On Monday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani arrived in Qatar amid peace talks for a bilateral meeting with Qatari leaders, neglecting to include Taliban officials in the discussion. Last month, the Afghan government and Taliban agreed to reduce violence and potential power-sharing in Afghanistan. However, violence has continued since these negotiations began.
According to CBS News, from 1 January to 30 June, 2,176 civilians have been injured and 1,282 killed in clashes between Afghan and Taliban fighters and suicide attacks. According to U.S. News & World Report, a Western diplomat observed, “it is clear that Ghani will not meet the Taliban officials as there has been no reduction of violence and they continue to kill innocent civilians.” In February, the United States and Taliban signed a deal without the Afghan government. The U.S. pledged to reduce forces from 13,000 to 8,600 in the first months, and withdraw the remainder by May 2021. The deal also demanded Afghanistan to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 Afghan security personnel. The Taliban also promised severing ties with Al Qaeda. On Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that American soldiers should be home by Christmas, perplexing military officials and receiving praise from the Taliban.
Afghan political analysts and diplomats said Ghani’s trip sought support for a ceasefire with the Taliban. Although refusing to directly meet them, an aide said “[S]everal meetings are planned to discuss efforts for deepening Afghanistan-Qatar ties and mutual cooperation in various areas,” and assured his meeting with representatives speaking to the Taliban. Reacting to President Trump’s tweet, head of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah acknowledged that U.S. troop withdrawal “will happen one day…but if it is premature, it will have its consequences.”
Expressing skepticism in an interview with NBC News, head of U.S. Central Command General Frank McKenzie said “[W]hat we need to see is that they’re not going to allow Al Qaeda to base there… And that has not yet been demonstrated to my satisfaction.” However, according to Al Jazeera, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid called Trump’s statement a “positive step” for February’s agreement. He promised their “commitment to the contents of the agreement and hope for good and positive relations with all countries, including the U.S. in the future.”
Ghani’s refusal to meet the Taliban is consistent with past behavior. Since February’s deal excluded the Afghan government, he rejected releasing the prisoners, insisting that they made no agreement. Despite eventually releasing most prisoners, he was reluctant about the last 400, claiming their violent criminal records made them a “threat to the world.” Acknowledging this “unpopular” action, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that Ghani’s refusal would affect the progression of peace talks.
Although Trump’s desire for withdrawal has baffled many officials, particularly those who want to assure Al Qaeda’s containment, it appears an instrumental “common ground” that could placate the Taliban. Ghani should take advantage of these seemingly improving relations and strive to demonstrate alignment with his American counterparts. Although February’s deal has allegedly caused more violence, the impact of his refusal to release prisoners should not be overlooked. The Taliban may view continued resistance as adversarial, galvanizing them to continue waging violence.
Before 2001, the Taliban regime ruling Afghanistan was based on religious practices of female seclusion, known in some Islamic communities as “purdah.” They violated human rights by killing women accused of adultery, attacking religious minorities, and banning girls from school. Following Osama Bin Laden’s organized attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, the U.S. discovered that the Taliban in Afghanistan provided him sanctuary. After they refused demands to relinquish him, asserting insufficient proof for involvement in the attacks, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, toppling the Taliban government and instilling a new one. Since then, the Taliban have waged insurgency. Mushtaq Mojaddidi of military.com said the U.S. invasion “heralded some enduring improvements for young Afghans- particularly girls- and ushered in a constitution guaranteeing certain freedoms including the right to an education.” On the other hand, the war has cost over $1 trillion and thousands of lives. Notwithstanding almost two decades of these expenses, the Taliban influence has not only remained but grown stronger.
Ghani should recall Afghanistan’s history from the past two decades. His indignation with February’s agreement is valid, as Afghan autonomy was seemingly ignored. However, his refusal to meet with the Taliban risks further conflict, and any solution carries various implications. While withdrawing U.S. troops is widely believed to risk further vulnerability for Afghanistan, it may also demonstrate a commitment to the deal and trust of the Taliban. A continued “police presence” may discourage violence, but also convey distrust and potentially further antagonize the Taliban. Therefore, Ghani should meet with them. If he can show a willingness to negotiate and aligns with Trump, deemed “a sane and wise man for the Taliban” by Mujahid, perhaps they will be more likely to embrace peaceful resolution.
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