One year ago, on 29 February 2020, Zalmay Khalilzad, Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation at the US State Department, and Mullah Baradar, Taleban Deputy Leader for Political Affairs, signed the “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” in Doha. Simultaneously, representatives of the US and the Afghan government signed the similarly titled but less discussed “Joint Declaration between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan.” Some hopes for an end to the 40 year Afghan wars sprouted, but there was also immediate scepticism or clear-cut rejection of the Doha agreement that primarily catered to US and Taleban interests. It is unclear from its publicly available text whether the two most controversial issues – did the Taleban comply to a reduction of violence and to break ties with al-Qaeda – are covered and what mechanisms exist for verification. This in-built vagueness has strengthened the hand of the Taleban over the Afghan government. AAN co-director Thomas Ruttig went back to the text and found it difficult to nail down what has really been agreed, what was achieved and what has been breached.US representative Zalmay Khalilzad (left) and deputy Taleban leader Mullah Baradar (right) sign the agreement in Doha, Qatar on 29 February 2020. State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain.
- A year on from the US-Taleban “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” the Intra-Afghan talks have stalled, violence is up and trust in the peace process is low.
- The US is reviewing the Doha deal but faces only bad choices, which all could result in an escalation of violence:
- Troop withdrawal on schedule, by 1 May 2021. This grievously weakens the Afghan government, risking its collapse and an attempted takeover by the Taleban;
- Leave US troops in Afghanistan for a time limited extension or a “conditions based” withdrawal without an end date. The Taleban would likely see this as voiding the Doha deal, perhaps triggering the end of the intra-Afghan talks and escalating violence;
- Open negotiations with the Taleban about a potential extension of the deal. This might require the offer of further concessions (potentially on prisoners and/or sanctions). It is not clear whether the Taleban would be open to this.
- The US-Taleban agreement was an example of “America-First” foreign policy, which conceded ground to the Taleban from the outset because of US haste to have it signed. For example, the Afghan government was forced into prisoner release before intra-Afghan talks commenced and the deal wasn’t linked to outcomes from the intra-Afghan talks, in contrast to original statements.
- Afghan-US relations are strained again by the US tabling the idea of an interim government as a step towards peace, which the Afghan government opposes, arguing that elections are the only way to transfer power.
- The Taleban are buoyant militarily, with freedom to attack Afghan government forces under the Doha deal and with Afghan forces defending fewer positions and unable to supply as many bases.
- The Biden/Harris review faces two significant points of controversy:
- The US claims the Taleban committed to a reduction of violence, but not in the agreement, and they haven’t made public the pledge, making it hard to assess against current conflict dynamics;
- The Taleban say they have reduced their operational tempo, the US acknowledges that attacks against them have mostly stopped, as have large scale Taleban attacks on city centres. However, the last quarter of 2020 showed a sharp increase in attacks on civilians, with the blame for many targeted killings falling on the Taleban.
- The Taleban commitments not to cooperate with al-Qaeda are clearly laid out in the agreement but a monitoring mechanism was not included.
- Until very recently, there has been no public sign of such disavowal or instructions to members to sever ties and reports of al-Qaeda sightings and cooperation in the south and north east of Afghanistan, including by the UN committee tracking al-Qaeda. Independent verification is challenging, however, and some reports may be unreliable and part of (mis-)information warfare.
- The Taleban met their commitment to release 1,000 pro-government prisoners, though there were reports that they abducted people in order to have enough prisoners to release. They have also been accused of allowing up to 600 Taleban released prisoners to return to the battlefield. The published agreement, though, only proscribes them threatening the US and allies.
- The US has so far met its commitment to start removing troops and bases, though it is less clear if it has fulfilled its pledge to review U.S. sanctions against the Taleban or encourage the UN Security Council to remove individuals from the UN sanctions list.
- It would be surprising if the flaws in the deal were just diplomatic blunders. The US was more focused on selling a deal at home than on paving the way for a peace process.
- It may be possible for the Biden/Harris team to remedy this with swift diplomacy and further concessions, without triggering an escalation.
- A key question will be whether a “conditions based” withdrawal would link the troop pull-out to progress in the peace talks.
War continuing, talks stalling, Doha deal being reviewed
There was hubris in the name of the US-Taleban “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan,” concluded in Qatar’s capital Doha a year ago. Few are surprised that it has not ended the over four decades long war in Afghanistan so far. It is becoming increasingly questionable that it ever will.
The Doha agreement set up the intra-Afghan talks that began in September 2020, the faltering progress of which has only further diminished confidence. Asad Kosha of Kabul daily Ettilat-e Ruz’s English language affiliate Kabul Now, speaking for many in Afghanistan, wrote in January 2021 about the “slow-moving intra-Afghan talks” resulting from the US-Taleban agreement that
… seemingly ha[ve] reached to the point that leaves little hope for a peaceful prospect to end the ongoing deadly fighting and pave the way for a durable peace settlement.
Many Afghans and a number of Afghanistan watchers already put the term ‘peace process’ in quotation marks. Among them is Professor William Maley, an old-hand Afghanistan watcher at the Australian National University, who wrote in an op-ed for the Tolo website in December 2020 that “the ‘peace process’… has exhausted any potential it ever had to bring peace and security to Afghanistan.” He even compared it to the 1938 Munich Agreement in which the governments of the United Kingdom and France handed over Czechoslovakia to Hitler’s Germany in what today is seen as a prime example of a mislead appeasement policy.
After more than two and a half years of a peace process – first negotiations between the US and the Taleban started in July 2018 accompanied by a surprise three-day ceasefire (AAN reporting here) and resulted in the Doha agreement signed on 29 February 2020, followed by the cumbersome intra-Afghan negotiations also held in Qatar’s capital – trust in its viability is almost at zero. Intra-Afghan negotiations have been slow from when they started in September 2020. After the first round ended on 14 December 2020, they now seem at a standstill. A second round of talks that was due to commence on 5 January 2021 has yet to begin. This is the result of rising levels of violence, mainly attributed by the Taleban (AAN analysis here and here), but also the political reconfiguration in Washington.
