Grim prospects of Afghan peace

The ground situation suggests that there is no other option for the US except to seek a political settlement

When the United States and the Taliban signed a landmark deal in Doha on February 29 last year, the Trump administration had a clear roadmap — it wanted to see a political settlement by January this year. But despite hectic diplomatic efforts, no breakthrough was achieved except that after months of painstaking negotiations in Doha, the Taliban and Afghan government representatives only agreed to the rules of engagements for the next round of talks. In the midst of all this, Joe Biden won the election and the January deadline set by Trump passed. Now, the Biden administration has taken charge and the first thing its Secretary of State and its National Security Adviser did was to make clear that the US wants to review the deal the previous administration signed with the Taliban.

The deal envisages a clear roadmap for the withdrawal of all US troops from Afghanistan by May this year. In return, the Taliban agreed to give firm guarantees that they would not allow Afghan soil to be used again by terrorists targeting the US and its allies. The deal also entails a series of other measures including intra-Afghan dialogue to decide the political future of Afghanistan and comprehensive ceasefire. But the accord did not link the US troops’ withdrawal with the final political settlement to be reached between the Taliban and Kabul.

It was because of this that despite rising incidents of violence, the Trump administration stuck to its plan for withdrawing 2,000 troops from Afghanistan days before Biden took oath. The US still has 2,500 troops in the war-torn country that are supposed to be back home by May 1. However, the Biden administration appears to have other plans. The Pentagon spokesperson has indicated that the Biden administration may not withdraw troops by the summer of this year.

“Without them meeting their commitments to renounce terrorism and to stop the violent attacks against the Afghan National Security Forces, it’s very hard to see a specific way forward for the negotiated settlement,” John F Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said at a news briefing. “But we’re still committed to that.”

The statement invited an immediate rebuke from the Taliban spokesperson, who termed the Pentagon spokesperson’s assertions “unfounded.”

During the Trump administration, Afghan government felt left out of the process. But the incumbent NSA and the Secretary of State both reached out to the Ghani administration, assuring them that they would no more be ignored. That is why Kabul was quick to welcome the announcement by the Biden administration to review the peace deal. The Afghan NSA accused the Taliban of violating the agreement by not reducing the level of violence.

Pakistan, which has played a key role in brokering the US-Taliban deal and the intra-Afghan dialogue, has cautioned against reviewing the deal. “We believe the intra-Afghan negotiations have now advanced into an important phase where all the negotiating sides are required to show continued commitment and responsibility for moving forward towards reaching a comprehensive political settlement. It is important for Afghans to seize this historic opportunity,” the Foreign Office spokesperson said during a weekly briefing.

The statement clearly shows that Pakistan wants all sides including the US to stick to the current peace efforts. Officials also feel that despite the intention of the new US government to review the deal, there is little room for Washington to manoeuver. The ground situation suggests that there is no other option for the US except to seek a political settlement for the 19-year-old war in Afghanistan. But the chances of reaching such a settlement appear slim, as the Biden administration’s push for a review has added to the already volatile situation and fragile peace efforts.