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U.S.-Taliban Deal Hangs In The Balance

Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the head of the Taliban's peace negotiation team, amid talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Doha on November 21, 2020.

A week after U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration said it would review Washington’s peace deal with the Afghan Taliban, the fate of the nearly year-old agreement is in the balance.

The Pentagon announced on January 28 that the Taliban is not complying with the commitments the militant group reached according to the deal, including committing to reducing violence and renouncing ties to Al-Qaeda.

The announcement came in response to a U.S. Treasury Department memo that said Al-Qaeda was “gaining strength in Afghanistan” because it operates under the Taliban’s protection -- a claim the Taliban has rejected.

The Afghan government, which is not party to the agreement but is greatly affected by it, is eager to exploit the growing fractures between the Taliban and Washington and is pushing to at the very least disrupt the agreement. All this adds to the uncertainty over the future of the deal that outlined a complete U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in return for Taliban counterterrorism guarantees and peace talks with Kabul.

“We are in new territory. The review will be a first reality check in a process that at times seem to stray a long way away from reality,” says Michael Semple, a former European Union and United Nations adviser in Afghanistan. “It will be a real challenge for this new administration to pressurize the Taliban toward a compliance with what the U.S. saw as the spirit of the deal while not precipitating a complete breakdown of the deal.”

Semple spent years negotiating with the Afghan insurgents as a diplomat and scholar. He says the Taliban and Washington had different perceptions upon signing the agreement in the Qatari capital, Doha, last February.

The Taliban delegation attends the opening session of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha on September 12, 2020.
The Taliban delegation attends the opening session of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha on September 12, 2020.

“The Taliban had told their supporters that the deal represented a U.S. acknowledgement of defeat and the Taliban were doing them a favor by helping them extricate themselves from Afghanistan,” Semple said. “Whereas the U.S. has always said they want to see peace in Afghanistan and that’s the way for them to withdraw their troops.”

Al-Qaeda And The Taliban

The memo, sent by the Treasury Department to the Pentagon’s lead inspector general on January 4, outlines terrorist financing and the current progress against Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State militants. It has subsequently spurred a debate over the Taliban’s compliance with the agreement.

“As of 2020, al-Qaeda is gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under the Taliban’s protection,” the memo noted. “Al-Qaeda capitalizes on its relationship with the Taliban through its network of mentors and advisers who are embedded with the Taliban, providing advice, guidance, and financial support.”

“Senior Haqqani Network figures have discussed forming a new joint unit of armed fighters in cooperation with and funded by al-Qaeda,” the report said, referring to the Taliban’s military arm. In October, a senior UN counterterrorism official said Al-Qaeda is still “heavily embedded” within Taliban.

But the Taliban is now venting over criticism for its alleged ties with Al-Qaeda, which the movement had promised to sever as part of the deal. The group released a vitriolic statement on January 27, calling the claims “propaganda” that is “corrupting minds and creating unwarranted fears.”

“Some circles are seeking the extension of this imposed war on the Afghan nation in pursuit of their interests and malicious objectives,” the statement said. “[They] are sourcing information from warmongering individuals and parties before forwarding it to other departments.”

U.S. soldiers attend a training session for Afghan Army soldiers in Herat. (file photo)
U.S. soldiers attend a training session for Afghan Army soldiers in Herat. (file photo)

In Kabul, officials are eager to see the Taliban blamed and held accountable for mounting violence. They maintain that the Doha agreement failed to garner any major concession from the Taliban, which is still firmly opposed to a cease-fire, and yet has fulfilled most of the Taliban’s demands, including the release of thousands of Taliban prisoners and a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Sensing an opportunity to advance their interests, Afghan officials are now pushing to keep a U.S. counterterrorism force beyond the May deadline for complete withdrawal. Biden has long advocated keeping a counterterrorism force in Afghanistan as a deterrent against possible terrorist threats.

“Afghanistan is now more of a base than a battlefield for Americans, and their presence is mutually beneficial,” Roya Rahmani, Afghanistan’s ambassador in Washington, argued in an op-ed for the Washington Post on January 27. “Similar to U.S. presence in South Korea, Germany and Kuwait, American troops in Afghanistan serve as a stabilizing force,” she added, while calling on the new administration “to hold the Taliban accountable for its egregious violations of the agreement and fully commit to the U.S.-Afghan partnership.”