Everyone is looking to the new US administration since it announced it was “reviewing” the Doha agreement. It has to make a decision between some highly unpalatable options, which all tend towards an escalation of violence.
The first option would be to complete the troop withdrawal on schedule, risking the collapse of the Afghan government and a takeover by the Taleban, since without direct US military protection the Kabul government would be easier to push over militarily, or it would be so enfeebled that it would give in to Taleban’s political demands, such as to establish “a new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government” as stipulated in their deal with the US, but according to their own vision. As long as the Afghan government forces are paid and supplied, a military takeover would be violently resisted.
The second option would be leaving the remaining troops in Afghanistan without the Taleban’s consent, either with a limited, short-term extension of the withdrawal or ‘conditions based’, rather than one with a new end-date. For example, President Ashraf Ghani has proposed such an approach in a speech in late January.
This would effectively mean ripping up the Doha deal and almost certainly provoke the Taleban to cancel the Doha agreement (despite widespread doubts about whether they have themselves fulfilled their part), walk out from the intra-Afghan talks and further escalate the violence.
Another option would be to try and engage the Taleban on an extension, although they have already publicly said that they would “never” accept it. At the minimum, to avoid triggering a violent backlash, this option (if the Taleban changed their mind) would likely require further concessions, the release of more prisoners and lifting sanctions against their leaders. The Taleban claim there are still some 7,000 prisoners held.
The chances of successfully pressuring the Taleban into agreeing to such an approach is hampered by the fact that there is no clear-cut pro-peace consensus among Afghanistan’s neighbours and other influential powers. As Kristian Berg Harpviken of Oslo-based PRIO wrote, “[n]eighbors seem to be preparing for continuing conflicts in Afghanistan rather than investing in a path to peace.” He stated that Khalilzad’s approach “to engage the countries either one-by-one or in various ad-hoc groupings… does not represent a working platform nor a concerted will among the neighbors.”
The difficulty of this decision-making for Washington became visible when President Joe Biden failed to mention Afghanistan in his first foreign policy speech on 4 February 2021. But the decision cannot be put off for much longer: the withdrawal date is only weeks away, requiring complex military plans on top of these ominous political considerations.
In addition to the military consequences, the Doha agreement had two significant political ramifications. First, it opened the door for achieving what is the major – bipartisan – US political aim with regard to Afghanistan, pulling out its troops from what the new administration also calls the “so-called forever war” (see new Secretary of State Antony Blinken in his Senate confirmation hearing, quoted here). US troop numbers have dropped steadily from their peak of 100,000 in 2011, down to 8,000 when the Doha deal was signed and a mere 2,500 by mid-January 2021. This was the lowest level since December 2001.
Second, the agreement allowed for intra-Afghan negotiations to start between the main Afghan parties to the war, the Taleban on one side and the various factions in the current set-up of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (IRoA) on the other. By December 2020, both parties had reached an agreement about the procedural framework for the talks, the so-called ‘rules of procedure’, and exchanged ideas for an agenda for future rounds (AAN analysis here). The Afghan government, despite having been kept out of the US-Taleban negotiations, was forced to pay part of the price the US conceded to the Taleban, the release of 5,000 Taleban prisoners (AAN analysis here). This weakened the Afghan government’s own negotiating position, as it had been forced into such a major concession before it even got to the table.
A major shortcoming of the Doha deal, however, is that the Taleban’s agreement to it still did not amount to their acceptance of the Afghan government as their direct negotiating partner. Khalilzad even actively supported their position by developing a formula under which the Taleban would negotiate with an “inclusive and effective national team” instead. This term morphed into a so-called “team of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” (IRoA). This included representatives of major political forces in the ‘republic’ who also question the legitimacy of the government of President Ghani (although for other reasons and purposes than the Taleban).
Another shortcoming is that the final deal delinked troop withdrawal from the wider Afghan peace process, that is to say, the outcome of intra-Afghan talks, and shaped those talks to the disadvantage of the Afghan government. These ramifications have been acknowledged by many Afghans and international commentators. James Dobbins, former special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2013-14 under Obama, as well as serving as President George W Bush’s special envoy for Afghanistan in 2001-02, is now a member of the Afghanistan Study Group that has just published recommendations for the Biden/Harris team. Dobbins counted the Doha agreement “[a]mong President Trump’s few foreign policy achievements,” but at the same time concedes that “[t]he price for this success (…) was U.S. agreement to an accelerated timetable for a full military withdrawal unlinked to the outcome of these talks” (author’s emphasis). If this course is continued, most likely it will be Afghans, not Americans, who will have to pay the price.
Recently Afghan-US relations have been strained by a rekindled discussion about an interim government that could replace the government of President Ghani, something the president has always been fiercely resistant to. These ideas seem to have been promoted by the US whose chief negotiator Khalilzad (who has just been confirmed in his position by the Biden/Harris administration). Khalilzad had pushed such ideas earlier, hoping to avoid the 2019 presidential election giving legitimacy to a new Afghan president and to make a power-sharing deal with the Taleban easier. That they are back on the negotiating table became clear from statements from two members of the IRoA negotiation team in early January 2021 (see here and here), one of whom, Muhammad Amin Ahmadi, the president called back from the Doha delegation in February, apparently in anger that Ahmadi voiced support for an interim government.
Talk of an interim government was further kindled by reports that the Taleban’s deputy chief negotiator, Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanakzai, had allegedly told the media during a visit to Moscow that Ghani should step down. In addition, a draft 8-page paper has been circulated, entitled “Agreement on a Political Settlement in Afghanistan between the two parties at intra-Afghan peace negotiations” dated 9 January 2021, reportedly “floated privately by U.S. officials and ha[ving] been supported by the Taliban, Pakistan (…) and some Afghan opposition figures.” It was later circulated on social media, with references to a new “Islamic Power Sharing Government” or “Islamic Peace Government” (both terms appear as possible alternatives in the document). Ghani reacted strongly to these ideas by making clear, in a CNN interview on 9 January 2021, his “main goal” was to “hand over to an elected successor,” rejecting thereby the idea of any other form of a transfer of power. Later he added, more strongly, “Be assured that as long as I am alive, they will not see the formation of an interim government. I am not like those willows that bend with the wind.” Then, in a BBC interview broadcast on 22 February (https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-asia-56145953), he suggested that new elections could be held after a peace agreement was concluded, apparently conceding, when pushed, that this could take place, but it was not fully clear whether they would be held prior to or at the end of his five-year tenure (in 2024).
