Responding to the evolving but still grim security scenario in Afghanistan, US President Donald Trump tweeted that he was canceling a planned Camp David summit with Taliban leaders and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Trump’s announcement followed a Taliban bomb attack in Kabul that killed an American soldier.
In this context, some Afghans have expressed surprise. One Kabul resident was quoted as saying, “It took the death of one American to stop the process while so many Afghan army forces and civilians are killed on a daily basis.”
This rupture in the peace process occurred during a period when talks between American and Taliban interlocutors were reported to have reached an agreement over a draft peace deal. But the Afghan peace process has never been a simple and unidirectional exercise.
Meanwhile, President Trump recently made a remark that 8,600 American troops would remain in Afghanistan even if Washington reaches a final agreement with the Taliban. The reported US success in reaching an agreement with the Taliban over a draft peace deal indicated that the latter reconciled to Washington’s idea of reduced troop presence.
In this context, Graeme Smith of the International Crisis Group noted that the Taliban “had vowed never to negotiate the future of their country while American boots remained on Afghan soil; now they are agreeing to talk during a gradual withdrawal.”
Unremitting insurgency and lack of commitment to a ceasefire, however, indicate that the Taliban probably yearn for complete withdrawal of forces as a condition to proceed with the peace process, and this idea also received Russian support during the group’s last meeting in Moscow on May 28.
Ending the 18-year-long Afghan war would be considered a crucial foreign-policy success for the Trump administration that could spur possibilities for a consecutive electoral win for the president’s second term in November 2020. However, despite the Russian stake in peace and stability in Afghanistan, which has been aimed at safeguarding its Central Asian back yard from drug trafficking and militancy and the Chinese interest in protecting and extending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), it is not surprising that Russia’s tense bilateral relations with the US would drive it to have different equations with the Taliban as well as with the Afghan government.
It is worth mentioning that Russia hosted the Taliban and Afghan opposition for talks to facilitate the peace process under the Moscow format separate from peace talks between the US and the Afghan Taliban interlocutors in Qatar. China also hosted a Taliban delegation and a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman acknowledged in the media that Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban representative in Qatar, and some of his colleagues made a visit to China.
Besides, continuing violence by the insurgent group might have been directed toward the objective of further marginalization and exclusion of the Afghan government from the peace process. The process thus far did not include the Afghan government, which meant exclusion of political institutions representing the country’s fledgling democratic as well as multi-ethnic structure.
The reported success of the peace process remained doubtful and caused concerns that the process was gravitating toward the Taliban’s agenda, which largely remained unclear. Some concerns were also expressed from within Afghanistan over President Ashraf Ghani’s move to release Taliban prisoners to facilitate the peace process, and his compliment toward Pakistan’s commitment to the peace process during his third visit to Islamabad was viewed skeptically as a ploy to win the presidential elections on September 28.
Many Afghans were also worried that the country’s deep-seated divisions along ethnic and regional lines could push it toward a civil war by pitting the Persian-speaking Tajiks and Hazaras from the north and west against southern and eastern Pashtuns – the ethnic group that have supplied most of Afghanistan’s rulers and where the Taliban draw most support.
Afghan women’s rights activists remained concerned that their interests have not been represented in the peace process and are apprehensive that any American deal with the Taliban would jeopardize their freedom. On the other side, female refugees in Pakistan reportedly remained reluctant to return to Afghanistan for fear of violence and forced recruitment of their children as child soldiers, lack of access to education and poor health-care facilities.
Unrealistic US expectations
While the US sought guarantees from the Taliban – the most powerful insurgent group – that they would not allow Afghanistan to be used as a launching-pad for terror operations, it remained doubtful whether the Taliban could exercise complete control over other militant groups. Marine General Frank McKenzie, who heads the US Central Command, told media in June that he did not believe ISIS in Afghanistan had expanded its capabilities but that it did still represent a dangerous presence in the country. He said “they are very worrisome to us” in their eastern Afghanistan strongholds, and added that combat operations had failed to reduce the number of fighters.
Meanwhile, a US report in May said there were about 20 prominent militant groups active in Afghanistan. While the report stated that the ISIS-K, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and Haqqani network with an estimated 3,000-5,000 fighters each top the list of militant groups active in Afghanistan, there were significant numbers of fighters in other groups such as al-Qaeda, the Islamic Emirate High Council and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan operating in the country as well. It is unlikely that the Taliban could exercise complete control over these groups as expected by the US.
The US position that the current peace efforts would lead to intra-Afghan talks and complement the rebuilding efforts and evolving political and socio-economic structures within the country was also not rooted in ground realities. The structure and nature of the political system that would ensue with the Taliban joining the mainstream political process remained vague.
For instance, Jalaluddin Shinwari, the deputy minister of justice under the Taliban government in the late 1990s, who still maintains contact with Taliban leaders, believes the modern insurgency will not settle for anything less than the return of the Emirate, and has a fundamental distaste for democracy. Even if the Taliban’s political leaders were willing to show flexibility, the group’s military commanders still decide the negotiating red lines.
The peace process has not been able to address the questions of democracy and pluralism so far, which can be inferred from Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid’s remarks that “our goal is Islamic government,” and “How this Islamic government will come about is something we cannot decide now. On this issue, the clerics, analysts, and authoritative Afghans make decisions in its right time.”
Thus US expectations that the Taliban would agree to a ceasefire and facilitate intra-Afghan talks have turned out to be unrealistic. Similarly, the hope that the group would help stop Afghan soil being used against Washington and its allies is not grounded in realities. On the other hand, the US entered negotiations from a position of weakness and failed to muster enough strength as a negotiating party because of continuing geopolitical rivalries with prominent actors and stakeholders within Afghanistan such as Iran, Russia and China. These inherent weaknesses defined the fragile peace process.