05 August 2019

The US-Taliban peace deal and its potential to improve Afghanistan’s security environment

A US-brokered peace deal with the Taliban is unlikely to improve the security situation in Afghanistan in the near future due to the presence of numerous rival Taliban factions and prevailing political disagreements between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

By Ramya Dilip-Kumar

Since October 2018, United States (US) officials led by Afghan-American diplomat Zalmay Mamozy Khalilzad and 14 Taliban representatives led by Taliban Political Chief Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai have been negotiating in Doha to end the 18-year conflict in Afghanistan which has claimed 32,000 civilian lives in the last decade alone. Terms of the proposed agreement include a withdrawal of all 15,000 US troops in exchange for a commitment from the Taliban to adhere to a nationwide ceasefire, negotiate with the Afghan government and turn its efforts towards culling other militant groups in Afghanistan. Khalilzad has indicated the deal will be finalised by mid-August . However, a US-Taliban deal is unlikely to deter further insurgent attacks on government and foreign targets in Afghanistan in the near-future due to high levels of factionalism within the Taliban and persisting political disagreements between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

The US started to negotiate with the Taliban after talks between insurgents and the Afghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani failed in February 2018. Taliban leaders refused to deal with Ghani first, deeming him incapable of meeting their main demand for an immediate withdrawal of US forces. The US took the opportunity to start direct negotiations as they are keen on exiting Afghanistan soon, given that the war has cost them USD45 billion annually. However, the Doha negotiations do not factor in demands of Taliban leaders from various factions not involved in the peace talks. Many Taliban commanders split from the main group and formed offshoots after the death of Taliban chief Mullah Mansour in May 2016; these offshoots want an immediate withdrawal of all 23,000 NATO troops and absolute power in central governance. Even if few Taliban members agreed to a US-brokered peace deal, it is unlikely that other Taliban factions who remain at loggerheads with them will adhere to these terms. If the US withdraw their troops over the next several months, it will give renegade Taliban commanders an opportunity to increase their control over government-held territories. Afghan troops do not possess adequate training and other foreign troops do not have sufficient numbers to stop the insurgents. The Taliban control over 50 percent of Afghanistan, mainly in Herat, Sar-e-Pol, Zabul, Ghazni, Kunar, Helmand, Kunduz and Farah provinces. If the withdrawal of US forces is prolonged over several years, it will serve as a popular rhetoric for those insurgents who want an immediate exit of foreign troops.

Taliban factions not part of a US-championed peace deal could partner with other militant groups like the Haqqani Network, Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda to continue large-scale attacks on government and soft targets like hotels, embassies, mosques and public squares. Taliban commanders have teamed up with IS militants to attack government targets and civilians in Zabul and Herat in 2017 and 2018. So enlisting the Taliban to fight other militants may not prove to be successful in improving the security environment.

Getting Taliban Political Chief Stanikzai's camp to negotiate with the Afghan government in the peace process will also be challenging in the near-term. Stanikzai and his team are willing to deal with the Afghan government after US talks, provided Ghani postpones the 28 September presidential elections. Stanikzai's camp wants political recognition to be able to participate in the polls, but Ghani insists that he will not postpone the elections. Other terms of Stanikzai's camp include introducing a new constitution with stringent Islamic laws, which has been a constant source of disagreement between the insurgents and Ghani's administration. Stanikzai has warned that the Taliban will continue their deadly attacks until they succeed in agreeing with the government on political issues.

In short, the proposed peace deal in Afghanistan is a complicated ordeal which is likely to take years as it involves multiple parties. First, the Afghan government and Stanikzai's camp have to make compromises to achieve their political goals and consider a power-sharing agreement which will bring them one step closer to ending the conflict. Any peace deal should include clauses for the protection of ethnic and religious minorities who are a frequent target of insurgent attacks. The Afghan government needs to put in enforcement mechanisms to ensure that those Taliban commanders who agree to cease hostilities do not violate them. Such mechanisms include strengthening governance and enlisting the help of local warlords or militiamen (who fought in the Soviet-Afghan war in late 1970s) who continue to command tribal areas outside of Kabul; these militiamen can help the Afghan government fight Taliban commanders who do not agree to or violate the peace deal, and other militant groups over the long-term.

Ramya Dilipkumar is an Australia-based political and security risk analyst covering South Asia.