A ‘peace’ agreement?
While casual commentators have often referred to the Doha deal as a “peace agreement,” it is highly doubtful that the two parties ever meant it to be. Hence its title is “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan”, not “Agreement Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” (author’s emphasis).
Beyond the semantics, the modest ambitions of the United States for the deal were clear early on in the process. US chief negotiator Khalilzad appeared to have carte blanche from Trump as long as he sped up troop withdrawal before the 2020 US election. The primacy of haste meant he was quick to drop conditions when obstacles arose, such as when he failed to convince the Taleban to allow the Afghan government to the negotiating table. He dropped the ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agree’ principle postulated at the beginning of the negotiations, but never accepted by the Taleban (AAN analysis here) and started presenting the Doha agreement as a first step only toward a future “comprehensive peace agreement.” This, he suggested, the domestic parties to the war needed to hammer out in their intra-Afghan negotiations. Dobbins confirmed this when he wrote that the US was ready to sell (he uses the word “price”) any chance of the intra-Afghan negotiations ending the war for an “accelerated” withdrawal timetable, thereby delinking the troop pull-out from an existing (or near) peace agreement.
The fact that the US wanted a full withdrawal regardless of the cost for Afghanistan also points to another factor standing in the way of a genuine peace agreement: the peace talks began as a result of political considerations, not because of what is called a ‘mutually hurting stalemate’ in negotiation theory, meaning a situation where all parties to the war have genuinely come to the insight that they will not win it. Closest to such an understanding was the US, although Trump mainly pointed to the costs of the war rather than publicly acknowledging they were long past the point of being able to win. There is reason to believe that both the Taleban and (parts of) the Afghan government still believe they can win.
The Taleban had consistently pursued a double strategy of fighting and talking at the same time. They were not alone in this; the US had explicitly used the same approach under Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (see this analysis by Barnett Rubin). For the Taleban, the Doha agreement was a milestone on one of two possible avenues back to power. The first allows them to get rid by diplomatic means (and minimal loss of fighters) their main obstacle to power – the presence of US and allied forces protecting the Afghan government. The other avenue is an all-out military victory.
The Taleban have long claimed that they remain Afghanistan’s legitimate government, toppled by what they consider an ‘illegal foreign intervention’. They insist that they retain their original legitimacy derived from stopping the inter-factional wars that broke out after the end of the Soviet occupation in 1989 and the collapse of the Najibullah government when they swept to power in the 1990s.
The Afghan government also does not seem to believe that there is currently a mutually hurting stalemate, as long as it has the support of the international community, if not direct military support, then at least financial assistance to maintain its armed forces. It has repeatedly claimed its armed forces are able to defend the country even without US troops on the ground, for example President Ghani in a June 2020 speech at the Atlantic Council or Minister of Defence Asadullah Khaled speaking to parliament in November 2020.
Its 305,000 soldiers and policemen, plus armed intelligence units, auxiliary forces and a large array of community defence forces, some of them actually free-floating militias, are surely capable of at least putting up a lengthy fight and preventing the Taleban from marching straight back to power in Kabul and other areas of the country. However, while accurate numbers are hard to come by, the Afghan government is already taking heavy losses on the battlefield, which would soar under a full scale assault by the Taleban. Combine this with the government’s dire domestic revenue situation: it would not be able to pay its beleaguered fighters if external financial support eroded, making resistance unsustainable in the long run.
It is common knowledge in Afghanistan that many fighters only fight as long as they are paid and as long as they believe they can win. Afghanistan experienced in 1992 what happens when these factors change. Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin found their ‘forever war’ in Afghanistan, a legacy of the Soviet era which the new Russian elites wanted to shed, too costly and stopped military and economic support for the Najibullah government in Kabul. This led to many key government military leaders changing sides to the winning mujahedin. (As the mujahedin were deeply fragmented and organised along ethnic lines, this did not lead to a stabilising realignment of forces, but to a new round of wars.)
Today, the reality on the battlefield already looks dire for government troops. They have abandoned many positions, including on key roads, for example on the Wardak stretch of the national ring road connecting Kabul and Kandahar (see this AAN report). The SIGAR reported that in December 2020 Afghan forces abandoned up 200 checkpoints in Kandahar province alone. The Taleban also reinforced their positions around provincial cities, such as Kunduz, Pul-e Khumri (Baghlan) and Lashkargah (Helmand), arguing that this was technically outside the city and they had taken back areas where the government had moved in. An offensive in October 2020 led to US airstrikes “in defence of the ANSF,” which the US claim is allowed by the Doha deal (although it is not part of the published version – more about this below.) The overall trend is one of Taleban buoyancy which is the result of a mix of factors: the Taleban apparently having been given a free hand in the rural areas by the Doha agreement and a US-designed strategy to concentrate government forces on a more limited number of areas of strategic significance combined with the Afghan government’s inability to supply all remaining bases.
Still, the Afghan government continues to present itself as being in a position of strength from which it can negotiate with the Taleban. This confidence has apparently been reinforced by the latest pledges at the November 2020 Geneva conference, which despite some reductions will still prevent a breakdown of the government (AAN analysis here). The government was also encouraged by the joint statement issued on 31 January 2021 by the embassies of 13 key donor countries, including the US, EU and NATO, saying the Taleban bore “responsibility for the majority” of recent incidents of targeted killings in Kabul and there was a chance that the Biden/Harris administration might delay the troop pull-out as recommended by many advisors in Washington, including the 3 February 2021 bipartisan Afghanistan Study Group (read AAN analysis of Biden’s position vis-à-vis Afghanistan here).
