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CWA # 451, 31 March 2021

Afghanistan
The US-Taliban Deal: One Year Later

  Abigail Miriam Fernandez

The intra-Afghan talks have practically stalled. There has not been much progress on these crucial negotiations since they began in September after months of bickering and accusations. While the issues concerning human rights and reduction of violence remain, the main stumbling block is an agreement on the future political set-up in the war-torn country.

One year later the "Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan" between the US and Taliban has achieved no concrete results with violence continuing across the country.
On 29 February 2020, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan/Taliban and the United States of America signed the 'Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan.' The agreement is a comprehensive peace agreement comprising of four parts. First, it called for the guarantees and enforcement mechanisms that will prevent the use of the soil of Afghanistan by any group or individual against the security of the United States and its allies. Second, the announcement of a timeline for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan. Third, that the Taliban will start intra-Afghan negotiations with Afghan sides on 10 March 2020. Fourth, the creation of a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire will be an item on the agenda of the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations. 

A year into the deal, while some parts of the agreement have been implemented, others remain open and raise questions. 

The continuing attacks by the Taliban and uncut ties with terrorist groups 
According to the 27th report of the UN Security Council (UNSC) Watchdog Group on Al-Qaeda, ISIL, and its affiliated groups indicated the Taliban has continued its relations with Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Although the Taliban's officials have denied the presence of foreign fighters in Afghanistan, the same was substantiated by the killing of the Egyptian Hussam Abdur-Rauf, who was also known as Abu Mohsin al-Masri, as well as the Pakistani Mohammad Hanif — both alleged al-Qaeda members — in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan in 2020. Further, in December 2020 and early January 2021 reports from the north-eastern province of Badakhshan confirmed that fighters from Central Asian states are still active among the Taliban in Badakhshan. 

However, it is key to note here that although according to the text of the US-Taliban Agreement, the Taliban did not pledge to cut ties with al-Qaeda, but "to prevent any group or individual, including al- Qaeda, from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies." There is detailed and credible evidence that the Taliban are trying to prevent foreign fighters in Afghanistan from launching attacks in other countries by regulating and supervising them rather than by renouncing them. Given that this is a questionable approach, the Taliban has shown no sign of altering their current course of trying to control foreign fighters. 

Despite the deal and the ongoing negotiation, violent conflict continues unabetted across Afghanistan, mainly because of the Taliban. In 2020, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) in its reports showed that the Taliban caused 45 per cent of all civilian casualties in the first nine months of 2020 (2,643 civilian casualties 1,021 killed and 1,622 injured). This constitutes a reduction of 32 per cent in comparison to the same period last year; mostly due to fewer civilian injuries from suicide attacks and ground engagements, although this was partially offset by an increase in civilian casualties from pressure-plate IEDs and targeted killings. Further, the UNAMA raised concerns over the contrast decrease in the number of civilians injured, the number of civilians killed attributed to the Taliban increased by six per cent in the first nine months of 2020.

The UNAMA also documented five incidents of Taliban members resorting to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment under the guise of enforcing decisions of their parallel justice structure, particularly in areas under their control where people had very limited access to formal judicial mechanisms. Punishments carried out by the Taliban included beatings and amputations, as well as executions, for alleged 'crimes' such as 'moral transgressions. Further, the UNAMA documented a "changing patterns" of attacks as it identified the recent killings as an intentional, premeditated and deliberate targeting of individuals with perpetrators remaining anonymous. Another factor in the violence has been the increasing number of unclaimed attacks and assassinations. Afghan government officials accuse the Taliban of being behind these assassinations. However, the Taliban have rejected this and has gone on to blame government officials.

Further, concerning airstrikes and special forces' night raids, which is seen as an effective tool against the Taliban and other insurgents and criticized by others for causing civilian casualties, has decreased over the past year. Taliban has at several times accused US forces of having conducted aerial bombings in an alleged breach of the US-Taliban Agreement. On the other hand, the US forces have argued that such strikes are being conducted in defence of Afghan government forces attacked by the Taliban and, thus, do not violate the agreement.

