The deal struck by the United States with the Afghan Taliban in Doha on 29 February 2020 was de facto recognition of the weight of the fundamentalist militant group. Nearly 10 days later all 15 members of the UN Security Council endorsed the agreement. But challenges plague the deal a year on.
Former US acting deputy representative to the United Nations Cherith Norman Chalet had pointed out that the resolution was the culmination of more than a year of unprecedented, painstaking US diplomatic engagement with the Taliban, the Kabul government and almost all key regional actors. Accompanied by verbal demands for a reduction in violence as a pre-condition to intra-Afghan dialogue, the agreement called for the fundamentalists to sever ties with international terrorist groups and to prevent them from using Afghanistan to carry out attacks against the United States.
A year on, the violence is not diminishing nor is the intra-Afghan dialogue making any real progress. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s team is still seeking explanation on the rationale for continuing ‘Taliban jihad’. The United Nations is also yet to take around 100 key Taliban leaders off the list of terrorists.
The deal underlined a realisation among the Taliban for the need to engage in talks for a way out of nearly two decades of conflict. US support for a Taliban Doha office was also a political compulsion for the United States — it had until then treated the Taliban as an Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group and was legally constrained from talking to them. Doha provided a political face to the Taliban and enabled them to engage with the United States and other stakeholders.
But Kabul reneged on the deal in pinning hopes for a review of US Afghan policy under the Biden administration. The move disregarded the critical role and consent of other actors as well as the opinions of key regional power centres such as Moscow, Beijing, Tehran and Islamabad.
For the Taliban, the deal with the United States and endorsement by the United Nations had vindicated its position as a legitimate stakeholder, and an expectation that it would be consulted on a possible extension to the pull-out of all US-led troops from Afghanistan. Under the agreement, the United States was to reduce its troops down to 2500 and eventually extract all combat forces from Afghanistan by early May 2021.
The entire process is now facing multiple complications. Many voices inside and outside of Washington are calling for an extension in the deadline for US withdrawal to allow more time for intra-Afghan talks. But the Taliban seem to view this as the United States backtracking on its promise, undermining trust in future arrangements.
Ghani is intent on maintaining his leadership even if the intra-Afghan talks result in an agreement on an interim government. But the Taliban have ruled out a continuation of the current administration and governance system in Kabul as an ‘illegitimate entity and product of US occupation’.
Most officials and analysts still consider Pakistan — which shares a 2560-kilometre border with Afghanistan — as the key to success in the Afghan process. But if the past were any indicator, it would be a mistake to believe the Taliban might give in to any Pakistani demands for a longer term ceasefire or an extension to the May deadline. The onus for success of the process rests more on the ability of Afghan stakeholders to mutually navigate the minefield of political disagreements than on Pakistan.
The Taliban still draws some support from Moscow, Beijing, Ankara and Tehran. They are all urging the Taliban to moderate its position on foreign troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. ‘Responsible withdrawal’ has been the desire of almost all regional players because all neighbours will face blowback if the Afghan security forces fail to fill the vacuum.
Any yearning for peace in Afghanistan must be viewed in the geopolitical context. The current stalemate between New Delhi and Islamabad hardly inspires any prospects for positivity as far as Afghanistan is concerned. Both want to retain their respective influence as much as possible. The last Indo–US 2+2 Dialogue in October 2020 identified China as the ‘common challenge’. Pakistan is the closest partner of China in the region and cannot expect much from either India or the United States.
The best way to salvage the Doha deal lies in an inclusive consultative process embraced both by national stakeholders and external players. Any decision excluding the Taliban, Kabul or regional actors is likely to spell greater trouble for Afghanistan.
Favouring an inclusive approach is the fact that the Biden administration alone may not be able or willing to shoulder the entire process. The COVID-19 pandemic-induced economic crisis has drawn the focus of the United States and other major NATO allies away.
Any major deviation from the basic contours of the existing agreement will only help spoilers of peace and not the millions of Afghans who are desperate for return to normalcy. This could also erode trust in the inviolability of future peace agreements that consume enormous effort and time to mature.