Many Afghan observers (not all of them impartial) believe, however, that the main aim of Ghani and his government is to cling to power and not share it, particularly after the sobering experience of ‘power-sharing’ under the 2014-19 National Unity Government (AAN analysis here). This argument is more often publicly raised by Afghans living outside the country, such as former advisor to ex-president Hamed Karzai and to the Afghan finance ministry, Torek Farhadi, who was recently quoted as saying that “[t]he most significant barrier to peace in Afghanistan is now the preservation of financial interests of those who are in power… They will keep fighting to preserve their interests. They will sugarcoat their fight in the name of preserving the Republic.” Arash Yaqin, who describes himself as “Heraty-Dutch-American” on his twitter profile (https://twitter.com/arashyaqin) and has worked for the Afghan foreign ministry and US embassy in Kabul, spoke of a “small circle of (…) Kabul-based elite oligarchs [who] have nothing to offer except a false rhetoric,“ including on peace (both quotes from interviews published here).
What was agreed in Doha, and what was implemented?
In the context of the current Biden/Harris administration review of the Doha agreement there are two major points of controversy. First, there is a lack of clarity whether and how exactly the Taleban committed to a post-deal reduction of violence and how that tallies with current conflict dynamics, including the upsurge of violence noted by the recent SIGAR report which stated that, according to the US military in Afghanistan, “enemy-initiated attacks this quarter (October–December 2020) (…) exceeded those of the same period in 2019”). Second, there are obligations that the Taleban have to break relations with al-Qaeda, but the publicly available agreement does not include how this is measured.
Before we specifically look at these issues, we will review which other agreements were made in Doha and to what degree they were implemented.
Formally, the February 2020 US-Taleban agreement is a quid pro quo. The US and its allies declare their willingness to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, establish a timetable for this and start reducing troop numbers, in exchange for Taleban guarantees to hinder al-Qaeda and similar groups from organising future terrorist attacks against the US and its allies from the territory the Afghan insurgents control, to hold intra-Afghan (peace) talks and include the issue of a permanent ceasefire in their agenda. The latter is a vehement demand of the Afghan government and large parts of the Afghan public. The completion of the US and NATO troop withdrawal by 1 May 2021 is conditioned on the Taleban fulfilling their commitments and vice versa.
According to the “Joint Declaration between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” signed simultaneously with the Doha deal, the completion of the troop withdrawal is also made conditional on a “joint assessment and determination between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the United States, its allies, and the Coalition.”
The US has fulfilled some, but not all of its commitments in the agreement. Their main promise was the troop withdrawal, laid out in “Part One” of the agreement, which has happened in line with the timeline so far. Under Trump, troop numbers were swiftly reduced and at least ten bases closed. This happened despite mild rebukes to the Taleban over their failed commitments – a Pentagon spokesman stated in early May 2020 that the number of Taleban attacks was “unacceptably high” and “not conducive to a diplomatic solution” while then Defense Secretary Mark Esper said “[t]here has not been a reduction in violence, if you will, from the Taliban side. On the other hand, they have not attacked us or attacked major metropolitan areas.” A report from the Washington-based think tank CSIS quoted CENTCOM commander General Kenneth McKenzie as saying on 15 July 2020 “I would not say that [the Taliban] have yet [kept up their commitments]… we expected to see a reduction in violence. And… the violence against the Afghans is higher than it’s been in quite a while. It’s one of the highest, most violent periods of the war that we see to date. Average lethality is down just a little bit. But the number of enemy-initiated attacks is, in fact, very worrisome.”
Besides the US troops, the agreement also covers “its allies, and Coalition partners, including all non-diplomatic civilian personnel, private security contractors, trainers, advisors, and supporting services personnel.” But the Doha agreement does not include concrete obligations for the non-US troops, only the 30 April deadline for withdrawal completion. The total foreign troop number in Afghanistan was given by NATO as 9,592 for February, which means there are 7,092 non-US-troops, down by some 1,500 from February 2020. This means that non-US troops now outnumber Americans in Afghanistan. US CENTCOM’s Quarterly Contractor Survey for January 2021 showed 18,214 US Department of Defence contractors in Afghanistan, 6,346 of them American, 4,745 Afghan and the rest third country citizens. (The October 2020 numbers were 12,562 US; 7,856 Afghan and 5,967 other.)
In a sense, the US (or rather the Afghan government) has even over-fulfilled one point of the agreement, concerning the release of Taleban prisoners, although not without hiccups. Point 3 of Part One stipulates that the US “is committed to start immediately to work” to release “up to five thousand [5,000]” “combat and political prisoners,” held exclusively by the Afghan government. In practice the US accepted an incorrect Taleban reading of this stipulation, by taking the figure of 5,000 given in the agreement as a goal, not a ceiling (“up to”). (For more AAN analysis on the prisoner exchange see here and here).
A second phase of prisoner release, stipulated in the same paragraph of the agreement, that “[t]he relevant sides have the goal of releasing all the remaining prisoners over the course of the subsequent three months” did not materialise. It is also conceivable that the US, after coming under heavy criticism over the first phase of release unilaterally imposed on the Afghan government, wanted to keep one last bargaining chip for Afghan government in their Doha negotiations.
Two more US commitments have also not been fulfilled on time, at least not visibly. The first is the commitment to “start … an administrative review of current U.S. sanctions” against Taleban members “with the goal of removing these sanctions by August 27, 2020.” The second is a promise of a “diplomatic engagement with other members of the United Nations Security Council and Afghanistan” to remove Taleban members from their separate sanctions list. There is no information publicly available whether these reviews have commenced and what their status is. Diplomatic engagement might well be underway, but the removal has not yet happened.
The delays on the above three (imprecise) commitments were partly a result of the entire timeframe of the agreement slipping behind, caused by the belated release of the 5,000 prisoners (delayed by over five months) to the start of the intra-Afghan talks (delayed by almost six months).
In general, driven by Trump’s urgency for completing the withdrawal or at least coming to an irreversible reduction of troops, the tight withdrawal timeline took precedence over the vague conditions set for its completion. The Taleban used that opening to push for the completion of the withdrawal without emphasising their own commitments or trying to make progress in the negotiations (see also their 16 February 2021 open letter to the US public which highlights US withdrawal in exchange for the Taleban “preventing all threats to the security of other nations from Afghanistan”).
