On the one-year anniversary of the peace deal between the Taliban and the United States, Barnett Rubin, a former adviser to the United Nations and U.S. State Department, says Washington and the Taliban are looking for ways to revive their agreement, which has hit numerous roadblocks.
There’s still hope for salvaging the agreement, Rubin maintains, if Washington finds a way to recover the time lost in disagreements over the prisoner release.
The Afghan government, which was not party to the agreement, has called the deal a “waste of time.” But the Taliban wants the United States to honor the pact by withdrawing all its forces before May 1. The Biden administration is reviewing the deal but has expressed concerns over Taliban ties to Al-Qaeda and rising violence against Afghans.
In a wide-ranging interview, Rubin offers his insights about where the deal stands today a year after it was signed in the Qatari capital, Doha, on February 29, 2020. He also weighs in on the deal’s inherent flaws and whether it main goal is to bring peace back to Afghanistan or facilitate Washington’s extraction from the longest war in its history, which has cost the United States more than 2,300 American lives and $1 trillion.
Doha One Year On
Rubin has championed reconciliation among Afghans as a key approach to ending the war their country. He pioneered the U.S. government’s initial work on the peace process when he advised the State Department between 2009 and 2013. He wholeheartedly supported the deal and says it shows what a peace agreement in Afghanistan would look like.
But it’s now in a deadlock, he says, because intra-Afghan talks are stalled amid rising violence across Afghanistan that mostly targets civilians, journalists, and civil society leaders.
“How or if we will break that log jam will depend on the decision coming out of Washington and the response to it by the neighboring countries, the Afghan government, and the Taliban,” he told Gandhara. “This agreement has those four elements: the troop withdrawal, counterterror guarantees, a political settlement, and a cease-fire. Probably what the process has shown is that, in a way, part of it that is the least defined is what the political settlement will be.”
A Flawed Deal?
Skeptics of the Taliban’s commitment to its end of the deal -- which saw 5,000 Taliban prisoners freed in return for some 1,000 Afghan troops they were holding -- frequently invoke the group’s reliance on violence as a tactic to advance their political goal of reestablishing the Islamic Emirate, the formal name of the Taliban’s preferred political system. They point to the inability to secure a cease-fire with the Taliban as a fatal flaw of the unraveling agreement.
But Rubin argues that in wars between governments and insurgencies around the world, the insurgency never agrees to a cease-fire at the beginning of talks. “The flaws of the agreement are the results of the flaws of the actual situation on the ground,” he noted. “The agreement reflects the situation on the ground. You can’t correct for the situation on the ground by getting an agreement to reverse it.”
He says the biggest error was Washington’s commitment to freeing Taliban prisoners on behalf of the Afghan government. That “resulted from the fact that the Taliban refused to meet directly with the Afghan government,” he noted. “The fact that the United States committed to things that the Afghan government had to carry out -- and the Afghan government was not very excited -- is the main reason there was such a delay in the start of talks in the beginning, because the Afghan government was unwilling to release the prisoners without its interests being taken into account.”
Another flaw of the Doha Agreement, as the deal is commonly known, he says, is that unlike the United States’ commitments such as the withdrawal of forces, the Taliban’s counterterrorism obligations are ambiguous.
“The Taliban’s obligations are really rather vague and difficult to verify,” he said. “They can only really be verified by the intelligence means, really, which is to say the Taliban are obliged to cut ties with terrorist groups including Al-Qaeda -- but that isn’t actually what it says. It says that the Taliban will tell these groups that there’s no place for them in Afghanistan; that it will not host them, train them, allow them to raise funds. And certainly not will allow any of them to use territory in Afghanistan for attacks against the United States and its allies.”
Similarly, Rubin says the timeline for Washington’s obligations -- including withdrawing troops, releasing prisoners, and reviewing sanctions against the Taliban -- is clear, but there’s no such deadline for the Taliban. “Most people on the U.S. and Afghan government side think the Taliban’s obligations with regard to Al -Qaeda come into effect as soon as the agreement is signed. But that is not the Taliban’s interpretation of it,” he said. “In a way, their interpretation is pretty similar to the U.S.’s interpretation of its obligations: that their obligation to carry out these types of [counter]terrorism commitments is conditions-based and will only come fully into effect when the United States fulfills its obligations by withdrawing.”
