A US soldier sits in the rear of Chinook helicopter while flying over Kabul in 2017. The Pentagon on November 19, 2020, announced plans to slash troop levels in Afghanistan to its lowest levels in nearly 20 years. But now a rethink is underway. Photo: AFP/Shah Marai

With Afghanistan’s national peace talks stalling a year after the US-Taliban Doha peace deal, negotiations appear to have become a continuation of war by other means.

While both the US and the Taliban continue to raise questions about the actual implementation of the Doha agreement, the “Intra-Afghan” process the deal produced has faltered many times over the past few months.

One of the primary reasons for this is how the Taliban and Kabul continue to use war and violence to force the other into submission or to resist subjugation, respectively.

For the Taliban, war remains very much alive because they see it as a viable means to achieve their political objectives, which they broadly define in terms of a return to Islamic rule.

For President Ashraf Ghani’s administration, however, military resistance remains their only hope to limit the extent to which the Taliban can impose their will on the nation.

Sources familiar with the process say the Taliban’s recent military gains on the battlefield have strengthened their position on the negotiating table.

Their core objectives on the battlefield and the negotiating table remain an end to the US “occupation” of Afghanistan and a return to a political system that retains their political and ideological and religious primacy. It explains why the Taliban have refuted all calls for a ceasefire.

That both parties continue to use war to steer the negotiation process in particular directions is evident from the ever-increasing number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

Afghan security forces stand guard at the scene of a car bombing near the US Bagram Air Base in Bagram, Afghanistan, in December 2019. Photo: AFP/Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency

Increase in violence

Whereas the peace process should have helped wind down war and casualties, the numbers surged even during the winter season in 2020.

Thanks in large part to insurgent violence, Afghanistan saw a 15% increase in the casualty rate in 2020 year-on-year. Of the 8,820 civilian casualties, about 62% were caused by attacks launched by the Taliban and other militant groups.

About 25% were caused by the military operations of Afghan Security Forces.

While the US and Taliban, according to the Doha deal, agreed not to attack each other, both parties also agreed to not include a similar provision with regards to Taliban attacks on Afghanistan Security Forces.

In other words, the seeds of the current escalation were duly laid in the same “peace deal” that has allowed the US to withdraw its forces and push for “Intra-Afghan peace.”

As it stands, the Taliban continue to use this irony to their advantage. As some recent reports suggest, Taliban fighters have been closing in on the outskirts of the historic city of Kandahar.

In fact, they have moved closer to taking control of the provincial capital than they have in more than a decade.

The fighting pattern and a surge in attacks on Kandahar, which started in September last year at the same time the so-called “Intra-Afghan” talks began, shows how war and talks have converged into a sustained struggle for primacy and resistance by the Taliban and Kabul, respectively.

This has become a dilemma for the new Joe Biden administration. If it decides to withdraw according to the deal, it risks a total Taliban takeover. If it decides to change its withdrawal schedule, it risks a return to war with the Taliban, taking Afghanistan back to square one.

Photo taken on April 21, 2016, shows destroyed vehicles at the site of a truck bombing attack in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo: AFP/Rahmat Alizadah/NurPhoto

Strategic rethink

A potential Taliban victory in Kandahar, their erstwhile center of power, would make withdrawal even more difficult. For one, the territorial victory will make the Taliban hardliners press even more forcefully for a total return to a structure of polity that suits them.

That would be established inevitably at the expense of Afghanistan’s current constitution and its far-from-perfect political and social reforms, especially women’s rights.

In the US, however, a strategic re-think is well underway.

Whereas the Biden administration has confirmed it is reviewing the Doha agreement, a recently submitted report to the US Congress by the Afghanistan Study Group, too, makes a strong case for extending the US military presence in Afghanistan beyond May 2021.

The report, as could be expected in the light of the possibility that the peace process has already been exhausted and that the Doha deal is on its death bed because of the lack of implementation, suggest the “the United States should explicitly reinforce the conditionality of final troop withdrawal.”

A key takeaway from the report is: “Whereas the United States has gone beyond its commitments to withdraw forces to date, the Taliban have fallen short of their commitments: they have failed to fulfill their guarantee that they will not ‘cooperate with groups or individuals threatening the security of the United States and its allies …”, the report says.

It goes on: “The levels of violence they continue to employ against Afghan civilians and security personnel suggest that they have not yet committed to a negotiated solution. Their escalation of violence in 2020 casts doubt on whether they will come to a workable political compromise with the Afghan government.”

It ends saying: “The Study Group believes that further US troop withdrawals should be conditioned on the Taliban’s demonstrated willingness and capacity to contain terrorist groups, on a reduction in the Taliban’s violence against the Afghan people, and on real progress toward a compromise political settlement.”

US soldiers in Afghanistan are watching and waiting to see if they will be sent home. Photo: AFP/Brendan Smialowski

‘Maintain forces’

Accordingly, if talks fail and the Doha deal falters, the US, as the report suggests, should “continue to maintain forces in Afghanistan and support the Afghan state through the war, possibly increasing assistance, until the opportunity for meaningful talks, preferably with a strengthened Afghan state, could re-emerge.”

However, while the US and Kabul do have a strong case to make with regard to the way the Taliban has not fulfilled its part of the deal, the Taliban’s new and old allies in the region continue to see the situation differently.

Pakistan’s foreign minister recently said the Taliban alone were not responsible for reducing violence in Afghanistan. The statement was made after Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s meeting with a Taliban delegation in Islamabad.

The Taliban have already reconciled their past rivalry with Iran. Their frequent visits to Tehran and increasing coordination with it shows how they are forging a united front against the US.

These moves signify how the Taliban are preparing for an eventual US presence beyond May 2021.

Whereas the Taliban have been doing active diplomacy in the past few years to earn legitimacy, their increasing coordination with Tehran seems to be motivated by an attempt to build a ring of allies around Afghanistan, including Iran, Pakistan and China, to create regional pressure on the US to end its military presence in Afghanistan.

For Iran, it means no direct US presence next door. For the US, however, an increasing Iranian role in Afghanistan may become yet another drawback of a quick withdrawal.

Afghanistan peace talks, as they stand, are less and less about peace, and more and more about the war that has been going on for almost two decades now.

For peace talks to succeed and prevent the Taliban from using violence to leverage their position, a supported ceasefire agreement, supported by regional countries, should be the focus of any review the Biden administration undertakes.

Unless negotiations can be rescued from the vicious circle of violence and counter-violence,  the stalemate cannot be broken and a stable path to peace will not emerge from the still-burning embers of war.