In the image
US Marines control an evacuation checkpoint at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, in August 2021 [Victor Mancilla]
The disorderly redeployment of the US and NATO forces that had been operating in Afghanistan since 2001, broadcast throughout the world, provoked international shockwaves. The “Saigon moment” that audiences around the world witnessed last September raises concerns as to the future that awaits Afghanistan and about the possibility of the country becoming again a haven for terrorists.
The withdrawal was supposed to take place under the umbrella of a peace agreement reached in Doha between the Taliban and the US government. This analysis will focus on the negotiations conducted between both parties, trying to determine whether they will bear fruit in the foreseeable future, and whether they were conducted in the appropriate environment.
The controversial possibility of negotiating with the Taliban has been present in US policy since the fall of their regime at the end of 2001. To understand the current situation, though, it is necessary to go as far back as 1979.
In 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to buttress the puppet communist regime ruling the country from Kabul. The Mujahideen, a loose affiliation of groups opposed to Najibullah, took up arms against his communist regime in 1979, beginning a war that lasted beyond the fall of the Soviet Union itself in 1989, because the Afghan communist government continued it until 1992. Once the USSR imploded, the economic collapse of Afghanistan’s communist government followed and the Mujahideen took power. Faced with a power vacuum, the different factions of the Mujahideen began to fight each other for control of the spoils.
One of these factions was that of the Taliban. In 1996, this radical Sunni group conquered Kabul and subsequently extended its power to most of the country. That same year, the Taliban proclaimed an Islamic Emirate and imposed a theocratic regime which led to all kinds of human rights violations.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration declared war against the Taliban and invaded Afghanistan, where the masterminds of the attacks were believed to be hiding.
The US intervention, codenamed “Enduring Freedom”, and supported by the United Kingdom, was a relative success. With the help of the Northern Alliance, the regime fell within several weeks. In 2006, NATO took command of international operations in Afghanistan, and engaged in an effort to rebuild the country and to contain the Taliban while training and equipping the army and police, so that Afghans could take over from NATO the fight against the Taliban.
2009 and 2010 were tough years for the Atlantic Alliance; no actual progress was visible, and the operation was costly. Despite efforts to contain them, Taliban actions continued apace until 2013, when NATO left the security of the country in the hands of the Afghan police and dedicated itself to providing air support and continuing to train the police itself. In December 2014 Obama announced the end of operation “Enduring Freedom” and introduced the new "Sentinel of Freedom" mission, part of the broader NATO “Resolute Support” one.
In 2015, after almost three decades of fighting, the Taliban showed their predisposition to negotiate a ceasefire with the Afghan government. Conversations focused on seeking a negotiation, parallel to the operations on the ground.
The road to the peace agreement
To understand what moved the US to negotiate with its Taliban archenemy, it is necessary to bear in mind the reason why US troops deployed in Afghanistan in the first place. In the words of President Biden, “[America] went to Afghanistan almost 20 years ago with very clear objectives: to catch those who attacked us on September 11, 2001, and to make sure that al Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again… Our one vital national interest in Afghanistan today remains the same as it has always been: to prevent a terrorist attack on our American homeland.”
Implicit in Biden’s statement were the ideas that the US deployment in Afghanistan was meant to be of limited—counterterrorist—reach, that the mission had expanded beyond its initial intention to assume the reconstruction and democratization of the country, and that it had to revert to its original sense and scope.
No other interest tied the US to Afghanistan and so, Washington found the opportunity to terminate its deployment in this country, and to actively engage in negotiations to ensure Afghanistan remained free of threats to the United States, and with a view to ending this mission in the most favorable way, so that it would have free hands to focus on the more pressing threats it faced in Asia.
Four rounds of talks began at the end of 2010 between a representative of Mullah Omar (Taliban leader), Mullah Syed Tayyab Agha, and US negotiators. These talks discussed the establishment of a permanent representation of the Taliban group in Doha. Talks between the US and Taliban continued until 2012, when negotiations stalled due to the US refusal to release Taliban leaders imprisoned in Guantanamo who were to be exchanged for an American soldier captured in 2009.
This deadlock ended in early 2013 when Pakistan released 26 Taliban leaders and the Afghan government released 80 more prisoners. Both countries intended to create an atmosphere of trust to be able to carry out a better negotiation. In 2013, the reopening of the Taliban office in Qatar was announced.
