The United States and Taliban signed an agreement on February 29, aiming to end 18 years of U.S war in Afghanistan. The agreement paves the way for U.S President Donald Trump to take credit for negotiating ‘peace’ in Afghanistan, right in time when he is fighting an election back home. However, even a cursory look at the agreement suggests that it is a bad deal for the United States that also jeopardizes the future of war-torn Afghanistan. A simple content analysis of the document indicates the agreement is only about the security concerns of the U.S and not of the current Afghan state. While there are 43 mentions of ‘United States’ and 16 mentions of ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ (the Taliban), there is not a single mention of the ‘Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’ (the current democratic state of Afghanistan). There is also zero mention of ‘terrorism’, ‘human rights’, ‘communities’, ‘democracy’ in the agreement, raising concerns over the security of the people and the future of the advances made by a democratic Afghan state in the past two decades.
A Bad Deal for the United States
The deal will have a huge impact on the perception of America’s capabilities and limitations as a superpower. The deal with the Taliban, which is still considered a terrorist organization by many international actors, indicates a stepping down of the U.S from a position of “we are not going to negotiate with the terrorists” to accepting it as equals at the negotiating table. This implies that the U.S had finally concluded that it would never be able to win over the Taliban and preferred to sign a deal with them, ensuring a quick American exit.
On the other hand, the Taliban does not concede enough, as it is evident from the content of the agreement. This agreement may also embolden other terrorist groups around the world and inspire them to just prolong the conflict long enough so that the U.S would eventually get tired and would reach an agreement with them. However, the agreement does secure the main concern of the U.S – Afghanistan not being used as a sanctuary for those terrorist groups that could threaten U.S national security. Thus, the deal is only concerned about America’s own national security but effectively leaves the Afghanistan’s security to an uncertain future. The ideals of democracy promotion and human rights which were oft cited ideals accompanying American power in international relations and particularly in Afghanistan, find no place in the agreement ‘for bringing peace’.
Jeopardizing the status of the democratically elected Afghan government
The agreement also jeopardizes the Afghan State which functions through a democratically elected government by possibly paving way for its collapse and an ensuing civil war. The first problem with the agreement is that it implicitly puts the Taliban in a position equal to a state, despite adding the qualifier, “which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban”, each time after it mentions “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” in the text. However, the content of the agreement makes it evident that the U.S has negotiated with the Taliban, effectively considering it as a state rather than a terrorist group. For instance, Section C of Part One of the agreement states the following:
“The United States is committed to start immediately to work with all relevant sides on a plan to expeditiously release [Taliban’s] combat and political prisoners… Up to five thousand (5,000) prisoners of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and up to one thousand (1,000) prisoners of the other side [the text does not mention the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] will be released by March 10, 2020…”.
The text fails to mention the official title of the Afghan government – “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” – and simply calls it “the other side”. This is shocking and unfortunate and brings U.S to the major concern regarding this agreement – the fate of the Afghan government and its institutions.
The U.S-Taliban agreement is not a final peace deal but the culmination of the first phase of a two-phase peace process that could help end the conflict in Afghanistan. This first phase agreement was between the United States and Taliban, and the Afghan state was left out of it. The second phase would involve ‘intra-Afghan negotiations’, involving the Afghan state, the Taliban and other Afghan stakeholders and is stipulated to start on March 10. It is clear that the U.S delegation led by Zalmay Khalilzad has postponed the main issues concerning peace in Afghanistan to the intra-Afghan talks. Considering the unfolding electoral crisis and the absence of an elected government, the intention may be to pave the way for the formation of an interim government based on an intra-Afghan agreement, a development that many see as going back to the 2001 Bonn Conference, albeit this time including the Taliban. However, it is the second phase that could prove to be extremely tricky and might not go down as smoothly as the first phase.
Negotiations regarding the “type of government” will remain a serious bone of contention between the current Afghan Government and the Taliban. The Taliban has no regard for democratic politics. It is clear from the very name of their proposed government – “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”. The government would be led by a council of clergies acting as ministers. This complicates the second phase of negotiations because since 2001, Afghanistan has conducted four presidential and three parliamentary elections. Elections are widely considered to be the established norm of attaining and transferring power and democratic governance has taken roots in Afghanistan, despite several challenges in the past two decades. The Taliban will not accept a democratically elected government and will push for the establishment of their own version of Islamic Emirates. On the other hand, the present government and other leaders are likely to insist on an elected government. This would constitute the biggest challenge facing phase two of the negotiations with the Taliban. Thus, the second phase will be a long and tiresome endeavor.
Other than the differences over the type of government, the constitution may be amended to accommodate the demands of the Taliban or a new constitution may be written from scratch. The agreement also leaves open the possibility of forming a government aligned with the Taliban ideology. Entry No. 3 of Part Three of the agreement reads that “The United States will seek economic cooperation for reconstruction with the new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government as determined by the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations, and will not intervene in its internal affairs.” It is important to note here that the agreement refrains from mentioning “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” which is the current Afghan state and instead mentions a vague “Afghan Islamic government” – leaving the type of government to be decided by the intra-Afghan talks.
Security concerns of ethnic and religious minorities
The U.S-Taliban agreement does not subject the complete withdrawal of the U.S troops on the condition of the success of the second phase of negotiation. This implies the U.S might leave Afghanistan even before an intra-Afghan agreement is reached. This throws open the question of security for Afghan people in a possible scenario of collapse of the democratic government and its institutions. This prospect gives many Afghans reasons to be strongly skeptical about the agreement.
The deal fails to mention the stance of the Taliban regarding the ethnic and religious minorities in Afghanistan. Ethnic groups such as the Uzbeks and the Hazaras have traumatic memories of the violence they underwent under the Taliban regime. Many people from these communities were massacred by the Taliban when they were in power. In its second attempt to take over the northern city of Mazar in August 1998, the Taliban carried out a mass killing of the Hazaras.
Human Rights Watch reported the massacre of more than 2,000 members of the Hazara-Shiite ethnic group. However, a local news agency cites the number of massacred up to 10,000 people. Even today, several powerful members of the Taliban do not hesitate to threaten religious and ethnic communities such as Hazaras through their speech and action. In a recent interview, Abdul Manan Niazi, a Taliban commander and the former Taliban governor of Mazar city under whose command the massacre happened, said that his position on the issue of Hazaras who are Shiites has not changed and if the opportunity presents itself he would not mind killing the Hazaras as he did earlier “unless the Hazara-Shiites break ties with Iran”. Therefore, the agreement keeps the fate of the Hazaras and other ethnic-religious groups in limbo and does not take into consideration their existential concerns.
There is no denying that the U.S-Taliban agreement has induced optimism within the people. Yet concerns remain high for many Afghans. Particularly for the religious and ethnic minorities, there are several concerns to worry about the successful outcome of the second phase of negotiations with the Afghan stakeholders. These concerns are also echoed by advocates of women’s rights, education and democracy who would not want to return to the dark days of life suffered under the Taliban.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.
Rustam Ali Seerat and Johnny Arokiaraj P are PhD Research Scholars at the Department of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi.