Afghanistan (Departure) Part Two: The Doha talks

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has terminated a renewal of the intra-Afghan peace process that was undermined from the outset by the Doha Agreement between the US and the Taliban. While the US and Afghan government were working towards peace through talks the Taliban were working towards peace through victory.

The history of peace talks is one of successes, failures, and setbacks, and armed conflicts end for a number of reasons, including through peace processes, the resignation of one side, mutual disengagement, foreign intervention, and victory by one side. We cannot know what the future holds for Afghanistan, but we can be sure that the intra-Afghan talks are over as a means of substantive change and that the Taliban currently have control of nearly all of Afghanistan.

This blog is focused on the peace process in the period between 2018 and 2021, beginning with discussions about power sharing, and then the Doha process, which resulted in the Doha Agreement between the Taliban and the US and the intra-Afghan talks that followed. During this process the US was signalling its intention to leave Afghanistan while pushing the peace talks forwards. The Taliban were preparing for power through any means.

According to Antonio Giustozzi, an academic, there were intimations by the Taliban that they were willing to share power, the first in discussions with the United States in 2018-19 for an interim government in which they held a third of power, and the second in April 2021 when they stated they wanted a 50% share of power. These were rejected by the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, who chose to rely on his armed forces and rejected US pressure to reach a deal. How the power sharing would have worked in practice is a question that was never answered, and we have no way of knowing if the Taliban would have settled for power sharing or if it was merely a ploy to give them more time to pursue the military option. Ghani’s major miscalculation was to put his faith in an Afghan army that had been chronically undermined by the corruption and mismanagement of its own government. In July 2021 the Taliban announced their willingness to consider a three-month ceasefire and the drafting of a new constitution, conditional on preconditions dating back six years. By this time, they were negotiating from a position of strength, and it is not clear if it was a genuine proposal or part of a stalling tactic.

A major problem during the period after the Doha Agreement was that the Taliban were not held to account for their actions after it was signed. This was discussed in the blog published in March (see below), prior to the announcement in April that all US forces would be leaving Afghanistan by September 2021. I argued that that any credible assessment of the Taliban’s commitment to the peace deal would conclude that the criteria set out at Doha were not being met. This was based on a report by the Afghanistan Study Group and open-source reporting of events on the ground, where the violence had increased and judges, politicians, journalists, and others who might challenge Taliban authority were being assassinated.  At the time the Taliban were estimated to control 52% of Afghanistan. After the final withdrawal date was set, and the US drawdown accelerated, the Taliban offensive became more aggressive, and they started to target the urban areas. This was left unchallenged by the US, sending a signal to the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan that the US was intent on leaving and that there would be no further intervention on the government’s behalf. The only change of note was to push back the leaving date from May to September, but this had more to do with the practicalities of withdrawal, as opposed to being in response to anything the Taliban were doing.

This signalling was evident earlier. In his speech to the nation on 31st August, Mr Biden was adamant that the decision to withdraw was the right one and took responsibility for his own actions in ending the war, but also laid some of the blame at the feet of the Trump administration. He had a point as while the peace process goes all the way back to the Taliban’s ouster in 2001, there was a significant shift in the momentum towards talks with the Taliban by the Afghan and US governments in 2018. This included the US breaking away and signing a separate peace deal with the Taliban on 29th February 2019, scheduling a partial drawdown of troops by July 2020, and complete withdrawal by 1st May 2021. The agreement was endorsed by the fifteen-member UN Security Council, and the US Acting Deputy Permanent Representative described the previous year of US diplomatic engagement with the Taliban as ‘unprecedented’. There had been an escalation in violence when the peace process was revitalised, signalling that both governments were worried, and the willingness of the US to complete the deal without the Afghan government and of the UNSC to recognise it, sent an unequivocal signal to the Taliban and the government that not only was the US ready to leave, but the international community had also accepted it too.

The priorities of the US were underlined by a plan to invite the Taliban and Afghan government to Camp David and its subsequent cancelation in September 2019. This only emerged once it had been cancelled after a US soldier and twelve civilians were killed in a bombing. There had been outrage over the deaths of the civilians and the invitation of the Taliban in the first place, but such a high-risk endeavour could not be undertaken once an American had been killed. Other civilian deaths had not resulted in the abandonment of the peace process, which carried on in December and led to the signing of the Doha Agreement in February 2020. Killing civilians was one thing, killing US personnel another.

According to Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), the Taliban were ‘running down the clock’ by preparing for war as the US was preparing for peace. With their deal with the US in place, the Taliban gradually increased their attacks, while the Afghan security forces were instructed to adopt an ‘active defence’ stance, which meant that they would not go on the offensive. In the last quarter of 2020 assassinations took place in the cities, targeting people who would oppose the Taliban. Martin G Weinbaum, an academic, notes that the Taliban strategy seemed to be aimed at luring Afghan negotiators into another round of talks on their own terms. Throughout talks with both the US and the Afghan government, the Taliban refused to move substantively on their goals or core beliefs. None of this resulted in a change of stance by the US.

The peace deal between the US and the Taliban strongly favoured the latter. In exchange for a commitment to withdraw its forces, the US extracted a commitment from the Taliban to not attack foreign troops, break its links with al-Qaeda, and to engage in peace talks with the Afghan government. A deadline was set for US withdrawal and the Afghan government was expected to release Taliban prisoners, despite there being no inclusion of the government in the talks between the Taliban and the US. This was also sent a signal of US intent to leave as it was hurried, favoured the Taliban, who would have understood the Trump administration’s intent to withdraw in the context of recent behaviour elsewhere. The most notable, and arguably as catastrophic, was a spectacularly mismanaged withdrawal from Syria, which allowed a Turkish incursion that subsequently led the Syrian Kurds to reach a compromise with the Assad regime. The subsequent progress of the intra-Afghan talks was woeful: they took over six months to get to the point where procedures and protocol were discussed for three months. Again, there were no consequences and the only side making concessions was the Afghan government.

The Taliban were playing the long game, understanding that foreign forces would eventually leave, and practicing a dual strategy of negotiation and escalation. However, the negotiating wasn’t happening in luxurious surrounds of Doha, it was happening on the ground in Afghanistan, as they brought local leaders on side as they advanced. The rapid collapse of resistance in the cities was a stark contrast to the slow but sure expansion of control of the countryside and towns. They no longer needed to talk, a far cry from their position after their fall from power, when all they were asking for was amnesty for their leader, which was turned down by the US. It was also a different situation from when they were talking about power sharing, which itself may have been a ploy.

So why argue that a little more time was needed? Mr Biden was unequivocal that committing to stay a little longer would have put more American lives in danger and the argument for ‘one more push’ kept pushing withdrawal back for no discernible gain. The difference was that the peace process had accelerated since 2018 but with no benefits on the ground as the Taliban were ramping up their military campaign alongside their diplomatic efforts. On paper, the Doha Agreement was a success as it ended the war between the US and the Taliban, but it also led to the outright failure of the intra-Afghan talks as it was the foreign forces who were propping the Afghan military up. Despite the protestations of leaders in the US and the UK that the Afghan government was expected to survive for longer than it did, based as ever on ‘intelligence’ yet to be seen, there are two basic observations to be made. The first is that these assessments were about how long the government would last without outside support, and these were relatively short-term projections about how long they would ‘hold out’. There was an expectation that the end would come, the question was how long this would take. The second is that even with the support that remained the Afghan military was visibly struggling, and the Taliban were not only claiming more territory, but they also showed no intention of slowing down and were not making any notable concessions during the intra-Afghan talks. When the final withdrawal date was set, the Afghan government was doomed, and the Taliban had no reason to continue talking to the government as they were winning.

The peace process was not given time to work and there were no serious consequences for the Taliban when they failed to hold up their end of the Doha Agreement. There was an absence of any leverage from the US as a consequence, and the Afghan government was still expected to release prisoners and hold back its forces unless they were attacked. In the wake of the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, the peace process came to an end, and the only thing being discussed was the conditions of the surrender. The Doha process was ultimately flawed as it was an exit strategy before all else.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

The series of blogs on the Sahel will continue next month. The Talban takeover of Afghanistan, the evacuation efforts, and impact of the withdrawal of Western forces has been extensively covered in the media. This blog is partly based on materials cited in previous blogs on Afghanistan (see below).

Sources cited above are: The Guardian (Antonio Giustozzi) ‘The Taliban have retaken Afghanistan – this time, how will they rule it? at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/aug/16/Taliban-afghanistan-rule-hardline-coalition-powers ; The Afghanistan Analysts Network (Kate Clark) ‘The Taleban’s rise to power: As the US prepared for peace, the Taleban prepared for war’ at https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/en/reports/war-and-peace/the-talebans-rise-to-power-as-the-us-prepared-for-peace-the-taleban-prepared-for-war/ ; The Diplomat (Marvin G. Weinbaum) ‘The 3 Myths That Sank the Afghan Peace Process’ at https://thediplomat.com/2021/08/the-3-myths-that-sank-the-afghan-peace-process/ ; An International Crisis Group chronology of the peace process since 2018 can be accessed at https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-asia/afghanistan/afghanistan-between-february-2018-and-august-2020-timeline ; see also: The United States Institute for Peace at https://www.usip.org/programs/afghanistan-peace-process.

Part One of this blog, discussing the reasoning behind the US decision to end the military presence in Afghanistan and the consequences can be accessed at: https://turnerconflict.com/2021/08/31/afghanistan-departure-part-one-inevitable-and-mishandled/ . The previous blog on Afghanistan discussed above, written before the US decision can be accessed at: https://turnerconflict.com/2021/08/16/the-sahel-the-non-state-armed-groups-in-the-central-sahel/ .  

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