The Taleban have fulfilled their commitment to release “one thousand (1,000) prisoners of the other side,” although also not on time. This mainly included captured government soldiers and police. After these releases, Taleban spokesman Suhail Shahin said in mid-August 2020, the movement was not aware of any other security personnel in its custody who still had to be released. In order to implement the prisoner swap, both Afghan parties had direct contacts in Kabul through “technical groups.”
However, there were doubts about whether they had held 1,000 prisoners in the first place and even reports the Taleban had abducted people to reach the number to be released by them. One such accusation came from the provincial governor of Maidan Wardak in March 2020. In late April, Jawed Faisal, spokesman for the Afghan National Security Council, said the Taleban had abducted 164 civilians since their deal with the US.
The Afghan government also accused the Taleban of breaking their promise that the released men would not return to the battlefield. On 25 January 2021, National Security Adviser Hamdullah Moheb stated that “We have recaptured 600 of the freed individuals because they were fighting alongside the Taliban even though they promised they would not fight again” and that other released prisoners were involved in making car bombs and planning attacks on security forces. Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed rejected the accusation and said that only about 40 of the men were back in government custody, most seized during raids on their homes. In February 2021, Vice President Amrullah Saleh even claimed that 85 per cent of the “over 5,500” freed Taleban had returned to the battlefield and that the government had “video and audio clips” to prove this. The Taleban have repeatedly accused government troops of killing released prisoners, even as they were being welcomed back by their communities or their homes (one example here), something the government denied.
Also, the agreement only stipulated that the Taleban commit “that its released prisoners will be committed to the responsibilities mentioned in this agreement so that they will not pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies” [author’s emphasis]. Again, the agreement does not cover the Afghan forces.
There were two Taleban commitments, one part of the Doha deal and one claimed by the US as a verbal commitment, that have become particularly controversial in the context of the Biden/Harris administration’s review of the agreement. The first one is usually summarised as ‘breaking ties’ with al-Qaeda and similar jihadist terrorist groups; the second one pertains to the alleged commitment to reduce violence. Given the lack of transparency about the commitments or any known monitoring mechanism in the published text of the agreement, it is difficult to judge whether the Taleban have fulfilled their commitments or not. In the case of the reduction of violence, it is not even officially known what exactly they had committed to, although scattered statements allow one to piece this together.
It is possible, though, that there is a secret mechanism. A 28 February 2020 Washington Post report, based on an interview with General Austin ‘Scott’ Miller, commander both of US troops and NATO’s Resolute Support mission (RS) in Afghanistan, indicated that the US military had established a kind of ‘hotline’ with the Taleban that had already been used during the ‘reduction of violence’ week before the agreement was signed. After the signing, Miller was also a regular participant in US-Taleban meetings. If the US had used the hotline in the following month, though, it did so rather discreetly.
The new US National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, in a conversation with his Afghan counterpart Moheb stated, according to a White House readout on 22 January 2021 that the ongoing US review of the Doha agreement included an assessment of “whether the Taliban was living up to its commitments to cut ties with terrorist groups, to reduce violence in Afghanistan, and to engage in meaningful negotiations.” He also did not call it “commitments from the Doha agreement [emphasis added].”
1. Reduction of violence
The published part of the Doha agreement does not bind the Taleban to stop fighting, observe a ceasefire or even reduce violence. There had been an agreement on a period of a ‘reduction of violence’ (RiV) before its signing, requested by the US and accepted by the Taleban which, according to Khalilzad, was supposed to be “leading to a ceasefire.” (The Taleban had earlier rejected the first US proposal of a six-months’ and then of a three-months’ ceasefire “to get negotiations started”; read AAN analysis here and here.)
Immediately after the signing, on 2 March 2020, Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed confirmed to AFP that:
As per the (US-Taliban) agreement, our mujahideen will not attack foreign forces but our operations will continue against the Kabul administration forces.
After the Taleban offensive just outside Helmand’s provincial capital Lashkargah in October 2021, the US went to the Taleban and protested. US envoy Khalilzad stated that after he and General Miller held several meetings with the Taleban, the other side had “agreed to re-set actions by strictly adhering to implementation of all elements of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement and all commitments made” and that the US expected that as a result the number of “Afghans [who] are dying” would “drop significantly.” This quote seems to indicate the US view that there were RiV commitments made by the Taleban beyond the public part of the Doha deal. Otherwise Khalilzad would have spoken about “all commitments” in the U.S.-Taliban Agreement. If the Taleban had entered into additional commitments in Doha, it is unclear whether a possible post-signing RiV was verbally agreed or put into what then US Secretary of Defence Mike Pompeo has referred to as two classified “military implementation documents,” to which only the US Congress has had access, according to a 1 March 2020 media interview.
Still, on 27 January 2021, Blinken said that his administration had not yet seen certain parts of the agreement. He told journalists:
One of the things that we need to understand is exactly what is in the agreements that were reached between the United States and the Taliban, to make sure that we fully understand the commitments that the Taliban has made as well as any commitments that we’ve made.
It is also not clear, but has often been reported, that the Taleban had allegedly accepted that they would refrain from attacking US and allied troops (except their Afghan allies) and not carry out larger attacks such as car bombs or ‘complex attacks’ involving suicide bombers in large population centres after the deal was signed. The New York Times reported as much in an 8 March 2020 article, referring to “people familiar with the contents” of the annexes that “are only available to members of Congress … [i]n a secure facility underneath the Capitol in Washington DC.”
Finally, in a statement issued on 13 February 2021, the Taleban said that they had “significantly decreased the level of operations,” without mentioning whether or not this was part of any secret annex to the published agreement or a verbal undertaking. They explained that “in breaking with past practice, no annual spring offensive was announced or launched the previous year,” that “no district headquarters were conquered in succession like the years past, no numerous and complex attacks targeted the enemy in major cities, nor were plans sketched for the takeover of cities.” They claimed most fighting had occurred “where our Mujahideen have been forced to defend their areas, or where the public has been safeguarded from harmful check posts, or (…) gunmen” and accused the government of being behind the recent series of targeted killings in Kabul and other parts of the country. This was contradicted by the recently released UNAMA “Protection of Civilians” report which noted the first ever increase in levels of violence levels in the last quarter of a year – after intra-Afghan talks began – mostly the result of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and targeted killings.
