US-Taliban deal and spoilers

US-Taliban deal and spoilers
The United States and the Taliban have signed a four-part peace agreement in Doha on February 29. The first two parts deal with US commitments while the latter two parts bind the Taliban. Both parts are interconnected. The deal is also contingent on (i) a prisoner swap, and (ii) the beginning of an intra-Afghan dialogue by March 10.

Interestingly, the deal constantly refers to the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” but then qualifies that reference by adding “which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban…”.

The upfront conditions have been met by the deal, at least to the extent of the document that has been signed – that is, guarantees and enforcement mechanisms that will prevent the use of the soil of Afghanistan by any group or individual against the security of the United States and its allies and guarantees, enforcement mechanisms, and announcement of a timeline for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan.

The next in line is the prisoner swap, 5000 Taliban prisoners held by the current government of Afghanistan and 1000 prisoners held by the Taliban. Also, the Taliban will start intra-Afghan negotiations with Afghan sides on March 10, 2020. The term “Afghan sides” in plural is significant because it denotes that the Taliban will not be negotiating with the Kabul government only and the US accepts, in line with the Taliban interpretation of the political map of Afghanistan, that there are stakeholders other than the government of President Ashraf Ghani.

This creates a problem for Ghani. An immediate expression of how he sees the deal has already manifested itself. “The government of Afghanistan has made no commitment to free 5,000 Taliban prisoners,” Ghani told reporters in Kabul on Sunday, a day after the deal was signed in Doha. This checks the US hand, which is a signatory and guarantor of the deal. For his part, Ghani does not believe that to be the case. In his interaction with the media last Sunday, he said, “It is not in the authority of the United States to decide, they are only a facilitator”.

Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, has already sounded a warning about possible spoilers. At a press briefing on Sunday, a day after attending the signing ceremony in Doha, Qureshi warned about “spoilers” and “personal interests” potentially derailing the deal.

“[The Afghan] people want peace. Now it is time to see what the [Afghan] leadership does. Do they prioritise Afghanistan’s interests, or do they give their own personal benefits more importance? This is a very big decision,” Qureshi said.

Meanwhile, in another development on Wednesday, the day of the writing of this article, the US military said it had launched an airstrike on Taliban fighters in Helmand. On Twitter, a spokesman for the US Forces in Afghanistan, said it was a “defensive strike” to disrupt a Taliban attack on an Afghan National Security Forces check-post. “We call on the Taliban to stop needless attacks and uphold their commitments. As we have demonstrated, we will defend our partners when required,” Colonel Sonny Laggett, the spokesman wrote.

So, what are we looking at? The predictable.

While the US-Taliban negotiations might have been drawn-out, they were still the easy part of Afghanistan’s wicked problem. The next phase – getting the Kabul government to go along with what the US has agreed to, the intra-Afghan dialogue – will be much harder.

Ghani and others like Hamdullah Mohib and Amrullah Saleh have not been happy with the talks. There have been voices that the US is undercutting the Kabul government. Ghani is also fearful of a new political roadmap that might see him relinquish power. That is not a scenario he wants. Equally, he knows and has stated on the record that the ANSF won’t last for more than six months without US support and funding. Initial bluster aside, he does not hold strong cards and will have to come around to negotiating in earnest.

For their part, the Taliban, while they have said that they will resume attacks against the ANSF positions, cannot really afford a complete turnabout on the deal they have just signed. If Ghani sticks to his refusal to release the 5000 prisoners, Taliban attacks could intensify in the short-term. This would, as witnessed on Wednesday in Helmand, pull in the US military in support of ANSF positions. But the onus for keeping the terms of the deal is on the US side, so it will have to get Ghani to change his mind.

It might be less dramatic than what happened in the ongoing season of Homeland, but it will have to be worked, nonetheless.

Trump, who spoke with Mullah Baradar and tweeted about speaking with the Taliban head of the negotiating team, will have to step in himself. He is looking for a win on a nearly 20-year problem for the US and he is on the campaign trail. The stakes are high for him. Prisoner swap and reduction in violence leading to an intra-Afghan dialogue and a comprehensive ceasefire are crucial milestones in the road ahead.

The alternative is unsavoury: the deal breaking down and all sides returning to the pre-deal chaos. No one really wants that, but things have a way of going awry. That is precisely what Minister Qureshi warned against on Sunday. The next few days will determine whether the US can make Ghani walk back his refusal to free Taliban prisoners.

If there’s any lesson so far for all sides in the conflict, it is a simple one: there’s no military solution and it is better to stick to the contours of the current deal than going back to a stalemate that won’t see any winners but will keep consuming Afghan civilians, the most vulnerable section of that country’s population. They need a reprieve from all the violence.

The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times. He reluctantly tweets @ejazhaider

The writer has an abiding interest in foreign and security policies and life’s ironies.