The status of US troop withdrawal
Over the last year, the US has withdrawn a significant number of troops, at times rushing ahead of its obligations in the US-Taliban Agreement that stipulated a phased withdrawal to be fully completed by the end of April 2021 all international troops by May 2021. At the same time, there were reportedly around 13,000 US troops in Afghanistan when the signing of the US-Taliban Agreement, as of mid-January 2021, that number had dropped to only 2,500. This withdrawal saw US troops vacate several bases across Afghanistan. Such bases were namely located in or near Tirin Kot, the capital of Uruzgan province; Lashkar Goh, the capital of Helmand province; Gardez, the capital of Paktia province; Gamberi, in Laghman province; Shindand in Herat province; Farah, the capital of the province with the same name; Maimana, the capital of Faryab province; Pul-i Alam, the capital of Logar province; and Kunduz, the capital of the province with the same name.

Presently, there are roughly 8,000 NATO troops and nearly 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan. While the Taliban has voiced its strong opposition to international troops' presence in Afghanistan, the Afghan government expects the continued support of the alliance in its train, advice, and assist mission. However, as the new US administration is reviewing the Doha agreement, the question of complete troop withdrawal remains in question. The Pentagon has been accusing the Taliban of not meeting their commitment to reducing violence as agreed in the Doha deal. A bipartisan study group assigned by US Congress called for the following: the slow withdrawal of American troops, removal of the 1 May exit deadline and reducing the number of forces only as security conditions improve in Afghanistan. The Taliban has accused the US of breaching the agreement and insisted it will continue its "fight" if foreign troops do not leave Afghanistan by May.

The deadlock in the intra-Afghan Negotiations and calls for a ceasefire
The intra-Afghan talks have practically stalled. There has not been much progress on these crucial negotiations since they began in September after months of bickering and accusations. While the issues concerning human rights and reduction of violence remain, the main stumbling block is an agreement on the future political set-up in the war-torn country.

According to the US-Taliban Agreement, intra-Afghan negotiations between the Taliban and other "Afghan sides," the current Afghan government, were supposed to start on 10 March 2020. However, the negotiation only began on 12 September 2020 in Doha, Qatar. The main reason for the delay was haggling over the release of Taliban prisoners, which was caused by a lack of clarity as to what was agreed upon and the delay in fixing the agenda. The rules were finalized on 2 December 2020. After a recess in late December, the intra-Afghan negotiations resumed on 5 January 2021. However, this has also not gone smoothly, with reports indicating that talks have stalled and may have even been suspended. In February 2021, the negotiations in Doha been stalled for almost four weeks as both sides have not held meetings on the agenda of the second phase of the talks. The main reason for the deadlock is the Taliban's missing presence in Doha, with the Afghan government accusing the Taliban of stalling the negotiation. However, the Taliban seem to have other priorities in mind. Since the resumption of talks, the Taliban has been on a diplomatic spree with multiple visits to Iran and Russia, Turkmenistan and Turkey seeking support for the US-Taliban Agreement. As a result, the Afghan government's negotiating team warned that if the Taliban failed to resume the talks, the government would recall its team from Doha. Further, the two sides have failed to reach a consensus on the most critical and first agenda of the talks, which is the call for a reduction in violence as a result the singular opportunity to bring peace to war-torn Afghanistan seems to be slipping away.

Nothing substantial has come out from the deal 
The deal one year later has led to nothing substantial. The 'Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan' has failed in its agenda due to obvious reasons. First, the side-lining of the Afghan government; second, the Taliban's lack of commitment and third, the US's desperation to leave Afghanistan. However, one year later, the circumstances have also changed, most notably being the change of government in the US. With the Biden administration taking over and deciding to review the agreement, it is uncertain what is to come out of it. President Joe Biden while addressing the Munich Security Conference said: "We remain committed to ensuring that Afghanistan never again provides base for terrorist attacks against the United States and our partners and our interests." He added: "My administration strongly supports the diplomatic process that is underway and to bring an end to this war (Afghan war) that is closing out 20 years."

However, if the agreement only withdraws US troops from Afghanistan, the agreement would be a success, but if it is about 'bringing peace' the current deal is flawed and insufficient. For this, the Biden administration will have to make serious amends to the agreement to ensure more accountability. However, this does not imply that the Taliban would be willing to renegotiate the deal, but the new administration needs to at least try and put more pressure on and play a bigger role in intra-Afghan negotiations. 

About the author
Abigail Miriam Fernandez is a Project Assistant at the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore. As part of her research focus, she looks into gender, minorities and ethnic movements in Pakistan and peace processes in South Asia.

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