The US government partly confirmed this Taleban statement. In February, it marked one year without any US troops being killed in combat in Afghanistan. In a report released in November 2020, the lead inspector general for Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, the US special forces mission in Afghanistan, stated that “[a]s the U.S. drawdown continued, the Taliban largely refrained from conducting attacks targeting U.S. or coalition forces.” He added that the Taleban had conducted a “small number” of attacks “against U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan… from July through September,” including “instances of indirect fire and surface-to-air attacks.” But he did not explicitly refer to these attacks as breaches of the Doha deal. Also the commander of the US military’s Central Command, that covers Afghanistan, General Kenneth McKenzie, when speaking about “simply too high” Taleban violence in mid-February 2021, did not explicitly say this violated the Doha agreement. For this author, these omissions are too regular to be ignored.
The Taleban, meanwhile, have raised counter-accusations lately of an increase in US air strikes. The UNAMA annual civilian casualties report for 2020, however, noted “counteracting civilian casualty trends between” the US and the Afghan forces following the Doha agreement. This included “record high levels” of civilian casualties caused by Afghan Air Force airstrikes and “the highest number of civilian casualties from airstrikes by the Afghan Air Force since UNAMA began systematic documentation in 2009.” In contrast, international military forces airstrikes caused 17 per cent of all airstrike civilian casualties, a drop by 85 per cent from 2019 and the lowest number recorded since 2009. US forces all but ceased carrying out airstrikes, except in defence of the Afghan forces, between the signing of the Doha deal and the Taleban’s October offensive near Lashkargah.
As the 31 January 2021 joint statement by the EU, 13 embassies and NATO made plain, they disagree with the Taleban about the wave of targeted killings and put the “responsibility for the majority” of those incidents on them. The Economist’s description is likely the correct take on the situation and shared by a number of independent observers and media (see also AP here):
No single group is likely to have conducted all the attacks. A variety of bomb designs has been used. Personal rivalries and organised crime may be behind some, as may other militant groups. But the Taliban are almost certainly the main perpetrators.
The unclear relationship between the Taleban and al-Qaeda
In contrast to the issue of violence levels, the Doha agreement contains five very concrete points on what the Taleban committed to do on countering international terrorism. This included sending a “clear message” to groups such as al-Qaeda (the only group mentioned by name in the agreement) “that threaten the security of the United States and its allies (…) have no place in Afghanistan.” The Taleban committed that they will not allow them “to use the soil of Afghanistan [the part under their control] to threaten the security of the United States and its allies,” “not [to] host them,” to “instruct” their own members “not to cooperate with” those groups and their members and to prevent them from “recruiting, training, and fundraising.” The Taleban are also not to provide visas, passports and similar documents as well as entrance, asylum or residency to individuals “who pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies” – but this seems to refer to a time when the Taleban are already part of the “new post-agreement Islamic government.” (Passports or visas eventually issued currently by their Islamic Emirate would not be recognised anywhere.)
There even seems to be a backdoor for foreign fighters ready to give up the fight to seek “asylum or residence in Afghanistan according to international migration law and the commitments of this agreement,” but the Taleban are obliged to make sure “that such persons do not pose a threat” any longer to US and allies security.
In their 13 February statement, the Taleban insisted that “no entity has taken any steps against the United States of America and its allies from the soil of Afghanistan.” The US does not dispute this. But given the lack of a known monitoring mechanism in the Doha agreement, it is more difficult to judge whether the Taleban have fulfilled their other anti-terrorism commitments. For example, it is not spelled out in the agreement what it means to give a “clear message” to al-Qaeda that they “have no place in Afghanistan” or could monitor whether instructions are given not to work with al-Qaeda and similar groups. There is also no provision that commits the Taleban to hand over or expel foreign fighters, and the provision to make sure that “those seeking asylum or residence in Afghanistan… do not pose a threat” seems to indicate that such (former?) fighters could be allowed to stay if they refrain from violence (and seems to contradict the stipulation that they “have no place in Afghanistan”). This would also require a mechanism through which fighters renounce the use of violence and possibly give up their arms. Only the Taleban could do this in the current situation and it would be difficult to monitor even if there was a mechanism.
As the authors of a recent International Crisis Group (ICG) report (p14, footnote 47) put it, “the Taliban have made no public demonstration or assertion that they have acted on commitments to prevent their membership from interacting with or hosting al-Qaeda figures.” Taleban negotiator Stanakzai, at his 29 January 2021 press conference in Moscow, stated that the US negotiating team in Doha had not mentioned “any problem to us – and we have a daily channel where our military people sit with their military people and discuss what is going on in Afghanistan.”
At the same time, for some months now, there has been an increasing number of reports of alleged al-Qaida sightings in Afghanistan and even of active cooperation with the Taleban, insinuating a continuing or even more intensive al-Qaeda-Taleban cooperation. For example, the Afghan news agency Ariana, quoting sources in the Afghan Ministry of Defense, reported on 28 December 2020 that during two airstrikes within three days 15 al-Qaeda members and 17 Taleban were killed in Nawa district (Helmand province) and that “these Al-Qaeda fighters used to train the Taliban to make bombs.” In November 2020, General Yasin Zia, chief of the Afghan army’s general staff alleged there were al-Qaeda fighters present in an “Taliban-influenced area between Nimruz and Farah provinces,” that some of them had been killed and that the Taleban still had a “close coordination and conduct operations with” al-Qaeda. A spokesman for the governor of Badakhshan described an attack on a checkpost in the province’s Arghanjkhwa district in July 2020 during which “seven Afghan security forces were killed“ as “a joint assault by the Taliban, al Qaeda and Daesh.“
The latest UN report about the Islamic State, al-Qaeda “and affiliated groups,” dated 3 February 2021, stated that
Member States report little evidence of significant changes in relations between Al-Qaida and the Taliban. (…) The killing of several Al-Qaida commanders in Taliban-controlled territory underscores how close the two groups are.