Mawlawi Rahmatullah, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s national security council, said a visit by the Taliban’s top political leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, to Iran this week was an effort to prevent the fallout from the Biden administration’s review of the deal.

“The Taliban appear to be afraid of the review,” he said in a video statement. “Instead of talking to [a] delegation of Afghanistan’s Islamic Republic in Qatar, they are busy [with] foreign trips, which means that they are not committed to peace and do not care about prolonging the fighting that sheds Afghan blood.”

Hameed Hakimi, a research associate at London’s Chatham House think tank, however, argues that the Afghan government’s relief about a possible review will be short-lived.

“For all its problems and shortcomings, the deal spearheaded by Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad is the closest any U.S. administration has come to seeking a political solution for its troop withdrawal from Afghanistan since 2001,” he told Gandhara, referring to the U.S. peace envoy who is considered the key architect of the deal. “It is difficult to envisage that the Biden administration will be able to make a successful case for a continued, unending commitment to a military presence in Afghanistan.”

Hakimi says the most important element under review will be the “secret annexes” to which only senior U.S. officials and Taliban representatives are privy.

“For the Americans, any Taliban compliance with the agreement will be based on those annexes, as opposed to what the other non-Taliban Afghan sides -- including the government -- consider a violation or lack of implementation of the deal,” he noted. “Sadly, increasing violence impacting Afghans on a daily basis may not be the most important deciding factor of the Taliban’s compliance with the deal.”

U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad (left) and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban group's top political leader, sign a peace agreement between Taliban and U.S. officials in Doha on February 29, 2020.
U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad (left) and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban group's top political leader, sign a peace agreement between Taliban and U.S. officials in Doha on February 29, 2020.

Hakimi says the Doha agreement is politically relevant for Washington as it eyes an eventual exit from Afghanistan. “It is also highly unlikely that President Biden will be on a phone call with the Taliban leadership -- unlike the warmth shown to them by President Trump,” he said.

Finding A Way Out

The Biden administration wants to avoid getting locked into an interminable war in Afghanistan, says Semple. “I think they will find some way to keep the deal alive but to lengthen the timelines as a reflection that it does take longer to reach peace,” he noted.

In an indication of some continuity of policy, the new U.S. secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said on January 27 that the administration has asked Khalilzad to remain in his position.

But he also said Biden’s administration had not seen certain parts of the accord that were not made public.

"One of the things that we need to understand is exactly what is in the agreements that were reached between the United States and the Taliban, to make sure that we fully understand the commitments that the Taliban has made as well as any commitments that we've made," he told journalists.

In a January 28 call with President Ashraf Ghani, Blinken reiterated “his desire for all Afghan leaders to support this historic opportunity for peace while preserving the progress made over the last 20 years with regard to human rights, civil liberties, and the role of women in Afghan society,” according to a readout of the call by department spokesman Ned Price.

John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, however, went further and said the Taliban is not complying with its commitments in the Doha agreement.

"The Taliban are not meeting their commitments to reduce violence, and to renounce their ties to Al-Qaeda," he told journalists on January 28. "Without them meeting their commitments to renounce terrorism and to stop the violent attacks on the Afghan National Security Forces ... it's very hard to see a specific way forward for the negotiated settlement, but we're still committed to that.”

For now, the Taliban is adamant that it is in full compliance with the agreement.

“We consider the full implementation of the Doha agreement a logical solution to the ongoing problem, and also in the interest of both the American and Afghan people,” the Taliban statement said, adding that the group “shall remain committed to all clauses of the Doha agreement, not allow anyone to pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies from the soil of Afghanistan or build bases here.”

Washington might be mulling significant changes in its approach to the current stalemate in talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government and the peace process as a whole. Semple says this could involve “a broader peace process which maintains the negotiations that have been started but does not depend on the negotiations in quite the same way that the Khalilzad approach did.”

Washington’s complicated struggle with the coronavirus pandemic, war weariness, and an imminent withdrawal date might, however, prevent it from redefining the Afghan war or adopting a different approach to ending it.

Editor's Note: This article was updated to include the Pentagon's comments on January 28.