Two days ago, Afghanistan marked its 101st Independence Day. Over the course of this 24-hour window meant to feature celebrations and patriotic displays, 75 separate attacks ravaged 22 different provinces of the country. Mainly attributed to the Taliban, these assaults starkly contrast the rhetoric that was displayed in Doha in February 2020 when, after years of failed talks, the US and the Taliban concluded a comprehensive peace agreement.
Afghanistan has been in an uninterrupted state of conflict since the Soviet invasion of 1979 and is widely seen as a geopolitical linchpin of Central and South Asia. The US, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Iran are all invested, to varying degrees, in Afghanistan’s fate, and as a result, the country is riven by these diverse actors’ overlapping and at times conflicting agendas.
The US-Taliban deal has four main pillars: 1) the guarantee that Afghanistan will not serve as a safe harbor for “any group or individual [operating] against the security of the United States and its allies,” 2) a timeline for the withdrawal of US and coalition forces from the country, 3) the pledge that the Taliban will enter into negotiations with the Afghan national government (who, to their great ire, were excluded from the negotiations in Doha), and 4) a comprehensive ceasefire in the interim period.
If implemented, this agreement has the potential to end two decades of American military presence in Afghanistan and conclude a war that has killed over 3500 members of the Coalition Forces and caused truly inestimable losses to the Afghan people. However, this most recent wave of attacks shows that the prospect of this deal bringing true and lasting peace to Afghanistan is far from assured.
At first glance, the US-Taliban peace deal immediately raises a number of profound questions. First and foremost is the issue of credibility- or rather, the Taliban’s lack thereof. The deal states: “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan…is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban in this agreement.”
This contradiction raises a larger question plaguing 21st century diplomacy – the status, rights, and obligations of non-state actors in the diplomatic arena. Non-state and hybrid actors such as terrorist groups, separatist movements, and private militias operating alongside conventional national armies increasingly characterize conflict zones today. An unanswered question is the extent to which such actors can be expected to abide by international agreements made in good faith.
Judging by the undiminished ferocity of its insurgency – the wave of attacks witnessed freshly being a case in point – the Taliban has already begun reneging on one of the main pillars of the peace deal, namely the nationwide reduction of violence.
Another problematic aspect of the deal is the condition that the Taliban must disallow “any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qaeda, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.”
To date, the Taliban and al-Qaeda remain in organizational and ideological communion. In 2016, veteran al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri pledged loyalty to the new emir of the Afghan Taliban group, Hibatullah Akhundzada. In the context of global jihadism, such an oath of loyalty (ba’aya) is not undertaken lightly and once sworn, assumes the status of a religious vow. Since the Taliban has not taken any meaningful steps, publicly or otherwise, to distance itself from al-Qaeda, there is no reason to assume any real intentions on the Taliban’s part to prevent establishment of transnational terrorist on Afghan soil.
Then there is the blanket exclusion of the Afghan national government in the negotiating process and final settlement. Since invading Afghanistan in October 2001, the US government has committed to an amorphous project of “nation-building” – largely, building a secular, democratic government, and a functioning armed forces – in the smouldering country. Hence, the total exclusion of the Kabul government – whose current survival depends on American boots-on-the-ground and little else – from the Doha talks is deeply worrying for the country’s political establishment.
While the peace deal is technically based on the Taliban entering into negotiations with the national government, the Taliban’s lack of credibility and its continuing bloody insurgency are not encouraging signs for a productive dialogue.
In the light of these three fundamental issues, a number of scenarios are possible. The first (and I fear the most likely) is a ‘civil war scenario’ in which US forces withdraw as planned, the Taliban continues its insurgency, and the embattled Afghan national government retains nominal control over Kabul and little else.
A very similar course of events had unfolded in the wake of the Soviet retreat of 1989; in the early 1990s, the once-united mujahideen factions turned their arms on one another, initiating a bloody internal conflict. Out of this state of civil strife, the Taliban emerged from the madrassas of Pakistan’s tribal areas in 1994 to seize power in Afghanistan.
The US is unlikely to allow the Taliban to violently grab the reins of power in Kabul, unopposed. Hence there is a real possibility that a situation arises in which the Kabul government is propped up symbolically by external backers, while the Taliban enjoys control over the countryside and provinces.
A second, less likely though more worrying outcome of a US withdrawal from Afghanistan is the ‘failed state scenario.’ In this case, the Taliban would successfully manage to topple the national government and rule Afghanistan as an Islamic emirate. At the time of writing, this outcome seems to be sought by the Taliban’s top leadership.
For instance, in July 2020, the Taliban’s leader Hibatullah Akhundzada announced during an Eid al-Adha video that the group is “on the threshold of establishing an Islamic government” and a system of purely religious rule across the entirety of Afghanistan. But, as historical records demonstrate, radical organizations like the Taliban rarely maintain a secure grip on governance for long (e.g. the Taliban’s first state-building experiment from 1994-2001 and ISIS’ from 2014-2018 in Iraq and Syria).
America’s invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Russia’s entry into Syria in 2015 illustrate that great power intervention is a very possible outcome of a Talibani attempt, successful or not, to erect a militant, theocratic state on Afghan soil. The specific nature of a future external intervention in the embattled country is anyone’s guess. Bur judging from the experience of the past four decades, such an intervention will ultimately leave both the foreign power and the Afghan people worse off.
The third and least likely scenario for Afghanistan is an end to the conflict and a peaceful compromise between the Taliban and national government. Ostensibly, this outcome is contingent on the successful conclusion of negotiations between the two which, to date, have seen little progress.
Even before the last US troops have left Afghanistan, hopes for a negotiated compromise between the Taliban and the national government are fading fast. On August 17th, the Afghan government announced it was halting the further release of Taliban prisoners due to the ongoing violence wrecking the country. This signifies the growing pessimism around a peaceful compromise between the conflicting duo.
Afghanistan’s history of the past four decades is a tragic and cautionary tale. After 101 years of independence from Britain, its future is far from secure, forget rosy. Questions loom over the US-Taliban deal and how the day after the last American troops depart will look like for the country.
Ahmad Shah Massoud, Afghanistan’s revered mujahid leader who was assassinated by al-Qaeda in 2001, once said: “We will never be a pawn in someone else’s game. We will always be Afghanistan.” Ultimately, the burden of responsibility for achieving a just and lasting peace rests on the will of the Afghan people, and I pray for their success in this noble undertaking.
The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.