There are references to two al-Qaeda commanders killed in Taleban-controlled territory in the UN report. The first is to Muhammad Hanif, announced on 10 November 2020 by Afghanistan’s intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security (NDS) by tweet after an operation in Bakwa district (Farah), without giving a date (reported here). The tweet called Hanif a “senior leader” of AQIS and that he had been “given a safe haven and protection by the [Taleban] there.”
The second reference is about “al-Qaida media chief Husam Abd al-Ra’uf, also known as Abu Muhsen al-Masri” who was reported killed in Andar district (Ghazni province) on 20 October 2020. Al-Rauf/al-Masri is described in media reports as al-Qaeda’s second in command (see here and here). The original source of this report was an NDS tweet, as AP reported on 25 October 2020. According to AP, this report had been confirmed by Amanullah Kamrani, the deputy head of Ghazni’s provincial council, who said that al-Rauf/al-Masri’s death was the result of a raid by “Afghan special forces led by the intelligence agency.” According to the AP report, “Kamrani alleged, without providing evidence, that the Taliban had been offering shelter and protection to al-Rauf.” It further said that “[n]either Kamrani nor the intelligence agency offered details on how authorities identified al-Rauf, nor how they came to suspect he was in the village.” It further quoted Wahidullah Jumazada, a spokesman for Ghazni’s provincial governor in Ghazni speaking about Afghan forces having killed six suspected militants in the raid, without mentioning al-Rauf had been killed. Kamran, a former Hezb-e Islami member, had worked with the NDS in setting up a so-called Uprising Force, a local anti-Taleban militia, in Andar (AAN reporting here).
Earlier, there have been reports about ‘dual-hatted’ Taleban/ al-Qaeda military commanders, originating from the Afghan Ministry of Defence or US government sources (see here and here). In May 2020, the NDS reported the “busting” of a “Haqqani-ISIS cell” in Kabul.
The UN’s al-Qaeda report also called the fact that the wife of a former leader of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) – the group’s South Asian franchise – was on the Taleban list of 5,000 prisoners held by the Afghan government and to be released under the Doha deal as “[f]urther evidence of close relations between the groups.”
Edmund Fitton-Brown, co-ordinator of the UN monitoring team compiling this report, told the BBC on 29 October 2020 that both groups “were talking regularly and at a high level” and the Taleban were reassuring al-Qaeda “that they would honour their historic ties.” He added that “[a]l-Qaeda are heavily embedded with the Taliban and they do a good deal of military action and training action with the Taliban.”
The previous report by this UN team, dated 27 May 2020, listed various alleged meetings between al-Qaeda and Taleban leaders. This involved one that included the Taleban’s military chief Sadr Ibrahim and Osama ben Laden’s son Hamza (reported killed in August 2019 “in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region,” but without a date given) in which the Taleban allegedly reassures “him personally that the Islamic Emirate would not break its historical ties with Al-Qaida for any price.” The Taleban called this report “false.”
Some direct language suggesting strong ties between the Taleban and Al-Qaeda is also found in a document from the Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General referring to information received from US Department of the Treasury (not from its own military) dated 4 January 2021 which stated, without mentioning sources, that:
… as of 2020, al-Qaeda is gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under the Taliban’s protection. (…) Treasury told us Al-Qaeda capitalizes on its relationship with the Taliban through its network of mentors and advisers who are embedded with the Taliban, providing advice, guidance, and financial support. Senior Haqqani Network figures have discussed forming a new joint unit of armed fighters in cooperation with and funded by al-Qaeda. (…) elements of al-Qaeda (…) continue to use the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region as a safe haven. (…) Al-Qaeda maintains close contacts with the Taliban, providing advice, guidance, and financial support. (…)Treasury told us as of May 2020, the Taliban and al-Qaeda maintained a strong relationship and continued to meet regularly.
It appears that much of the information available on the al-Qaeda-Taleban (or Haqqani network-ISIS) relationship goes back to Afghan and probably US and other countries’ intelligence sources. The UN report quoted gives “member states” information as their source, which include the US and Afghanistan. These agencies, however, are part of the anti-Taleban coalition, and it has to be figured into analysis that such an important issue as the al-Qaeda-Taleban relationship is a major feature of mutual information warfare in which all parties to the conflict are painting the opposing side as black as possible. Multiple examples exist of how information about active terrorist groups can be factually incorrect or so shallow that it should be treated with caution.
At the same time, Taleban assurances, for example, by their new Doha spokesman, Muhammad Na’im, to Tolonews as reported on 5 November 2020 and in Stanakzai’s 29 January Moscow press conference that “right now, there is no al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan” cannot be taken at face value. There are incentives for both sides to exaggerate and dissemble.
Another more general issue is the exact status and size of al-Qaeda and its so-called affiliated groups in Afghanistan, the relationship between them and the question of whether al-Qaeda is still important for the Taleban and their aims. The exact location of the surviving al-Qaeda leadership under Osama bin Laden’s successor Ayman al-Zawahiri – whether on the Afghan or the Pakistani side of the Durand line – is unknown. As the UN report quoted above stated, it is not even clear whether Zawahiri is still alive; the designated successor, Hamza ben Laden, has also been reported killed. The UN report also said that “[s]hould a succession to al-Zawahiri become necessary, it may be difficult for the new leader to take up residence in Afghanistan, as such a move could have an impact on the interests of the Taliban, given their peace process obligations” from the Doha deal.
The alleged size of the group seems relatively insignificant in military terms on the Afghan battlefield. The UN’s February 2021 report estimated the “overall number of members of Al-Qaida and its affiliates [author’s emphasis] in Afghanistan (…) at between 200 and 500” and locates them in “at least 11 Afghan provinces: Badakhshan, Ghazni, Helmand, Khost, Kunar, Kunduz, Logar, Nangarhar, Nuristan, Paktiya and Zabul.” The report further referred to two al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in northern Afghanistan, Khatiba Imam al-Bukhari (see also this AAN reporting) with “approximately 150 fighters, mostly in Badghis Province” and the Islamic Jihad Group (sometimes called Islamic Jihad Union) with “approximately 100 fighters active in (…) Kunduz and Faryab under Taliban shelter and control.” The authors of the report added that the Taleban have “forbidden these groups from launching independent operations against [Afghan government forces],” indicating that they not be instrumentalised by al-Qaeda against the Taleban’s intention. If the numbers given for those groups were correct, this would leave ‘core’ al-Qaeda with 250 members of its own, if the maximum figure of 500 fighters is used as the basis.
