A widely anticipated agreement between Afghanistan’s Islamist Taliban movement and the United States is expected to include safeguards to ensure that it leads to ending over four decades of war in the country.
The accord, likely to be signed in the Qatari capital, Doha, where the two sides have negotiated for nearly 18 months, will outline a timetable for withdrawing roughly 13,000 U.S. troops in return for the Taliban’s counterterrorism guarantees, a reduction in violence, and the beginning of talks among the Taliban, the Afghan government, and other factions on their country’s political future and power sharing.
“This process provides the only existing opening to start intra-Afghan negotiations. The inter-relationships among the parts of the process are structured in such a way as to provide safeguards,” says Barnett Rubin, a former UN and U.S. government adviser, told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website.
As an academic, Rubin has followed developments in Afghanistan for over three decades. He acknowledges that while no peace process is guaranteed to succeed, the expected agreement offers a lot to end the war in Afghanistan, which is currently the world’s most violent conflict.
“On day one, the Taliban are obligated to cut ties with Al-Qaeda and fight ISIS,” he said while referring to the ultra-radical Islamic State group by one of its acronyms. “The U.S. troop withdrawal begins; a cease-fire enters into effect between the Taliban and the U.S.,” he added, detailing his understanding of the agreement. “An agreement on ‘reduction of violence’ between the Afghan parties for 10 days begins.”
Rubin says that by day 10 the intra-Afghan negotiations are expected to begin in the Norwegian capital, Oslo. He says that by day 135 of the agreement the American troops levels will be reduced to 8,600. “That means that intra-Afghan negotiations will go on for four months while U.S. troop levels are higher than at the end of the Obama administration [in 2016],” he noted.
He says that if Washington believes the Taliban are not holding up their end, it can pause its troop withdrawal and demand further negotiations. “The U.S. is not obligated to do so, but it believes that it has that option,” Rubin noted, declining to elaborate on how he obtained the details of the impending agreement.
The Taliban and U.S. officials have not shared details of the agreement. But Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman in Doha, has said that a Taliban delegation including deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Bardar, Sher Mohammad Abas Stanikzai, and Amir Khan Muttaqi met with U.S. Peace Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and General Scott Miller, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, on January 20.
“The two sides discussed further steps for the peace negotiations in detail and their discussions will continue tomorrow,” he wrote on Twitter.
When asked whether the brief window of reducing violence levels by the Taliban can translate into a lasting cease-fire, Rubin said the Taliban are poised to use their main leverage, violence, rather than giving it up unilaterally.
“The offer of a cease-fire is the major concession that the Taliban can offer in return for the other side meeting some of their political demands,” he explained. “Therefore, they are unwilling to give it up unilaterally but instead want to use it as leverage in negotiations. The Taliban are willing to negotiate the conditions of a comprehensive cease-fire with the Afghan government in the intra-Afghan negotiations.”
In Kabul, however, the Afghan government is not keen on embracing a Taliban offer to reduce violence. “The results of the [peace] efforts by the Afghan government and the United States should result in a cease-fire,” Afghan presidential spokesman Sediq Seddiqi told Radio Free Afghanistan last week. “We want a cease-fire that has a clear definition and results in ending the violence and war.”
But President Ashraf Ghani’s administration is facing a major political challenge as it engages in a seemingly unending election dispute with Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. The two still share power in a dysfunctional national unity government but are at loggerheads over presidential elections last September, which both claim to have won. A preliminary vote count announced by the Afghan election commission last month showed Ghani set to win a second term.
Abdullah, former President Hamid Karzai, and other Afghan political elites support jumpstarting talks with the Taliban and have even supported accepting the Taliban’s offer of reducing violence levels to begin talks.
“Peace is not one person's monopoly, one person's wish -- but it is a collective desire, and the people of Afghanistan have the right to take a position regarding the peace process,” Tolo News, a leading private television station in Afghanistan, quoted Abdullah as saying on January 20.
“The Afghan government should not use the lack of a cease-fire as an excuse to begin [intra-Afghan] negotiations,” Karzai told BBC’s Pashto service recently.
Najia Anwari, spokeswoman for the Afghan Peace Ministry, however, emphasized the need for a mutually agreed mechanism to attain peace.
“There is a national consensus over peace in the country. Even all sides in the region and globally want peace in Afghanistan,” she told Radio Free Afghanistan on January 20.
Rubin, however, does not see the U.S. agreement with the Taliban waiting for an Afghan elite consensus.
“The U.S. is not going to keep fighting in Afghanistan until Afghan elites unite. That is not an objective that can be achieved through military means,” he noted. “The U.S. is not able to force Afghan elites to change their political behavior by military or any other means, and it is not willing to let Afghan elites hold U.S. deployment hostage with their own divisions.”
He sees the international consensus for peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region as stronger today than it has been for 40 years. “It is important to take advantage of this moment,” he noted. “The chances are better now than they have been at any time since 1978.”
In an interview with Pakistan’s English-language daily Dawn last week, Taliban spokesman Shaheen said he hoped “to be able to sign the agreement latest by this month’s end.”