GP Insights # 292, 14 March 2020
This week Afghanistan faced five different but interrelated developments after two weeks of the US-Taliban peace deal. First, the two parallel oath-taking ceremonies for the President by Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah took place, on 9 March. The swearing-in ceremony of Ashraf Ghani was attended by the US and NATO, General Scott Miller and Zalmay Khalilzad. During the oath-taking ceremony, a rocket attack was reported, which was later claimed by Islamic State. The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, issued a statement saying, "the US strongly condemned the creation of 'parallel government' and any use of force to resolve political differences". Later, on 11 March Ghani's spokesperson also announced an official order, to dissolve the post of Chief Executive.
Second, the Afghan government on 11 March, issued a decree for a phased release of 1500 Taliban prisoners, as a first step towards the intra-Afghan talks. Ashraf Ghani also asked prisoners to provide, "a written guarantee to not return to battlefield". The release of prisoners was supposed to begin after four days of the decree. Suhail Shaheen spokesperson of the Taliban said, "We reject Ghani's phased release of prisoners". Also, the Taliban said that the signed deal can only further progress, after the release of all 5000 prisoners.
Third, on 11 March, UNSC unanimously adopted a resolution endorsing the US-Taliban peace deal.
Fourth, the US began the withdrawal of troops over the week, to facilitate the reduction of troop numbers to 8600 from 13600 in 135 days of signing the US-Taliban deal. Colonel Sonny Leggett, US force Afghanistan, said, "In accordance with US-Afghan joint declaration and the US-Taliban agreement, USFOR-A (US Forces Afghanistan) has begun its reduction of force according to the deal".
Fifth, on 12 March, the US General said, Taliban has failed to reduce the number of attacks, as after the deal, around 40 people have been killed. US Marine General Kenneth McKenzie said "I would not consider what the Taliban is doing as consistent with any path to going forward or to come to a final end state agreement with the current government of Afghanistan."
What is the background?
The US-Taliban deal was signed to end 18 years of US involvement in Afghanistan. After several rounds of negotiations between the US and Taliban, the deal came into place on 29 February. The deal seeks to address four major aspects. First, an intra-Afghan dialogue on 10 March. Second, a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Third, the withdrawal of all the US and NATO troops from Afghanistan in a timeline of 14 months. Fourth, guarantee from the Taliban, of not letting anyone use Afghan soil as a launchpad of attacks against the US.
The results of Afghan election held on 28 September declared Ashraf Ghani as president. Ghani attained 50.62 per cent whereas Abdullah Abdullah secured 39.52 per cent of votes. Abdullah Abdullah disputed the election results and pledged to form his parallel government. Zalmay Khalilzad, the special envoy of the US, had made several attempts to negotiate between the two leaders, over the contradicting internal governance of Afghanistan.
The rival leadership faced an identity crisis over the week. Ashraf Ghani's oath-taking ceremony was attended by diplomats indicating an international acceptance towards his leadership. On the other hand, many suggest that Abdullah Abdullah has greater domestic support including several Mujahedeen and political leaders
In 2014 a similar situation arose between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, where the US secretory John Kerry intervened to broker a power-sharing agreement, and a new position of Chief Executive was created for Abdullah Abdullah.
During the week, the phased prisoner release was criticized by the Taliban. The Afghan government sighted security reasons for not releasing 5000 prisoners at one go and also flagged that there are differences in the wordings of the agreement between the US and the Afghan government, and the US and Taliban peace deal. On the other hand, Taliban, a spokesperson stated, 'that a list of all 5000 prisoners has been given to the US' and 'a vehicle has been sent to Bagram prison to receive 'freed fighters". They believe the prisoner swap, may work as a confidence-building measure and pave way for direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
What does it mean?
First, the Taliban is not willing to step back after the Afghanistan government's stand over prisoners swap. This may lead to an escalation of violence, between the government forces and the Taliban.
Second, the dispute over the phased release of prisoners and the political infighting between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah may delay intra-Afghan talks. According to the US Taliban deal, the intra-Afghan talks were to begin on the 10 March 2020. Further, the inauguration of a parallel government has brought the idea of intra-afghan talks to a standstill due to difficulty in forming an inclusive group that could represent the Afghan government.
Third, the withdrawal of troops by the US without any progress in intra-Afghan talks indicates the limited interest of the US in the internal politics of Afghanistan. Fourth, the UNSC resolution in support of the US-Taliban deal gives greater importance to the Taliban as an actor at the international platform