In earlier years, including during the height of US-Taleban fighting around 2010-12, top US commanders in Afghanistan including generals Jim Jones, David Petraeus and John Allen consistently estimated there were around 100 al-Qaeda fighters in the country, as a Washington Post journalist had compiled. In September 2020, the then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said there were fewer than 200 left in Afghanistan.
The Operation Freedom’s Sentinel report quoted above concludes that it is “difficult to discern the extent to which [the Taleban are] meeting the requirement that Afghanistan not serve as a haven for terrorists” and that “[t]he two sides continue to disagree on procedural aspects of the negotiations.”
The February 2020 Doha agreement between the US and the Taleban was a typical expression of former President Trump’s ‘America First’ policy, an extreme version of self-interested policy at the cost of the ‘objects’ of this policy, the population and government of Afghanistan. By signing it, the US gave up leverage over the Taleban, limiting itself to leverage over the Afghan government.
The agreement’s design played into the hands of the Taleban, sidelined the Afghan government, denying it a place in its own right at the negotiating table. It also encouraged the Taleban to maintain high military pressure on the government forces and gave them extra leverage over the delegation facing them in the (long-faltering) intra-Afghan talks in Doha. (There was the suggestion of the resumption of talks reported on 22 February but it remains to be seen whether it is genuine or just a Taleban move to influence the decision-making in Washington.) In the US, it had left behind a scorched political terrain for the Biden/Harris administration that now has a choice between distasteful options, harmful mainly to Afghans, which could result in escalating war and/or government collapse. If war escalates, a mutual blame game would start about who was responsible for the escalation and the potential unravelling of the peace process. Both Afghan parties have advantages: the government is still recognised by the entire international community, but the Taleban have enhanced their diplomatic standing. The reported accusations by the Russian envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov that the US was in breach, rather than the Taleban, might be a first taste of how this dispute could unfold. Also, the US giving in to the Taleban in multiple concessions during their negotiations, as well as later interpretations of the deal signalled to them that there might be room for more concessions.
A careful reading of the text as well as analysis of how the deal has affected the conflict confirms the concerns of many Afghans that the verifiable demands on the Taleban are weaker than what the Americans have suggested. While the agreement laid out a concrete, phased timetable for one of the two main outcomes of the agreement, the US and allied troop pull-out, which can easily be verified and monitored, there are no comparable mechanisms for verifying Taleban obligations not to support or give space to al-Qaeda and similar jihadist-terrorist groups. Nor does the agreement hold clear obligations for the Taleban to reduce violence during the intra-Afghan negotiations. There are claims that there have been separate undertakings, either given verbally or included in what has been called two secret annexes, but this cannot be verified.
It would be surprising if these faults were just diplomatic blunders. It seems that the US – more precisely its chief negotiator in the name of the ex-president – was more focused on selling a deal at home than on paving the way for a peace process. (Others have argued that this was meant to provide flexibility to the US but backfired.) The US instrumentalised the overwhelming dependency of the Afghan government of US and other military and financial support and repeatedly confronted it with faits accomplis, such as in the prisoner release saga. This approach continues, as demonstrated by the current new discussion about an Afghan interim government.
Two major points of the agreement therefore have remained in the mist, which means that judgement over whether the Taleban have fulfilled these two – alleged – obligations is open for interpretation and political manipulation. While logic seems to indicate that the Taleban, as by far the largest armed opposition faction on the battlefield and, in contrast to all others, with a countrywide reach, is responsible for much of the latest violence, the ambiguity also opens the door for spoilers to make false or exaggerated accusations which in turn push the Taleban into a more aggressive mood (already discernable in their most recent statements). In this tense atmosphere of accusations and denials, the US administration needs to make its own judgement about the extent to which the Taleban is upholding its side of the deal. It is easy to see how the coming weeks or months could lead to an unnecessary breakdown of negotiations before they have been seriously tried.
The Taleban, meanwhile, have skilfully stuck to their own, literal interpretation (and sometimes over-interpretation) of the agreement. If anyone expected otherwise, they have been blinded by illusions. More or less plausible deniability has long been an element studiously employed by the Taleban (and other parties to the conflict). Technically, it will be difficult for everyone except the US military and US Congress that have access to the secret annexes to prove that the Taleban have violated their commitments, or which actor is responsible for any attack.
With regard to the ‘Intra-Afghan Negotiations’, as they are officially called, it is remarkable that both parties chose not to have the word ‘peace’ in the title, even though these talks are designed to end the more than 40 year old war. This might be semantics only, but also a sign that on both parties’ actual agenda ‘peace’ does not seem to figure very prominently.
The only way to salvage this peace process – which is unfavourable to Afghans, but with no visible alternative to an ever harder war – would be fast and solid diplomacy, using the remaining small levers of the Taleban prisoners still held, the movement’s desire to get off the various sanctions lists – and the promise of aid once a functioning new government exists. The “Joint Declaration between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” signed simultaneously to the Doha deal includes an obligation, vis-à-vis the Afghan government, to review the implementation of the agreement. In those negotiations, the Afghan ‘republicans’ and the international donor community could throw their weight behind trying to keep potential damage to Afghans’ rights and freedoms caused by required compromises to a minimum. It has already supported the Afghan government in its demand for an immediate ceasefire. Also pushing for genuine public and civil society participation in the negotiations might put pressure on both sides for a peace process. So far, neither side is being held to account by their constituencies because levels of fear are so high.
A key question now will be whether the Biden/Harris administration will follow the Trump/Khalilzad approach of delinking the troop pull-out from the peace talks.
Edited by Rachel Reid
This article was last updated on 6 May 2021