As a result of talks held in Doha, in 2014 the UN Security Council decided to split the list of individuals subject to sanctions for terrorism, differentiating between members of Al-Qaeda on the one hand and the Taliban on the other. This meant a significant lifting of sanctions for the Afghan insurgent group, as they would no longer be linked to Al-Qaeda.
In 2015, both NATO and US forces scaled down their deployment, significantly reducing their presence in Afghanistan while maintaining their political and economic commitment. This was the situation faced by President Donald Trump, who implemented a policy that can be summarized as "ending the endless wars". Although he stressed that his "natural instinct was to withdraw", he would not be willing to allow the total withdrawal of American troops to turn Afghanistan into a prolific scenario for the settlement of terrorists.
In order to avoid such a scenario, talks began in 2018 in Doha between American representatives and the Taliban. Although the American government planned to include the Afghan government in the conversations, the Taliban refused to negotiate with President Ghani and his envoys. A first agreement was signed in January 2019 that included the minimum objectives of both parties: the withdrawal of international troops from Afghan territory, as requested by the Taliban, and Taliban guarantees to prevent Afghan territory from serving as a safe haven for terrorist groups attempting to attack the United States or its allies. During the talks held from 2014 to 2018 the negotiation was directed towards seeking a truce with the Taliban in order to withdraw the troops from Afghanistan.
In the summer of 2019, the signature of the agreement was arranged only to be aborted by Trump in response to an attack in Kabul that cost the life of a US serviceman. Once this crisis was overcome, seven days of "violence reduction" were agreed upon, ending in February 2020. This was a symbolic act that verified the insurgents' willingness and ability to reduce violence.
Under these circumstances a bilateral agreement was then signed between Washington and the Taliban which also led to the start of intra-Afghan talks. The signing of this agreement was accepted by both the Afghan government and NATO. It was signed on February 29, 2020. In this agreement, the total withdrawal of international troops within 14 months was signed. After the international negotiations, the way was opened for intra-Afghan talks, which were aimed at a dialogue involving the participation of the Taliban in the government.
After this chronological analysis, it is fair to ask the two relevant questions of whether the negotiations achieved their ends, and of whether the way they were conducted, simultaneously to military operations, provided the ideal environment for these peace conversations to bear fruit.
Before daring an answer to the questions, it is worth noting that, what was signed in 2020 was not, in itself, a peace agreement but a commitment to continue negotiations to achieve a real peace agreement to put an end to the armed conflict. In short, this agreement, as we have been referring to, was incompatible with the commitment of the United States to the Afghans. This made the signing of the agreement “subject to conditions”. The difficulty of reconciling these conditions created a situation conducive to the events that took place and are still unfolding today.
It is probably too early to have a clear answer to the first question of whether the negotiations have succeeded in securing a place free of threats. The way in which the Taliban's establishment of power has been carried out, however, does not inspire much confidence. After millions of dollars invested and 20 years of fighting for peace, the Taliban, without any technological advantage, nor strategy, have managed to regain power.
The efforts of the international community and especially of the United States to try to restore the power of the Afghan government were based on the full confidence that the Taliban were acting under the same intentions as the rest of the states involved, to leave an Afghanistan free of threats. The difference was that the insurgents themselves were never on the same page, or at least that is what was reflected at the time of the international withdrawal and in the current situation, which suggests that the Taliban, during the negotiations, only sought the restoration of their power regardless of the consequences. After this reflection, one wonders whether this was a misinterpretation by the international intelligence teams or whether it was a reaction of the Taliban provoked by the instability left by the international forces when they left Afghan territory.
On the second question, the Taliban were playing both sides. On the one hand, maintaining the talks and the pro-active image with the international community and on the other hand, seeking stabilization in power and waiting for the moment of withdrawal of the international troops withdrawn in Afghanistan. Moreover, we cannot forget the loose hierarchical bonds of the Taliban organization, which hobbles effective planning and execution.
The international community itself was also playing both sides of the game. On the one hand, by maintaining these negotiations with the Taliban with the real hidden purpose of preventing them from carrying out further human rights violations, and on the other hand, by training the Afghan armed forces through international operations carried out on Afghan territory. This may also be the Taliban's own point of view that led them to see the negotiations with mistrust.
In another perspective, we could consider the moral and political differences between the parties. This may have been the main reason for the frustration of these negotiations.
In conclusion, the international community leaves behind an Afghanistan destroyed by the successive conflicts that have been raging in the country for more than 20 years. Afghanistan is already an unstable country; now, however, a new period of insecurity and uncertainty is beginning, with serious consequences once again for the neglected Afghan civil society.