Afghan Talks Stall As American Commitment Wavers

Less than a month after the signing of an historic peace accord in Doha between the Taliban and the U.S., hopes of lasting peace in Afghanistan are fading. The Islamist group continues to reject entreaties to negotiate a deal directly with the Afghan government. Even if they were prepared to do so, it is unclear who they would meet with, as the legitimacy of last year’s election remains contested. 

Earlier this month, Afghans watched the absurd spectacle of two different men being simultaneously inaugurated as president in adjacent buildings in Kabul. One of those men, Ashraf Ghani – who has led the country since 2014 – publicly rejected elements of the Doha agreement within days of its announcement. The deteriorating situation has been further complicated by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Iran, one of the worst-hit countries amid the global coronavirus pandemic.

The accord signed in Doha established a timeline for the withdrawal of the remaining 12,000 U.S. troops in the country, subject to the Taliban and the Afghan government fulfilling certain conditions, and commencing peace talks with each other. The deal’s requirement that the government release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners was immediately denounced by Mr. Ghani. “It is not in the authority of United States to decide, they are only a facilitator,” he argued. Meanwhile, the Taliban has held off negotiations until the prisoners’ release and repeatedly questioned Mr. Ghani’s legitimacy. 

The lack of progress prompted US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to make an emergency visit to Kabul last week, where he reserved criticism for Mr. Ghani and his chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah. In contrast, he noted that the Taliban had upheld their short-term promises. “They committed to reducing violence; they have largely done that, and then they are working towards delivering their team to the ultimate negotiations,” he told reporters. His optimism belies the reality. Since a formal ceasefire in the week prior to the Doha accord’s signing, Taliban violence appears to have returned to its previous level. The cautious optimism of a month ago has given way to finger pointing and further disorder.

At the very least, Mr. Pompeo’s surprise sojourn in Kabul provided an essential ingredient that was lacking in Doha – direct and forthright consultation with government leaders. When the deal with the Taliban was struck last month, Secretary of Defence Mark Esper met with Mr. Ghani separately, releasing a parallel joint declaration expressing a desire for peace. Reports indicated that the particulars of the Doha and Kabul agreements differ. While the U.S.-Taliban deal specifically demanded the release of 5,000 prisoners, American negotiations with Kabul apparently required the government only to assess the “feasibility” of such a request. 

Getting the Taliban to negotiate was made easier by Kabul’s exclusion, as they dismissed Mr. Ghani as an American puppet. This has evidently compromised the agreement’s viability. Sidelining Afghanistan’s political leaders in the initial negotiations has reinforced perceptions of their illegitimacy, in addition to creating confusion over the obligations of each side. Moreover, the American focus on striking a troop withdrawal agreement meant that they neglected Afghanistan’s domestic political crisis. The circumstances of the previous presidential election in 2014 were remarkably similar to last year’s vote and were only resolved after mediation by then-Secretary of State John Kerry. That contest also pitted Mr. Ghani and Dr. Abdullah against one another and was similarly marred by allegations of electoral fraud. Only after three months of American-led negotiations – and the creation of a new role, Chief Executive, so that the two men could share power – did that crisis end. 

This time, however, the U.S. has prioritized an accord with the Taliban over resolving the leadership of Afghanistan. There was hope that impending intra-Afghan talks would force Mr. Ghani and Dr. Abdullah to end their months-long political dispute. Instead, that deadlock has not only persisted, but has tainted the peace process too. This response underscores a key problem with the Trump administration’s priorities in foreign policy. An eagerness to bring American troops home and achieve diplomatic victories has led to bold, but hollow declarations of peace. President Trump’s summits with Kim Jong-Un made for great photo opportunities that do little to advance North Korean denuclearization. By the same token, the news that the U.S might finally bring home its last soldiers in Afghanistan is a powerful, but ultimately meaningless message if intra-Afghan talks are unsuccessful.

For talks to even begin, it is necessary to deliver an outcome to the presidential dispute that is satisfactory to both parties. Dr. Abdullah has already indicated that a rehash of the deal struck following the 2014 election – where he took the role of Chief Executive – would not be enough, and the US has now taken a firmer approach. While in Kabul last week, Mr. Pompeo announced that the US would cut $1 billion in aid to Afghanistan, which amounts to more than 5% of the country’s GDP. He warned that another $1 billion would be cut from the 2021 assistance package should the impasse continue, but nevertheless noted that the U.S. would be “proceeding with the conditions-based withdrawal of our forces” all the same. Financial pressure may be necessary for finding a solution, but more concerted American diplomatic involvement beyond brief stopovers in Kabul is needed. Troop withdrawal amidst a political stalemate would empower the Taliban when the country’s democratic institutions are at their weakest. Its suggestion questions the Trump administration’s interests in Afghanistan. Is it more interested in political victories or a peaceful resolution?

The electoral dispute that has complicated the peace process also reflects fundamental problems with Afghan democracy. The country’s constitution, implemented in 2004 after the American invasion, provides for a strong executive presidency and a comparatively weak parliament. This setup has fomented the “all-or-nothing” approach that has plagued the country’s politics, as partisan rivals – cognizant that checks on presidential authority are limited – refuse to accede power. If and when discussions between the government and the Taliban proceed, constitutional reform will be high on the agenda, and diffusing political power should be a part of that conversation.

In the short term, finalizing the prisoner release – which could be used as leverage to discourage Taliban attacks – is crucial for intra-Afghan talks to begin. Forty years of war will not be resolved by further conflict, and U.S efforts to find an agreement with the relevant parties are commendable. Those negotiations, however, must represent more than a quick fix designed to appeal to the American voter.


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