Afghanistan’s sputtering peace process effectively stalled following President Biden’s announcement of a delayed timetable for US troop withdrawal from the country. And while he failed to acknowledge that this revision violated the US-Taliban Doha agreement — the Taliban, nevertheless, responded by announcing a boycott of all peace talks. Indeed, the Istanbul process scheduled for April 24 was postponed due to the Taliban no-show. Instead of injecting pep and vigor into the process — the US unconditional exit threatens to take the country back to square one, to some twenty years ago.
There remain three main parties to the Afghan peace process: the US, the Taliban, and the Afghan government. Yet prior to September 12, 2020, when the inaugural session of the intra-Afghan talks was held in Doha, Kabul was shockingly sidelined from the peace process. That the US entered into bilateral negotiations with the Taliban simply reinforced the group’s position Former president, Hamid Karzai, did his utmost to convince the Taliban to rethink things, yet to no avail. The Taliban are, of course, Afghans and are familiar with their country’s politics. It, therefore, appeared illogical for them to talk to Kabul when Washington wasn’t ready to. After all, any bilateral deal with the government would have no worth, as the US made blatantly clear.
The US violation of the Doha deadline has dented the country’s image. Following last year’s talks in the Qatari capital, the Taliban upheld their end of the deal. Washington did not, as was evidenced by a US targeted strike against the group. Surprisingly, the latter overlooked this violation, possibly with one eye on the crucial issue of imminent US and NATO troop withdrawal. Yet the subsequent delay on this front has proved one area where the Taliban refuse to compromise.
The US wants to get out of Afghanistan and bring to an end the longest war waged in its history; no matter that there is no sustainable roadmap to peace. Washington has seemingly forgotten the lesson of the 1988 Geneva Accords, which focused, in part, on time-tabling the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Then, as now, no attention was paid to what would happen post-drawdown. The fall of the Soviet-installed Najibullah government within four years plunged the country into civil war. The US would do well to remember this for two main reasons. Firstly, a political settlement is vital to a stable Afghanistan that will neither threaten US interests nor its national security. Secondly, Washington would be able to tell the whole world that the legacy of its longest war was a secure and peaceful Afghanistan as well as the broader region.
In the meanwhile, there is now an expanded ‘troika’ comprising the US, Russia, China, and Pakistan, calling for a comprehensive roadmap to the September 11 deadline; commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Among the key points of the drawdown are the orderly and safe withdrawal of troops; continuation of the peace process; a ceasefire during the talks; the shelving of the Taliban spring offensive; review of UN sanctions on the Taliban; expanding the UN role in the peace process; and ensuring an “independent, sovereign, unified, peaceful, democratic, neutral and self-sufficient Afghanistan”.
Being a member of the ‘troika’, Pakistan’s role is vital for multiple reasons. Any instability in Afghanistan threatens to spill over on to this side of the border; as was the case during the Soviet invasion back in 1979 and the subsequent civil war and the post-9/11 US occupation of the country. Pakistan’s security and economy are intrinsically linked to the situation next door. All Islamabad requires and seeks is a neutral government in Kabul. Pakistan has a long border with eastern adversary India and therefore can’t afford a hostile regime on the other side. Islamabad has long been accused of interfering in Afghanistan but if we look at its position, in many instances, the steps were defensive rather than offensive. Any other country in Pakistan’s position would have implemented the same policies towards its neighbour.
If the US exit from Afghanistan is going to be a clean one, the Biden administration must put a premium on the intra-Afghan talks on one hand and compliance with the Doha deal on the other. If nothing is achieved in the coming four months, the most responsible and powerful party to the conflict will be held responsible. If the US misses the new withdrawal deadline and if the Afghan government doesn’t show seriousness towards the peace process — the Taliban will be left with nothing to lose by launching a major offensive that could see them ultimately take Kabul.