He says the agreement is unclear on this important point. “That is something that needs to be negotiated further,” he said. “And finally, most importantly, the agreement has a timetable of when the intra-Afghan talks are supposed to start. And of course, they started actually six months later than that because of the prisoner releases, but it doesn’t have or could not have a timetable for completing,” he added. “So the result is there’s a date certain by which the U.S. troops are supposed to leave, and the talks are open-ended, so the Taliban can just delay them until the U.S. troops leaves if it wants, or the government could just delay them until it gets the troops to stay, if it wants to do that.”
Rubin, who frequently challenges conventional wisdom says that the U.S. understanding of using the troop withdrawal to pressure the Taliban into a compromise with the Afghan is unlikely to work because the Taliban do not interpret their agreement with Washington the same way.
“We’re now at a very dangerous point where on one side, the Taliban are noting that the U.S. has a very specific timebound commitment to finish troops withdrawal by May 1,” he said. “The American side and its allies in the Afghan government and other parts of Afghan society, are noting that even if the Taliban have technically carried out their obligations there hasn’t been any progress on the political settlement.”
He says such complications are probably behind Zalmay Khalilzad’s recent trip to Kabul. The American envoy met with senior Afghan officials in Kabul on March 1 at the beginning of regional tour on which the State Department he hopes to find "a just and durable political settlement and permanent and comprehensive ceasefire."
Granting Legitimacy To The Taliban
Before the agreement’s signing, critics warned it would grant the Taliban unprecedented legitimacy. In the year since, the Taliban is keen to showcase itself as a state party or government-in-waiting as its leaders make frequent trips to regional capitals while denouncing Kabul as a mere “puppet” of Washington.
Rubin, however, says granting that level of legitimacy is an inevitable part of a political settlement. He says that while the Taliban has enforced a truce with the United States and stopped major attacks against the Afghan government, and Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups have not attacked the United States, it has found other means of targeting its opponents.
“Unfortunately, they found other ways of spreading terror, which includes these targeted killings and so on,” he said. “Essentially when people say you shouldn’t give the Taliban legitimacy, what they are saying is that you should defeat them militarily,” he added. “Of course, that is what the United States and its allies tried to do for a long time, and they failed.”
The Future Of Peace
In a recent article, Rubin recommended Washington extend the May 1 withdrawal date for another six months. “The United States should not unilaterally break the deal, but it should first engage in regional diplomacy,” he said. “It can try to form a regional consensus in favor of a negotiated extension in order to recover those lost six months and negotiate a new timeline to negotiate all the elements of the agreement as originally envisaged,” he added. “The United States still should withdraw its troops by a certain date but that date should be lengthened in order to create much better conditions for the inter-Afghan negotiations to take place, to get some kind of regional agreement about how to manage the conflict.”
Rubin agrees with opponents of the deal who term it a withdrawal agreement over a peace agreement. He says relying on the United States to resolve Afghanistan’s problems is a mistake. “The United States is not there to [do that]. It is there to solve the problems of the United States and work with some Afghans in order to do that,” he said while reflecting on his advice to the Afghans. “It is true that the primary interest of the United States in negotiating this agreement was to withdraw its troops. Of course, it didn’t have to negotiate to withdraw its troops, it could just withdraw its troops. But it negotiated in order to create some better conditions.”
Rubin says the Doha Agreement is “not the right way” to achieve peace in Afghanistan. “If you want peace in Afghanistan, it has to involve above all the Afghan parties and the neighbors because they are going to be there forever,” he noted. The United States “is not going to be there much longer despite all the rhetoric in the United States about long-term commitment,” he added. Afghanistan “is too far, we are overcommitted around the world, and there are rising powers around the region. So probably you cannot really expect to get a much better deal from the side of the United States at this point.”
Despite it flaws, all sides now want to keep the deal rather than break it because, according to Rubin, breaking it means going back to the Taliban waging all-out war against American forces in Afghanistan.
“All sides are looking for a way not to do that, but they have their red lines,” he said.