Taliban, particularly on the issue of foreign fighters detailed in part two of agreement. Taliban has in principle agreed to break the partnership with Al-Qaida and other foreign militant groups and deny them a space for operating in Afghan territory. An agreement of this sort was impossible under the previous leadership of Mullah Omer and if signed in 2001, might have averted the war altogether. We have not anyways forgotten the response; US got from Omer upon the demand of surrendering Al-Qaeda elements before the start of US-led invasion.

Despite having representation in the signing ceremony, Indian officials seem to be very reserved in their reactions to the deal. The agreement has put Indian security establishment on tenterhooks with multiple concerns thrown up by the development. The single biggest apprehension is again the return of Taliban rule, which in its previous tenure hosted and supported many anti-India insurgent groups, fighting in the restive region of Jammu and Kashmir. Moreover, India has at stake, a friendly government that New Delhi has been propping up since the overthrow of the Taliban and around $3 billion in investments. A return to the helms of Afghanistan by still seen Pakistan friendly group would be a bitter pill for India to swallow, putting it at disadvantage in the strategic equation with Islamabad.

These conjectures, fanciful or apprehensive, reached by various stakeholders however, seems premature to me for a variety of reasons. We have many unanswered questions pertaining to the very heart of peace deal almost at every level of analysis. The resulting information deficit about the various constituents of agreement, both tangible and intangible impedes the scope of reaching credible conclusions of what a peace deal of this sort will have in the store for anyone. The most important thing that we don’t know is the present state of affairs existing within the Taliban after nearly two decades of fighting. What is their vision of Afghanistan’s future in terms of domestic and international affairs? We do not know where the Taliban stands in its doctrine of rule. Are they looking forward to re-impose the pre-2001 style rule or has their idea of governance evolved into something new; for example a power-sharing arrangement or government through elections? Secondly, there are questions raised on the feasibility of peace deal when it comes to implementation and commitments. The deal has been agreed on vague terms lacking a well-defined mechanism to achieve the objective of bringing peace to Afghanistan. Furthermore, we have witnessed the violation of the terms on both sides before the ink could dry on the agreement paper. President Ghani refused to release 5000 prisoners as agreed in the deal, provoking attacks from Taliban and US swinging back into action with air support to government forces. There exists a lot of mistrust between the warring parties, which one could easily make out from the statements of the parties to the agreement. The US threat of reversing the withdrawal of forces in the case of non-fulfillment of commitments by the Taliban is one of the reflections of mistrust. Moreover, US intelligence officials came up with the reports within a few days of signing the deal, claiming that the Taliban has no intention of abiding by the agreement. Taliban is also suspicious and worried about possible U-turn by President Trump, which he is known for. The suspicion was expressed to NBC News by one of the Taliban representatives, saying “President Trump is straightforward but then unpredictable and you can expect anything from him”. They fear that Trump could renege on the withdrawal plan after the US presidential election happening in November this year. In the wake of such challenges posed to the successful implementation of the US-Taliban peace deal and insufficient details available, I am of the opinion that it is too early either to be apprehensive or cheerful about its outcome.

Zahid Salam is Research Scholar at the School of International Studies, Jawarharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.